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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Lynne Doucette

Lynne Doucette

Lt. Lynne D. Doucette is a patrol supervisor and defensive tactics trainer with the Brunswick (Maine) PD. Prior to being the first female promoted at BPD, she worked as an undercover detective assigned to the state narcotics task force.

Patricia Teinert

Patricia Teinert

Patricia A. Teinert has been a Texas peace officer since 1984. She has served as a patrol officer, investigator, and member of a juvenile gang and narcotics task force. She is currently a patrol officer with Katy ISD Police Department.
Women in Law Enforcement

How Combat Breathing Saved My Life

Controlled breathing helps you lower stress, and increase oxygen into your blood, which lowers your heart rate.

March 09, 2011  |  by Tricia Kennedy - Also by this author

The author gets herself ready for a shooting competition with her carbine. Photo courtesy of Tricia Kennedy.

Everything went black. I thought I was dead. It was very serene, peaceful, and calm.

Then, the worst pain imaginable seized my body. The deafening noise of my skull shattering forced me to open my eyes. All I could see was bright light, eerily like "the light" of near-death experience. I couldn't make anything out. I knew the only thing that could hurt this badly was that I had just been shot.

I was competing in a 3-Gun Match and a .45 Remington Full Metal Jacket round from an adjacent range broke through the barrier and had struck me in the head. My body was completely immobilized from the hydrostatic shock waves of the bullet. Then, I heard someone nearby scream, "Oh my God, she's been shot." With that, I fell to the ground.

What ensued next saved my life. An EMT and a registered nurse rushed to my side. The nurse took my pulse, and my heart rate was dangerously high. I was hyperventilating, convulsing, and sliding into unconsciousness.  Suddenly, the nurse shook me, "You must breathe. You are going into shock, and we're going to lose you."

The word "breathe" registered in my mind, and I remembered a technique one of my instructors at Gunsite Academy taught me — combat breathing. I had taken Gunsite's Defensive Pistol course a year and a half earlier and while going through one particular course of fire, I held my breath the entire way.

At the end, the instructor said all my shots were on target, but I was missing one key element in survival. This was my introduction to combat breathing. He explained how important combat breathing is in gaining control over your body in stressful situations. Little did I know one day I would use this skill to save my very own life.

Combat breathing was developed as a tactical survival skill in helping police and military personnel rapidly regain control of their breath, thereby gaining control of their body during critical situations.

The body is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which directs everything your body does without thinking about it, such as body temperature, breathing, blinking, and digesting. There are two responses you do have control over — breathing and blinking.

Through controlled breathing, you allow more air into your lungs and, therefore, more oxygen into your blood stream. More oxygen in your blood stream lowers the demand for blood, which lowers your heart rate. The breaths have to be deep, abdominal breaths where you expand your stomach like a balloon, pause at the top of the breath, then exhale, counting to four with each step. 

Here's how four-count combat breathing works:

Inhale through your nose, expanding your stomach for a count of four — one, two, three, four.

Hold that breath in for a count of four — one, two, three, four.

Slowly exhale through your mouth, contracting your stomach for a count of four — one, two, three, four.

Hold the empty breath for a count of four — one, two, three, four.

Repeat these steps until you regain control.

After being shot, I began combat breathing and visualized the numbers one, two, three, four in front of me to give me something to focus on. It's important to understand that I was barely able to count to four under such physical duress. Focusing on breathing and counting to four, rather than on the excruciating pain, enabled me to reverse my body's reaction of going into shock and losing consciousness. 

The best thing about combat breathing is its multitude of applications. It's used in martial arts to sharpen focus and manage the fear of fighting. It's an integral part of yoga in focusing on Zen breathing instead of the body's contortions. It can be used in sports before an event to remain calm or during the event to finish strongly. You can teach your children to use it in coping with the anxiety that precedes an exam or an important social event.

Most importantly, you can use combat breathing on a daily basis while on patrol to regulate your breathing during the adrenaline bursts that come with police work. It's incredible how something as simple as slowing down your breathing has such a profound affect on your ability to manage stress.

You may not experience a life-or-death situation all the time, but you may often experience stressful situations that build anxiety. This is the perfect time to practice combat breathing to prevent stress build up, assess your psychological state, and reset your survival mindset.

Combat breathing is a mandatory component of survival stress management. Remember, the next time you feel stress building, engage the power of breath and start counting one, two, three, four.

Comments (7)

Displaying 1 - 7 of 7

Maria @ 3/9/2011 7:49 PM

Wow what an experience! Thank you for sharing; your article may save lives in the future. Glad you are still with us.

charles elliott @ 3/11/2011 5:20 AM

Although retired from the Sheriff's office and as the commander of out tac. team I have printed this info and will forward copies to team members. Excellent info. Ret. Lt.

Ear; @ 3/14/2011 4:42 AM


Self Defense Sprays @ 3/29/2011 9:44 AM

Excellent survival story. They do teach you these things for a reason! And thankfully you were coherent enough to remember to use your knowledge.

Rick Ball @ 10/21/2011 1:28 PM

Great article! I'm sorry this happened to you and I'm happy you're okay! I'm grateful that this is a terrible experience that ended well with a "proven" method/message that we can all learn from!

Suryanarayana Chennapragd @ 3/17/2012 8:46 PM

I am not a police officer. I explore and practice different modes of 'Focusing on breathing' (FOB). Having learned about 'combat breathing', I would like to share other modes of FOB, to prolong and deepen the exhalations to calm the racing mind.

(911) MODE: Breathe in quickly through the nose or mouth. Breath out through the mouth, with the lips slightly open at the middle, as though blowing through a straw. Feel the air streaming through the lips. This quickly calms the mind. When the panic or severe stress comes under control, switch to the next mode.

REPEAT COUNTING MODE: Breathe in quickly. As soon as the exhalation begins, silently repeat the number ’one..’, several times, till the end of exhalation. Breathe in quickly second time. When the exhalation begins, silently repeat the number ’two’, several times. Breathe in third time. As soon as the exhalation begins, silently repeat the number ’three’, several times. Repeat the cycle of counting breaths, in sets of three, till the mind calms down. The number of repetitions may vary for different persons and for the same person,at different times.

If the panic or stress tends to shoot up, go back to the (911) mode. Continue this sandwich practice of both the above modes, till the mind comes under control.

Four other modes of ‘focusing on breathing’ - Tip mode, Segment mode, Feeling mode and Staring mode, can be sen in this page

Practicing the Segment mode, Counting mode and Feeling modes at night, lying in the bed, leads to great quality of sleep and eliminates even chronic insomnia, without any medications. Practicing them in the morning, still in the bed, makes one fresh and all set, for calmly handling the stressful situations during the day. In a few months FOB becomes a spontaneous habit and keeps stress at bay!

Jay @ 7/27/2018 3:52 PM

Thank you for this. This tool can also used by first responders when faced with a gravely ill or injured but still conscious patient. I have a similar survival story. Because of a genetic connective tissue disorder, (Marfan Syndrome) my aorta dissected and then ruptured. This event has an over 90% mortality rate. My initial survival was by Grace. After that, 4 beat breathing helped keep me stable, calm and keep my BP low as I was being brought to surgery. Like you, this type of breathing helped to save my life. Now, I still use it to combat (pardon the pun) anxiety in general. I'm also teaching it to my 8 year old son. I love the detail of visualizing the numbers! This will give his very active brain something to do as he relaxes. Thanks again and I wish you all the best and I pray you have recovered fully from your injury.

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