It is critical that we understand our body’s reactions to an attack. There are many mental and physical functions which occur at the subconscious level. While our bodies will respond in ways that we may not be able to control initially, with training we can anticipate and mitigate unhelpful responses and successfully respond to a lethal threat.

“Your breathing should flow gracefully, like a river, like a water snake crossing the water, and not like a chain of rugged mountains or the gallop of a horse. To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds. Each time we find ourselves dispersed and find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

Tactical breathing was discovered by many ancient cultures and is incorporated in various forms in many martial arts and meditation systems. As practiced by modern police and military, it allows you to rapidly regain control of you body during critical situations.

Body functions, such as heart rate, body temperature, breathing, blinking, and digesting are controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). In most situations, you are unaware of the workings of the ANS because it functions in an involuntary, reflexive manner. There are two responses you do have control over – breathing and blinking. We can use breathing as a bridge back from mindless panicked “fight or fight” to put ourselves in an optimal condition to fight.

The automatic systems of the ANS are the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems. The SNS arouses you to action when necessary and the PNS works to regain control and establish a balance in your body. These systems are associated with “fight or flight” and “rest and digest.”

Autonomic Nervous System

Structure Sympathetic Stimulation Parasympathetic Stimulation
Iris (eye muscle) Pupil dilation Pupil constriction
Salivary Glands Saliva production reduced Saliva production increased
Oral/Nasal Mucosa Mucus production reduced Mucus production increased
Heart Heart rate and force increased Heart rate and force decreased
Lung Bronchial muscle relaxed Bronchial muscle contracted
Stomach Peristalsis reduced Gastric juice secreted; motility increased
Small Intestine Motility reduced Digestion increased
Large Intestine Motility reduced Secretions and motility increased
Liver Increased conversion of
glycogen to glucose
Kidney Decreased urine secretion Increased urine secretion
Adrenal medulla Norepinephrine and
epinephrine secreted
Bladder Wall relaxed
Sphincter closed
Wall contracted
Sphincter relaxed

The ANS is always working. It is NOT only active during “fight or flight” or “rest and digest” situations. Rather, the autonomic nervous system acts to maintain normal internal functions and works with the somatic nervous system.

There are whole books written about these topics and I encourage you to read some of them. Now that we know a little about how the body reacts, let’s focus on our response to an attack. For generations, these autonomic responses were associated with fear.

When I was a kid, every time I was about to get in a fight, my leg would shake. Until I learned about the SNS, I was ashamed of this. Now I recognize it as an indicator that my “fight or flight” response has been activated. It is a comfort if I need to fight and a warning sign if I am in a social situation.

As an adult leader in a youth training organization, I once had an angry mother get in my face and pretty aggressively tell me what I was going to do for her special snowflake. Without conscious thought, this activated my SNS and I got the leg shake. Under those circumstances, without shame, I responded with flight. I feel sorry for her kid

A heart rate of 115-145 bpm produces an optimal level of performance in fighting skills. Complex motor skills, visual reaction time and cognitive reaction time are all at their peak. A “fight or flight” reaction combined with physical exertion or injury can make the heart beat much faster than this optimal level. At higher heart rates, complex brain function can shut down taking reason and training away when we need it most.

Realistic and stressful training can produce the same SNS response as an attack. It should be noted that merely raising the heart rate through exercise does not produce the complete SNS response. You can inoculate yourself to these reactions and learn to function effectively.

Tactical Breathing

  1. Inhale through your nose, deeply, expanding your stomach for a count of four – one, two, three, four.
  2. Hold that breath in for a count of four – one, two, three, four.
  3. Slowly exhale through your mouth, completely, contracting your stomach for a count of four – one, two, three, four.
  4. Hold the empty breath for a count of four – one, two, three, four.

This tactical breathing sequence is most effective if repeated at least four times.

Through controlled breathing, you get more air into your lungs and more oxygen out to your body and brain.  High levels of oxygen in your blood stream lower the body’s demand for blood, which lowers heart rate. The breaths have to be deep, abdominal breaths where you expand your stomach like a balloon, pause at the top of the breath, then exhale, counting to four with each step.

Tactical breathing can be used anytime you feel stress. It will put you back in control and make you the smartest and strongest fighter you can be.