"Breathe. Just breathe. Take a deep breath." This is what my dad would tell me over and over when I was a 12-year-old boy driving with him to my baseball games. I would tell my dad that I wanted every pitch I threw to be a great pitch, and he would tell me to take a deep breath. I had no idea then what breathing had to do with throwing a fast ball, but I cannot tell you the number of times I have used his advice since. Karate tournaments. Police work. Parenting a teenage girl. I have taken a lot of deep breaths in my life.
The Physiology of Breathing
And I am not alone. Breathing control, or pranayama, has been a part of yoga practice since ancient times. In 1975, Dr. Herbert Benson wrote a book called The Relaxation Response after he studied the physiological effects of practices such as breathing control and meditation. In what was considered groundbreaking medical research at the time, Dr. Benson found that such practices truly help to reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels because of the mind-body connection.
Since that time, our understanding of this mind-body connection has developed to the point that professional athletes, high-level fighters, and elite military operators are exploiting the power of proper breathing and certain breathing exercises to maximize their performance and help manage their emotions. They do so to both manage their stress in the moments when they are called upon to perform and to help diminish the overall negative effects that accumulated stress can have on the body. In other words, they use their own breathing as a tool for making themselves more resilient.
How is this possible? Breathing is a function of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). For the most part, it just…happens. You breathe in, you breathe out. You go about your life while your ANS does its job. But, our ANS is divided into two branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which controls our "fight or flight" response, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which controls our "rest and digest" response. As part of the "fight or flight" response, we utilize more of the upper portion of our lungs to breathe and, as a result, our breathing becomes shallower. This provides a boost of oxygen in a true "fight or flight" moment. Then, our bodies are designed to switch to the PNS, or "calm down" mode, when the threat has passed. In this mode, our breathing utilizes the lower portion of our lungs and it becomes fuller and slower like a baby's breathing. This is also known as "belly breathing."
Breathing for Performance and Resiliency
Unfortunately, though, long-term stress keeps us in a more sympathetic mode. Without even noticing, we end up breathing from our upper lungs all the time. What is meant to be a benefit in short-term bursts becomes, over the long term, a breathing pattern that is associated with high blood pressure, elevated heart rates, anxiety, and a host of other physical ailments. Due to the stresses of the job, many law enforcement officers unintentionally and unknowingly suffer from this upper lung breathing pattern.
When this happens, we have to help our PNS to "turn on" so that we can live in a more "rest and digest" mode rather than in a perpetual "fight or flight" mode. You can do this by learning, through a breathing practice, how to consciously shift from the shallower SNS breathing pattern to the fuller, deeper, PNS breathing pattern.
There are many different breathing practices that can help guide people with breathing more naturally so that they can be more relaxed. You may have to do a little research and trial-and-error experimenting to find what works for you. However, a good breathing practice should help you by:
- Triggering the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
- Promoting relaxation
- Improving focus and concentration
- Lowering blood pressure
- Lowering heart rate
- Decreasing tension
In time, and with practice, you can apply your breathing practice as a response to stress and to help with emotional regulation even when responding to high-priority radio calls and after critical incidents. This will help reduce excessive SNS dominance and put you in a zone that is associated with better performance and greater resilience.
A common, well-researched form of breathing practice is known as diaphragmatic breathing. If you look it up online you will find plenty of diagrams and instructions because this form of breathing practice is even recommended for some people with lung ailments such as COPD.
In general, though, you will lie down and place one hand on your lower abdomen and the other hand on your chest. This gives you a physical reference for assessing your breathing practice. To begin, you inhale slowly through your nose, breathing in low and slow while air fills the lower portion of your lungs. You should feel your abdomen gently rise while your chest moves as little as possible. Then, you can pause slightly before smoothly transitioning to exhaling smoothly and slowly through your nose (or mouth). It is fine if your exhale is slightly longer than your inhalation. You should feel your abdomen gently fall as you exhale while your chest moves only a little. This completes one relaxation breath. Next, repeat.
This practice should be effortless and relaxing. You can choose to do this for several breaths or for several minutes as needed throughout the day. Do it any time that you have a few minutes. As you become more practiced, you can start to do this in a seated position, and you will be able to do it without needing your hands on your chest and abdomen. When you are able to do diaphragmatic breathing this way, you can do it anytime and anywhere—even in a patrol car. It is the ultimate form of taking a deep breath.
Melissa Ryan assisted with the preparation and writing of this column.
George Ryan is a sergeant with a major Southern California agency. He spent 17 years in SWAT, and he created his department's Peak Performance and Recovery Training program.