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Departments : The Winning Edge

Just Breathe

Controlled breathing can slow bleeding and help you think clearly in stressful situations.

June 11, 2010  |  by Tom Wetzel


Years ago I arranged for my martial arts instructor to teach officers at my department how to calm themselves if injured. He had us quietly meditate on a lit candle while controlling our breathing. Don't laugh. It works.

If you're seriously injured, you can minimize blood loss by achieving a mindset that avoids panic and the often accompanying rapid heart beat. This is done with controlled breathing. Once you've achieved this state, you may be able to better tend to your injuries and arrange assistance for yourself. And if a suspect is still a threat, you may more steadily focus on addressing that subject.

When we sat around to begin the exercise at my agency, I wasn't sure if the officers would take this seriously and I wondered if the situation would degenerate into jokes. It didn't. Part of this may have been their respect for the instructor and part of it may have been that they realized this was important stuff that could help them. I'm convinced that the officers who attended this class will remember this exercise, particularly if they find themselves under stress after sustaining a serious injury.

The value of good breathing technique can't be emphasized enough and its benefits extend beyond on-duty injuries. It can assist you in other aspects of work, reduce stress, and improve mental health as well as contribute to better overall physical fitness.

Master the Technique

Specific techniques for controlled breathing exercises vary. James Meola, a seventh-degree black belt in Goshin Ju-jitsu and a former tactical officer, is a longtime proponent of good breathing and its health benefits. He was the instructor who taught my department's police officers the value of controlled breathing.

Meola recommends a two-step process. First, breathe in through the nose for a four-second count and then exhale through the mouth for a four-second count. The slow full inhale should expand the stomach region while the exhale will return it to the start position.

Although simple, this action allows you to do a number of things to help calm yourself. The breathing itself combined with the concentration in counting can help clear your mind and allow you to focus on the mission of surviving without the clutter of confusion that panic can cause. Needless to say, if you're hyperventilating it can be quite difficult to think straight.

As you continue the breathing exercise, you can lower your heart rate and relax your muscles. This is important as it can slow bleeding if you've sustained a serious injury. Tense muscles can exacerbate the situation and make it difficult to calm down so you can think straight. Controlled breathing can help loosen these muscles. When practicing this technique, you'll find that it doesn't take very long to start feeling a difference. After about four series of this breathing exercise, you should notice the relaxing effects.

Besides the simple one addressed in this commentary, there are other breathing techniques available for officers as well. Some types of breathing exercises also include the use of different body movements in coordination with breathing. What is important is that through regular practice, these exercises can be useful to you for a variety of reasons.

Keep Calm During Calls

Besides the critical benefit that controlled breathing can provide for someone with a life-threatening injury, it has daily applications that can help you perform your job better. Much of a typical officer's shift can involve varying degrees of boredom sprinkled with sudden rushes of energy while responding to stressful calls and handling them.

When driving to the call, start conducting the breathing exercise. Despite the noise of the sirens, the clatter on the police radio, and the expectation of trouble, you may find the slower breathing helps bring about a calmer mindset that allows you to operate your cruiser better and plan for a focused response to the call. Once on scene, the high energy combined with clear thinking you've attained using controlled breathing will allow you to address the situation in the safest and most professional manner.

As these sudden heart pounding responses can put a physical strain, sometimes unrecognized, on you, it is useful to conduct the breathing exercise after the call is over. Even if you think you're fine and feel OK, it is a good habit to practice this exercise afterward as well.

Stay Cool on the Stand

As you know, a police officer's stress is not limited to the street. Internal department environments and inter-agency politics can put a strain on you both mentally and physically. If you have to explain your actions on a call or how you conducted an investigation, you may find yourself under particular stress. They may be worried that they did something wrong or they did in fact make a mistake and become concerned about how much trouble they are in for that error.

Prior to being questioned or having to explain your actions, conduct the breathing technique. A relaxed mind may help you recall more precisely what took place and explain it in a calm and deliberate fashion.

Similarly, the public speaking forum of a courtroom and the rigorous questioning by attorneys can make court testimony a stressful experience for officers. A professional demeanor and calm, deliberate, and thoughtful responses may be achieved if you're relaxed. Controlled breathing prior to testimony can help achieve the right mindset.

Take a Mental Time Out

A cop's mental health can be negatively affected by rotating shifts and calls where other people are suffering or under intense strain themselves. All of this combined with frustration over seeing bad people doing little jail time for violent crimes and a justice system that at times seems like the officer is on trial more than the defendant can put an officer in a negative frame of mind.

Too often our heads can be filled with racing thoughts from everything we've seen or heard and it can be difficult to mentally shake it off. Setting time aside to breathe easy and meditate using an object like a lit candle for focus can help you make better sense of what you're exposed to and clear up your head some. Combining this mental "time out" with a heightened sense of your own spirituality-whatever it might be-can go a long way in sorting out what you deal with and putting your mind in sharper focus for achieving your mission to protect and serve.

Put Your Health First

Police work by design combines the strain of shift work, the sedentary nature of patrol mixed with contrastingly rapid escalations in stress from dangerous calls, and in many cases poor eating habits. For a healthy heart and fit body, start with exercise, rest, and good eating habits. By adding the benefits of controlled breathing exercises, you can also improve your physical fitness level by reducing the unhealthy effects of stress on your body.

The benefits that simple breathing techniques can have on an officer's overall life are solid. Whether to help slow bleeding from an injury or calm your mind in stressful situations, good breathing can influence how you perform your job.

Also, a more relaxed police officer on duty can transfer into a more relaxed officer at home. And because the technique is so easy, you can perform this breathing exercise outside of work and teach it to family members. Good breathing exercises have a place in our line of work and their use is strongly encouraged for anyone seeking a healthy way to relax. 

Tom Wetzel is a northeast Ohio suburban police lieutenant, SWAT officer, trainer, and certified law enforcement executive.

Tags: Winning Edge


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