Special force SWAT teams, police officers, and Navy SEALs are consistently involved in high-stress situations. They serve, protect, and are often the first ones in the line of fire. In fact, these jobs could be considered as some of the toughest jobs in the world.
In the midst of these critical situations where split-second decisions have to be made under immense pressure, how do they fight the stress reaction and maintain control?
They employ a little tactical breathing.
While most civilians may not find themselves in criminal or hostage situations, those who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks can probably relate to the feelings of stress and fear that soldiers and officers face.
Tactical breathing isn’t just reserved for those with special training. It’s a method that’s available to anyone experiencing feelings of dread and confusion.
What Is Tactical Breathing?
It may sound like a highly specialized term, but tactical breathing is just another way of describing a controlled breathing technique.
In this case, the breathing technique is in line with the situation. Tactical breathing helps de-escalate high-stress situations by activating the relaxation response through breathwork.
When their adrenaline kicks in, soldiers or law enforcement officers calm their nervous system in the same way that many of us calm our anxiety in everyday life.
Anxiety doesn’t distinguish between predator, criminal, work deadline, or relationship troubles. Luckily for us, we can manage it with breath control.
We’re going to explore a specific type of breathing that SWAT teams and law enforcement officers use specifically: combat breathing.
Combat Breathing 101
Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a prominent former special forces soldier who taught psychology at West Point, is a huge advocate for teaching this breathing exercise for officers in the field. He’s trained military pilots and has seen a positive impact on their levels of stress during high-speed pursuits.
When you’re in a survival mindset, it’s hard to think of anything else. But research shows that combat breathing is an effective way to manage the adrenaline dump of energy and nerves that come from the pressure.
How to Do It
The formula for combat breathing is simple: Breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale through your mouth for a count of four, and hold your breath again for a count of four. Restart the cycle as many times as necessary.
Combat breathing is also called box breathing — you can imagine creating a box with your breath since this technique is done in cycles. One cycle is made of four parts and the four parts all involve counting to four.
Though officers may not be able to do so in the field, feel free to close your eyes if it helps you focus on the breath better. You can also work on flexing and unflexing muscles with each cycle to further release pent-up tension.
It’s important to try to completely fill and empty your lungs with each cycle. Breathe deeply and allow your mind to focus on the breath. Allow the nerves to flow out with the exhale and allow your body to stabilize despite the adrenaline rush.
Why Combat Breathing Works for Anxiety
Combat breathing, like other breath control techniques, is a way for you to reset your nervous system and mindfully check in with your body. It breaks the moment of tension and allows you to flood your body with the oxygen it needs as it kicks into fight-or-flight mode.
It’s also one of the faster breathing techniques in terms of accessibility. All you need is your breath, and the formula is simple to remember.
In a heightened psychological state — whether special forces or civilian — it’s helpful to have a tool that will help you find your way back to calm. Research has shown has shown that slowing down your breath combats the stress response and can decrease your heart rate and blood pressure.
As your mind calms, your body will follow.
Practice on a Daily Basis
Along with being great for breaking free from the cage of stress and anxiety, this technique can also provide support in other parts of your routine.
Officers and civilians may find a renewed mental clarity with their breathing. You might get a boost in energy as well.
With routine practice, combat breathing can help you work on mind over body and help you think past the stressful situations you’re stuck in.
You’ll find it easier to rein in your emotions, not just during tough situations, but in daily life. Instead of reacting, you can catch your breath and shake off those negative feelings.
Use Combat Breathing to Regulate State of Mind
As you become more and more comfortable with this breathing pattern, you’ll find it easy to switch between different states of mind. Your body will be trained to resist the automatic reaction of going into survival mode and your mind will be able to really think about possible solutions to your situation.
In times of emergencies and high stakes, this is critical.
But it’s also good training for anyone who suffers from anxiety.
Though the situations vary, those heavy feelings of confusion and nerves are fear-inducing. Don’t let them take over and turn you into an immovable bundle of nerves. Become aware of your stress, harness your breath, and take charge of the situation.
If you want to get even better at handling anxiety or stopping stress before it gets out of hand, try Spire. Spire products sense changes in your breathing patterns and send you a gentle reminder to try a breathing technique to get you back on track.