Ind. Responders Use Breathing Tactic to Reduce Stress

Called tactical, or combat breathing, responders can lower stress and BP by focusing on breathing.


Juan Barrientes was behind the wheel of his squad car, chasing a wanted man armed with a shotgun. Somehow, the man was managing to fire rounds through his blown-out back window and drive at the same time.

Barrientes, then a DeKalb County deputy, could hear buckshot bouncing off his cruiser. His hands and legs were shaking. He knew he needed to calm down.

So he started focusing on his breathing.

In through the nose, two, three, four. Hold, two, three, four. Out through the mouth, two, three, four. Hold, two, three, four. Repeat.

His stress level began to drop. He started to the see the big picture, figuratively and literally. His vision widened. He checked his mirrors.

What Barrientes did that day is known as tactical or combat breathing, a simple tool that some police officers have been using for years to help keep a cool head in an intense situation.

"Had I not done the combat breathing," he said, "I don't know if I would have been either effective or survived that incident."

The chase eventually ended, and the fleeing man was caught. That happened in 1998.

Barrientes is now a training officer with the Fort Wayne Police Department, and he finds himself regularly teaching officers how and when to control their breathing.

"Through combat breathing, what you can essentially do is slow your heart rate, lower your blood pressure, calm yourself down and think," he said.

Lately, tactical breathing has been championed by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a retired West Point psychology professor who travels the country teaching the technique to tens of thousands of police officers, military members and others.

Grossman is quick to point out that harnessing one's breathing to conquer stress, fear, pain or anger is nothing new. It has been applied in various realms, such as martial arts, sharpshooting and Lamaze, for generations.

He credits Calibre Press, a publishing house in California, with pioneering the use of tactical breathing in police work through its Street Survival seminars for officers in the 1990s. Barrientes said he learned the technique in 1995 when he attended the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy in Plainfield.

Grossman said his contribution to the field of tactical breathing has been explaining how it works. In his book, "On Combat," he compares tactical breathing to putting "a leash on the puppy." The puppy in this case is our instinctive reaction to stress, also known as the flight-or-fight response.

By taking charge of your breathing - a bodily function usually done unconsciously - you can take charge of your puppy, according to Grossman.

"What you're doing is gaining conscious control over the unconscious part of your body," he said.

This act of seizing control, along with sending oxygen to your body and preventing hyperventilation, is the reason the technique works.

"It comes back to Mama saying, `Take a deep breath,' " Grossman said.

Slow down

While law enforcement agencies in the Fort Wayne area have fully embraced training officers in tactical breathing, other local first responders emphasize breathing in less formal ways.

Mike Gillespie, a spokesman for the Three Rivers Ambulance Authority, said it's rarely an issue for medics to overload on stress. But, he said, new medics are taught something like tactical breathing.

"If they do get excited, we explain to them to slow their selves down and slow their breathing down," he said, adding that this helps them quickly process information.

The Fort Wayne Fire Department has its firefighters practice controlled breathing, among other skills, on what's called a "confidence course," Assistant Chief Ron Privett said.

Wearing all their gear, including an air tank and mask, firefighters complete a maze of events crammed into a small, cinder- block building on the department's training grounds east of downtown. The events are done in pitch-black conditions, and they simulate search-and-rescue scenarios such as wriggling under a tangle of electrical wires or slipping between stud beams separated by less than 15 inches.

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