Optimize your breath: Tactical breathing to optimize performance, stress management, and military wellness

You have to breathe to live, and thankfully your body does it unconsciously. The way you breathe can impact your mental health and physical performance, so it’s important to learn how to breathe optimally. Harnessing the power of your breath starts with understanding your body, being aware of your environment, and practicing your breathing for peak readiness and performance.

The connection between your brain and breath

There are two key parts to your autonomic nervous system: parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS). They each work to keep you alive, one being more active than the other, depending on the situation. PNS is more active when you’re calm and at rest. SNS is more active when you’re under stress, as it prepares you for action (that is, increased breathing and heart rate). Stress, such as exercise or cold exposure, can be beneficial in the right amounts and with the right stress mindset.

However, when you’re constantly (chronically) stressed, your SNS can become overactive. Common stressors of modern life—such as constant notifications from your phone, fast-paced lifestyle, being stuck in traffic, rigorous training, and so on—make it easy for your SNS to be perpetually “switched on,” which can lead to chronic anxiety, sleep disorders, increased blood pressure, and more.

“The mind is king of the body, and the breath is king of the mind.”

– B.K.S. Iyengar

Are you breathing incorrectly?

Breathing optimally can help you feel more calm, relaxed, and prepared to handle any stressor. Adults typically breathe at a rate of 15–18 breaths per minute. That’s a breath about every 3–4 seconds, and over 20,000 a day. At this breathing rate, adults might be “over-breathing.” So, what’s the problem? Carbon dioxide plays an important role in helping bring oxygen to cells and tissues. When you over-breathe, sufficient oxygen is being taken into the blood when you inhale, but too much carbon dioxide is being exhaled to make the oxygen useful. This low-oxygen state in your body can cause SNS (your fight-or-flight response) to kick in when it isn’t optimal and potentially cause it to go into overdrive.

The optimal breathing rate for humans to experience the benefits of PNS is actually closer to about 6–8 full breaths per minute. This means if you want to take control of your breathing to calm down or regain focus, you would inhale for 4–5 seconds and then exhale for 4–5 seconds. This rate lowers blood pressure and can actually decrease SNS activation—meaning that slowing your breathing down favors activation of your PNS (“rest and digest”), leading to a calmer state of mind. Breathing happens mostly unconsciously, and your breathing rate will vary based on your body’s needs (exercising vs. at rest), so it’s unrealistic to expect to breathe at this rate all the time. However, setting aside some time throughout your day to practice slow, mindful breathing—much like you would with an exercise program—can have many benefits.

So, what can you do to improve your breath control (when resting or active) and boost your health and performance?

Inhaling through your nose better filters, warms, and humidifies air before it gets to your lungs, boosting health and immunity. It’s also been shown to have similar effects to slow breathing: increased nitric oxide (promotes blood flow), lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduced anxiety and stress, and improved athletic performance.

Feeling stressed? Slow down your breath!

Slowing your breathing to a rate of about 6–8 breaths per minute (inhale and exhale to counts of 4 or 5), even for a short time, has been shown to decrease activity of SNS, reduce anxiety symptoms, and improve mental performance and memory. Slow breathing also physically increases heart rate variability, which is linked to decreased stress and better health. Slow breathing has even been recognized by the military as an effective tool to reduce combat stress. This practice will enable you to use your breath as a tool to make sure you’re in your optimal zone to perform at your best.

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Practice breathing through your nose

Most people breathe too much through their mouth. Inhaling primarily through your mouth is associated with sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, poor cognitive performance, and memory problems. Inhaling through your mouth is associated with higher SNS activity, while inhaling through your nose is associated with higher PNS activity because of receptors in your nasal cavity.

Inhaling through your nose better filters, warms, and humidifies air before it gets to your lungs, boosting health and immunity. It’s also been shown to have similar effects to slow breathing: increased nitric oxide (promotes blood flow), lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduced anxiety and stress, and even improved athletic performance. If you’re in the habit of breathing through your mouth, it might feel uncomfortable to breathe through your nose or hard to remember to do. This is where practice makes perfect. Find time each day to practice breathing optimally to gain comfort and eventually make it a habit. Experiment with your breath and find what works best for you. Try morning and nighttime breathing practices that incorporate slow and nasal breathing.

Morning breathing practiceMorning breathing practice

  • Find a comfortable seated position.
  • Close your eyes and mouth. Deeply inhale through your nose for 3 seconds, fully filling your lungs.
  • Pause for 3 seconds at the top of your breath, and then exhale deeply (out of your nose or mouth) for 3 seconds, pushing all the air out of your lungs.
  • Pause again for 3 seconds at the bottom and repeat for a few minutes. Use this practice, known commonly as combat breathing, for a relaxed, calm, and mentally focused start to your day.
  • If you feel comfortable, extend your inhales and exhales up to 4–6 seconds.
  • Experiment with different times and observe how they make you feel.
  • As you make this a habit, anytime you find yourself feeling overly stressed at any point in your day (maybe before or after a difficult meeting or conversation), take a minute or two to close your eyes and mouth, and take a few deep breaths in this pattern to calm yourself and refocus.

Nighttime breathing practiceNighttime breathing practice

  • Find a comfortable seated position or lie down.
  • Similar to the morning practice, breathe in deeply through your nose and out through your nose or mouth, but make your exhale twice as long as your inhale.
  • For example, inhale for 3 seconds, pause for just a second at the top, and then slowly exhale for 6 seconds, and repeat. Take your breath count to 4 seconds and 8 seconds, or even 5 and 10 (or more) if you feel comfortable.
  • Practice this breathing pattern before bed, especially if you have trouble winding down and falling asleep.

Bottom line

Throughout your busy days, remember to breathe deeply. Slow your breath and breathe through your nose. When practicing breath control in this way, observe how it makes you feel: calm and ready for anything.

For more information on breath practice, read HPRC’s article on tactical breathing. Make sure to watch HPRC’s video below to learn the basics of belly breathing too.

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