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.