Surprising Benefits of Breathing Exercises for Police Officers

I arrived at the Police Academy shooting range with very little knowledge of weapons in general, never mind the one I was carrying on my hip. I had just celebrated my 22nd birthday and was now charged with the task of protecting the lives of others, which included using deadly force. As I stepped onto the firing line, the gun felt heavy and awkward in my hand. The range instructor assisted with our grip and stance, and then gave the command to fire. I held my breath as I pulled the trigger for the first time, and I missed. I hit the corner of the target and my Type-A (perfectionist) personality came out with the same speed and inaccuracy of the bullet. How could I miss?

Perfection was the foundation of which I built my life upon. It is fitting I chose law enforcement as a profession, as many of us in this career personify this need for perfection. One would think this is important for law enforcement personnel, particularly when making use-of-force decisions. There is no room for error. However, the tremendous amount of pressure Type-A Officers put on themselves can be crippling.

It wasn’t until many years later that I discovered the power and purpose of breathing. For the majority of my life, I paid no attention to that which kept me alive. The simple act of breathing could be used purposefully in times of stress and anxiety. I learned these targeted breathing exercises for stress reduction were akin to the military technique of “tactical breathing” for shooting. I tried this technique while shooting and my accuracy dramatically increased! Here’s how it works:

Tactical Breathing Basics:

Get settled into your stance, planting your feet into the ground.

Adjust your grip.

Raise the weapon and sight in to your target.

Take a slow, deep breath in for four seconds. Try to picture your stomach inflating with air like a balloon (breathe from your diaphragm). During the last two seconds of your in-breathe, start squeezing the trigger.

Pause, and hold your breath for a count of one.

Slowly, release your breath, emptying the air from your stomach. As you release your breath, release the trigger with the same discipline, count and control as your breath.

 

Breathing for stress reduction:

Using tactical breathing in times of stress on or off the job helps introduce your body to a new type of stress response. Think about the last time you were in a stressful situation. How did your body feel? How does your body typically respond to stress? Particularly in the field of law enforcement, our lack of self-awareness here can be dangerous.

The sympathetic system of the Automatic Nervous System is your fight, flight or freeze response, where the adrenaline hormone is dumped into your blood stream causing the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, preparing your muscles for a fight.  Tactical breathing can be used to help control these responses. Research shows this practice can also help mental focus, attention, and reduce reaction time, so why aren’t more Officers embracing this?

Consider integrating breathing practices into your daily life. You can practice this during non-stressful situations to start, and eventually try utilizing it when you are feeling the stress response kick-in. I would recommend starting with a 4x4x4 technique, which is practiced by Navy Seals and promoted by Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, author of “On Combat.”

Breathe in through your nose for four seconds

Hold your breath for four seconds

Release the air through your mouth for four seconds

Hold your breath for four seconds

Repeat.

 

Our Work with Youth

As the creator of a program designed to help Police Officers promote positive youth development in their communities, I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch upon the unique benefits of these exercises for our work with children.

Did you know children are just as susceptible as adults to feeling pressured and overwhelmed? The experience of stress results in an over arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, and a build-up of stress hormones. These hormones make it challenging for children to focus because their bodies are getting messages constantly that say, “get ready for danger!” To make matters worse, these stress hormones don’t leave the body for 72 hours. What are the chances a child won’t be triggered by another stressful event during those 72 hours?

Different from adults, a child’s life is largely dominated by the “protective” part of the brain. This part of the brain is responsible for emotions, reflexes, instincts and basic bodily functions. The “thoughtful” part of the brain, which lives in the prefrontal cortex, is still under construction. Therefore, our children have trouble differentiating between a truly stressful event, and something else that would be considered benign in an adult brain. This is why teenagers become stressed when they see their friend “blocked” them on Instagram, and lash out with feelings of anger and despair. As adults, we dismiss these feelings by telling our children it’s “no big deal” and to “forget about it.”

Instead, we should be providing opportunities for stress management. We can teach children ways to create mental space between the input they are receiving (stressful event) and their thoughts/actions (utilizing unhealthy, and even risky, coping mechanisms). This can be accomplished using the same breathing techniques I just provided you with.

I tried this with a group of eighth grade students, and talked about the benefits of this practice. I told them they can do these exercises discretely before getting up to give a presentation, or at home in their bedroom when they’re stressing over a fight with their friend. We tried a couple of breathing exercises, and I gave them five minutes to relax (silently) in the classroom. When the exercise was complete, the students looked woozy. I asked them to write about their experience, and some of the responses were as follows:

“I have never done anything like this. I was surprised how relaxed I felt.”

“I felt calm even though I have a science quiz. I actually stopped stressing about it for that minute.”

“I felt like a noodle. My body felt like loose, like spaghetti. I have never felt like that before.”

“It felt good to know that nothing bad is happening right now.”

Afterwards, we had a remarkably organic discussion about the things that make us feel stressed. We connected in a way that showed they are like me, and I am like them. Sound familiar?

“Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police.”

Sir Robert Peel