Tactical breathing is a method of using your breath to change how you feel physically and emotionally to focus your attention and improve your performance. Breathing is one of the most basic human activities, and learning to control it strategically can lower your stress, manage unhelpful emotions, and improve your long-term health.
When your emotions aren’t helpful, you can actually decrease or increase their intensity through your breathing. Think of the last time a powerful feeling such as anxiety or anger made it hard to do something you needed to do, such as clearing a room, staying vigilant while out on patrol, or having a tough conversation. It can be difficult to change these intense feelings using thoughts alone, so learning to control your breath can become a very effective tool. Instead of talking (or thinking) your way out of your emotions, you can learn to breathe your way through them.
Breath and your nervous system
Your breathing is connected—through your brain and nervous system—to how you feel physically and emotionally. It’s because your autonomic nervous system, or ANS—the part of your overall nervous system that controls your breathing—also helps regulate every other system in your body, including your endocrine (hormone), cardiovascular, immune, and digestive systems. Like the pedals in your car, your ANS can either speed up or slow down your systems. ANS generally runs on autopilot and is managed by two complementary systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is your accelerator.
Your SNS works like the gas pedal in your car, accelerating your breathing to help you pursue goals and avoid threats. This “fight or flight” system turns on and can be helpful when you need to react and respond quickly. However, getting stuck in this gear wears you down, and it can lead to poor sleep, decreased sex drive, indigestion, constipation, and higher risk of infections. When your SNS runs in overdrive, it can leave you feeling stressed, fatigued, irritated, anxious, or depressed.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is your brake.
Your PNS controls your relaxation response, slows you down, and quiets your SNS. One way to take your body off autopilot is to control your breathing. You can slow your breathing with steady, full breaths and longer exhales. Doing this activates your PNS, which relaxes your muscles and sends feedback to your brain that “all is well.” When you’re relaxed, it’s hard to feel stressed or upset. In fact, your relaxation response slows the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine, lowering your heart rate and blood pressure to healthy levels. Not only does this response counterbalance stress, it also can boost immunity, increase alertness, and improve your metabolism. Controlled breathing practices also can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression.
Tactical breathing and stress
Stress can take its toll on your mental and physical health, including your heart health, but there are breathing techniques to buffer yourself from it! When you’re less focused on your breathing, it’s typical to breathe erratically, especially when you face the stressors of day-to-day life. In turn, your heart rate can become less rhythmic and cause your heart to not function as well.
But when you have longer, slower exhales—breathing at about 4-second-inhale and 6-second-exhale paces—your heart rate rhythmically fluctuates up and down. This rhythmic variability in heart rate mirrors your inhales and exhales so that you have maximum heart rate at the end of the inhale and minimum heart rate at the end of the exhale. More importantly, this physiological shift might help you feel less stressed, anxious, or depressed—and experience better heart health.
Practice tactical breathing regularly, and you’ll form good habits over time, just like any other skill you practice regularly. Use the guided mediation below to try out tactical breathing. You’ll be guided with the tune for a few breaths at this more optimal pace. As you hear the tone get louder, breathe in, and as you hear it soften, exhale.
After practicing, take a moment to reflect on how you feel now compared to how you felt before you began reading this article. You breathe all the time, but usually you go through the motions of breathing while absorbed in your own thoughts. Instead, you took notice of your breathing, intentionally controlled it, and noticed other body sensations. Regularly tuning in to your breathing and body sensations can help you feel more resilient and ready to:
- Adapt to change
- Deal with whatever comes your way
- See the brighter, or funnier, side of problems
- Overcome stress
- Tolerate unpleasant feelings
- Bounce back after illness, failures, or other hardships
- Meet your goals
- Stay focused under pressure
- Feel stronger
In addition to helping your emotions, controlling how you breathe can regulate your body’s stress responses. Each time you calm your SNS and turn on your PNS by slowing and lengthening your breath, you improve your ability to relax quickly and effectively in critical environments. Progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, mindfulness, and autogenic training are similar tools to help you calm your stress response. With practice, the hardwired tendency to always look for and react to threats weakens while you strengthen new and effective ways to manage your performance, relationships, and well-being. To learn how to build a regular practice of breathing and improve your well-being, watch HPRC’s “Basics of Belly Breathing” video below.
Note: Mindfulness meditation is not a replacement for medical treatment or advice.