So much has changed in my 25 years in law enforcement. Communications devices, less-lethal devices, tactics, training, paperwork—and more paperwork. In fact, when I see photos of my 1992 patrol vehicle, that car looks old-school. No matter what equipment or ideas have changed, though, one inescapable feature of this job has not changed: stress. That is why I am so glad that a tried and true, simple and highly effective stress-reduction tool has been written about and taught since before my law enforcement career even began. It is a breathing technique that has had several monikers, including "Box Breathing."
In my previous article ("Just Take a Deep Breath," Dec. 2016), we discussed the importance of slow deep breathing and that law enforcement officers may achieve better performance and resiliency when they learn to control how they breathe. "Box Breathing" is another way of using breathing to heighten performance and resiliency. This slow, deep-breathing technique has been around for many years and has been utilized by professional athletes, fighters, elite military personnel, and law enforcement officers. Regular use of this breathing technique can enhance concentration, lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and assist with emotional regulation.
To do the "Box Breathing" technique, find a quiet place and sit upright. Begin by slowly exhaling all of the air from your lungs. Then, inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for a count of four. Think low and slow. Fill the lowest portion of your lungs first, then the middle and then the upper portion of your lungs. Hold for a count of four. Next, exhale through your nose (or mouth) beginning with the upper portion of your lungs, then the middle and then the lowest portion of your lungs. Hold for a count of four. Repeat.
As you progress in your practice of this breathing technique, you can build up to doing this for five to 10 minutes. You also may extend the exhale for a longer period if you choose by doing it for up to six to eight seconds. Most importantly, you should take the four-breath count as a consideration but actually do what feels natural to you. A pattern of 3, 3, 3, 3 might work better for you personally.
I have used breathing techniques with very good results since I was a young boy. However, the first time I was exposed to this particular technique was in 1991 while I was in the police academy. I read Charles Remsberg's book The Tactical Edge (1986). He described a "Belly Breath" that could be used to combat stress, reverse the alarm response of the body, and restore a psychological sense of control.
Remsberg explained that the "Belly Breath" is performed by sitting down in a quiet place, closing your eyes, slowly inhaling through your nose for a slow count of four, pausing for a slow count of four, exhaling through your mouth for a slow count of four and then pausing for a slow count of four. Then repeat. He further explained that this technique is part of achieving the "Relaxation Response," a concept that he also outlines in the book.
Similarly, Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, who authored the Pulitzer-nominated book On Killing (1996), has taught this breathing technique for many years during his Bulletproof Mind seminars. Grossman calls the technique "Combat Breathing." It consists of the same four-count breathing technique (4, 4, 4, 4, repeat)."
More recently, retired Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, the founder of SEALFIT, has championed this breathing technique and has taught it to thousands of people who are interested in achieving high performance while reducing the debilitating effects of stress. Divine recognizes that this breathing technique is incredibly beneficial and, in his book "Unbeatable Mind" (2015), he writes, "this exercise strengthens your mental power. This one technique alone is so transformative that with consistent execution it will profoundly change your life." He is the person who named the technique "Box Breathing" because the 4, 4, 4, 4 breathing pattern is consistent and even, just like the four sides of a box.
Use in Real-Life Police Work
A good friend of mine who spent many years on a SWAT team would regularly use the "Box Breathing" technique right before he was about to make entry into a structure. He felt that it put him in the perfect performance zone in order to operate at a high level as a tactical operator.
Another good friend of mine who is a veteran SWAT operator begins each day by doing the "Box Breathing" technique right after he wakes up. He does this four-count breathing sequence for five to 10 minutes each morning. By doing so, he feels that he is much more efficient in his work, has more clarity and mental focus, and experiences an overall better sense of well-being.
With some practice and experience, you can utilize this technique in a variety of non-combative/dynamic circumstances: responding to critical radio calls or crucial events, post-dynamic/combative incidents, during non-dynamic yet stressful situations, etc. The "Box Breathing" technique helps to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the calming, resting, digesting part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) that balances the effects of the "fight or flight" Sympathetic Nervous System. As such, "Box Breathing" helps to manage the negative effects of adrenaline, and it helps to put you in a psychophysiological zone that is consistent with performance excellence.
No matter what has changed in law enforcement, "Box Breathing" has remained the same for decades. This is because it works. You can utilize this technique after any stressful event or crisis incident to help regain composure, manage your emotions and restore balance to your ANS. You can also use it to control your adrenaline on your way to a call. You can use it to begin your day with better clarity. Hopefully, you will just use it.
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.