Lamaze for Snipers: How Tactical Breathing Can Improve Performance During A High Stress Event

Photo by: Zetson

Spring comes early in Austin.  The warmth is welcome, as the young couple says good-bye to their son and his grandmother.  Nana has agreed to watch the boy while Mom and Dad head to the hospital for the birth of little sister.

This is a scheduled induction. Mom’s first birth went very quickly and everyone wants to be ready for this one.

It’s a quick drive from the couple’s home to the hospital.  The administrative procedures go smoothly and Mom is set up in no time.  The doctor breaks her water and, as expected, contractions start.  But, the unexpected happens too.  As the labor progresses, the readings from the fetal heart rate monitor raise some concern with the staff.

Dad is standing by ready to provide moral support, encouragement, and do whatever he is told to.  Watching and listening, he is alert to every word.  He recognizes that there is an issue with the baby…something about the cord being around the neck.  He knows that’s bad. The doctor instructs the nurses to attach an internal monitor directly to the baby to get better readings. As the monitor is attached, baby’s heart beat stops.  It just stops.

The doctor is professional to the core.  He is calm and collected.  But, his concern is evident.  He is alert to the situation.

Dad senses danger. Without anything to do or say, his body takes over.  He can feel his heart pounding and he can hear the rush of blood in his ears.  His peripheral vision narrows. He focuses on the doctor. His eyes dart to his wife, then back to the doctor.  By now he has tunnel vision and feels light headed.  Where is the heartbeat?

His breathing is shallow and rapid.  The doctor politely indicates the chair next to the bed.  He uses the arms of the chair to steady himself and sits down.

Baby’s heart beat comes back up and everyone breathes. As the birth continues, Dad gets back on his feet, helping Mom with her breathing exercises and providing moral support.  The doctor’s suspicion about the cord was correct.  He unloops it and baby is born safe and sound. Mom and baby are fine. Dad is fine too.

I wish I had known two things the day my daughter was born: (1) Expect an initial drop in heart rate as a potential reaction to placing the internal monitor; (2) the breathing exercises designed to help my wife handle the stress of child birth were there to help me too.

The instant that heart beat dropped off of the monitor, an adrenaline pulse went through my body and strong physical responses followed.

No one can control how their body reacts to a high stress incident, but we can learn to manage our physical response.  Controlled breathing, is an effective way to consciously bridge the mind body connection. Slow deep breaths helped me recover, but I didn’t have a plan or a breathing pattern to follow. At the end of this post, you will be much better prepared than I was to manage a high stress incident.  Learning about and practicing tactical breathing will give you a tool that keeps you in the game during a high stress event…so that you can help yourself and your loved ones.

Breathing & Blinking

Heart rate, digestion, salivation, perspiration, diameter of the pupils, sexual arousal, and many other physical reactions occur involuntarily, without conscious thought or control.  These actions are managed by the autonomic nervous system, a control system that runs automatically. The subdivision of the autonomic nervous system that takes primary control when you are exposed to a high stress incident is called the sympathetic nervous system. During fight or flight reactions, the sympathetic nervous system is in full effect.

Breathing and blinking are two functions managed by the autonomic nervous system that can also be consciously controlled. The ability to control our breathing offers us a pathway that may be used to consciously influence the autonomic nervous system.  During a high stress event, as the sympathetic nervous system starts to pull you into why think – when I can react mode, the ability to access this pathway can be particularly helpful.

Tactical Breathing

Photo by: vramak

In the book On Combat and in his lectures, LTC Dave Grossman describes a four count method of breathing.  This is a self-regulation method taught to police officers, military members, and others who must perform with a high level of skill in the face of deadly threats.  There are four phases to this breathing pattern.

Phase 1: Breathe in through the nose for a slow four count (1, 2, 3, 4).  Notice your belly expanding.

Phase 2: Hold the breath for a four count (1, 2, 3, 4).

Phase 3: Slowly exhale through pursed lips for a four count (1, 2, 3, 4).

Phase 4: Hold empty for a four count (1, 2, 3, 4).

It is recommended that you cycle through the pattern at least 3 times.

Try it now. After three full cycles – How do you feel?

When this breathing pattern is employed during a stressful event, you will feel yourself coming back into control…a relaxed breathing pattern returns, your racing heart slows, peripheral vision expands and hearing improves.

Experiment with this breathing pattern.  Try it, when you are tense or anxious.  Try it, when you are calm and relaxed.  Do you need a longer count? Then tweak the pattern and count to 5 or 6. Do you need more cycles? Add them.  Experiment to determine what combination is most effective for you and dial in your own personal tactical breathing pattern.

LTC Grossman explains tactical breathing:

Deploying this tool

Photo: Yamam

You don’t have to be on a hostage rescue mission to use this tool. Self-control is a key element for successful performance no matter what the endeavor.  For most of us navigating through the stress of a normal day will present plenty of opportunities to practice this technique.

However, if there is a particular stress inducing situation that you encounter on a regular and recurring basis, then you may be able to condition yourself to automatically deploy your tactical breathing pattern. In the section titled Tactical Breathing in Warrior Operations, LTC Grossman discusses police officers and ambulance drivers using behavior modification techniques to make tactical breathing a conditioned response to hearing the sound of their sirens.  There is no reason that you can’t do something similar to condition yourself to engage your tactical breathing pattern before a test, a work presentation, an athletic competition, a musical performance, etc.

Special Circumstances

Also, be alert to special circumstances where this technique can be a life saver.  On Combat includes personal anecdotes from several individuals who used tactical breathing to: (1) lower their heart rate after experiencing a heart attack; (2) remain calm after a car accident and patiently wait the arrival of rescue workers; and (3) help prevent debilitating migraines.  Tactical breathing is not a substitute for proper medical treatment, but it is a way that you can help yourself and help your care providers by remaining calm and keeping your head in the game during a medical emergency.

Share the Knowledge

Teach tactical breathing to your children, so they have a way to calm themselves.  When rendering first aid or as a first responder, consider sharing this technique with the person you are treating.  Use it as a way to help comfort someone who has survived or witnessed a traumatic event. Be creative in your use of tactical breathing and when confronted with a high stress event remember the answer is right under your nose.

The Unthinkable by Amanda Ripley.
The Adrenaline Dump: It’s More Than Just Breathing by Dr. Michael J. Asken
Breathing Ladders – Gym Jones
The Centrality of Breath (Part II) – Squat Rx
Breathing Pattern Development – Boddicker Performance
iPhone App for Tactical Breathing.


8 responses to “Lamaze for Snipers: How Tactical Breathing Can Improve Performance During A High Stress Event

  1. Thanks for reminding me of this. Need to practice it now I am stressed and a complete scatterbrain at the moment.

    I learnt this at uni studying music. It was taught to us as correcting “gaseous exchange” ie correcting the rate of exchange and ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our bodies. We started counting to 1, working our way up to 10 and back down. Great way to bring yourself back into the current moment.

    • Anna – Thanks for sharing this. I will definitely try laddering my breathing. Hope things level out for you soon.

    • Great arecilt, thank you again for writing.

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  2. Pingback: Your Monday Moment of Zen #15 | The Iron Samurai

  3. Thanks for this post 🙂 Any woman that gave birth knows that tactical breathing can make ALL the difference!

    • Lisa: Most of us (guys) are so freaked out standing right there as it happens to recognize that it works for guys too.

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