The stress created by a deadly threat in a survival situation, can suddenly cause your body to respond with physical and psychological (biochemical) changes to prepare you for survival. Your breathing and your heart rate will become faster, blood with fill your large muscle groups and your body will become warmer in an effort to boost physical performance. This physical arousal of your body readies you for action, and is mostly caused by the release of adrenaline in your body. It is commonly referred to as the "fight or flight" response.
Whereas some physical arousal is good for effective performance, too much is a problem. If your heart rate and breathing become too fast, you will experience a degradation in your motor skills and difficulty with cognitive abilities. In other words, it will degrade your ability to perform well and think clearly.
You need the ability to manage the effects of stress in order to respond more favorably in a dangerous situation.
Managing the Effects of Stress
With training, you can improve your chances of benefiting from the physical arousal caused by stress. By managing this natural response of your body under stress, you can channel it into faster, more effective performance while avoiding becoming overly stimulated and unable to respond properly.
The physical arousal caused by the fight or flight response readies you for action, and is therefore desirable. In addition to essentially "warming up" the body in an instant, the increased heart rate delivers additional blood sugars and fats to fuel the body. Your body also speeds up the ability of your blood to clot in order to minimize blood loss just in case you are injured. This is good, but this is not the only thing that happens to you.
Fears, self doubt and worry can also be aroused in times of stress. Your emotions can become very distracting. Thoughts of inadequacy can surface wherein you worry you are not conditioned enough, you have not trained enough, or you don’t have the right equipment. You may worry that you will make the wrong choices under stress and there will be very serious, negative consequences because of those poor decisions.
We want to keep all the positive benefits of this stress response, while avoiding the negatives. This is can be done through proper training. There are several factors that help with this, but one, easy-to-learn tool for managing the effects of stress, is controlled breathing, also known as tactical or combat breathing.
Yoga, meditation, martial arts, and sports have used controlled breathing to manage stress and enhance performance for many years. Police, firefighters, and soldiers use controlled breathing to help manage the pressure of their jobs. There are several techniques and variations, but they are largely the same in effect. They reduce your heart and respiratory rate and therefore help you find an optimal level of arousal.
The ideal heart rate for good performance is between 115 and 145 beats per minute. At this range, complex motor skills, visual and cognitive reaction speed are at their best. The body is stimulated for action and the mind is clear enough for logical thinking and decision making. Using combat breathing in times of stress, you can influence your heart rate to prevent it from getting so high that it erodes your performance when trying to protect yourself.
Combat breathing allows you to keep your mind focused on only what is needed to survive, and it can help you recover from surprise or distraction. If you enperience a surprise that spikes your heart rate up and starts to set you in a state of panic, use a few breaths to bring your heart rate down and calm your mind.
How It Works
Deep breathing removes stale air from your lungs, and allows you to breath in more oxygen. Breathing in more oxygen adds more oxygen to your bloodstream so that your body does not need to pump as much blood to get the amount of oxygen that it needs. Because of this, your heart rate then slows down. That reduction in your heart rate allows your mind to become more relaxed and controlled.
How to Do It
To get the benefits of combat breathing, you must use deep, abdominal breathing. With abdominal breathing, you initially expand your abdomen as you inhale, rather than expanding your chest. This will fill your lungs using your diaphragm, a muscle located between your abdominal cavity and your thoracic cavity. Breathing with your diaphragm is efficient, and it triggers relaxation. When you breath abdominally, you will fell like you are pulling your breath downwards rather than up into your chest.
An easy breathing method is to remember is 4-4-4. Repeat the following 4 steps, 4 times. For each step, count to 4:
STEP 1 - Breath in through your nose while counting 1, 2, 3, 4.
STEP 2 - Hold your breath, counting 1, 2, 3, 4.
STEP 3 - Exhale through your mouth counting 1, 2, 3, 4.
STEP 4 - Hold your breath, counting 1, 2, 3, 4.
Note: Step 4 is optional and may be difficult when the heart rate is very high. Also, you can use a different count if it suits you. Just use what works for you at the time. It may be hard to hold your breath for a long count when you are really out of breath. Try a shorter count. Anywhere from a 3 to 7 count is useful.
Start by practicing combat breathing in a safe place, without stress before you try it in a dangerous situation. When you first begin, you may also start with your eyes closed. Initially, it takes time to learn to relax, but once you have practiced it a few sessions, you will be able to more quickly recall the state of relaxation. You will be able to do this without closing your eyes.
When you practice, develop a mental image or cue, such as a command word, like “relax” that will help you trigger your relaxation skills and recapture a state of calm the next time you use it. If you associate the image or cue with the state of relaxation you reach each time you practice, then you will link the cue with the state. After some practice, using the cue or visualizing the image will put you back in that state in a shorter period of time.
Practice in everyday situations that cause you minor stress so that you will be accustomed to using the technique in real life, not just in training. Use it when you are cut-off in traffic, get frustrated at work, or find you are losing focus. By practicing regularly, you will not only get better at relaxing quickly, but you will also remember to use the technique itself.
When to Use It
Use breath control to prepare for a stressful situation. If you are about to confront an intruder, see a potential threat approaching you, or just have have a bad feeling about something, start your breath control. You can reduce any building tension, fear, and anxiety.
Use breath control to manage arousal during a stressful situation. Use it to keep from overreacting or allowing your heart rate and breathing to become too fast. If you have just been hit, shot at or otherwise assaulted, if there is any opportunity to control your breathing, do it. Even if you do not finish the breathing cycle, you can use it to refocus on the task at hand or recover from a stun.
Use breath control to recover from a stressful situation. After surviving an attack, start controlling your breathing so you can clear your head and make the best decisions about your safety. You can use your breathing to slow bleeding if you have sustained an injury during a violent encounter or in an accident and are waiting for help.
When I was a kid, I read about biofeedback, breathing, and meditation a lot. I used to hold an amplified microphone up to my chest so I could hear my heartbeat though my old pioneer stereo. I would then try to slow down my heartbeat while I listened. After only a few tries and some breathing exercises, I could do it fairly quickly. To this day, 30+ years later, when someone is measuring my pulse, I cannot help but slow down my heartbeat when I hear the beeping sound of the pulse rate meter.
During a CrossFit conditioning workout, I can actively slow my heart rate enough to recover a little faster than expected. I can do this even when I have not been regularly working out. To others, this may give the impression I am in better shape than I really am, but I'm just glad it helps me keep from collapsing to the floor in front of my students.
It will be difficult to follow the 4-4-4 steps precisely in the middle of a fight, but consciously learning to control your breath will help you maintain more control of both your body and your mind. Even if you never need it in a violent encounter, you will find it has other benefits that are worth the effort it takes to practice.
If you are interested in learning more about self defense and being ready for a violent attack, consider joining the Tactical Arts Academy Warrior Athlete Program. Training includes a variety of physical self defense skills and exercises for mental preparation so you can handle a stressful situation. We can help you learn to protect yourself and enjoy making yourself better.
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