When you are under immense performance stress and need to complete tasks, there is a tendency to want to speed up your actions. The consequence of doing this is that you are likely to make mistakes. Even worse, the faster your thinking process becomes under stress, the more you might second guess yourself. This is the paradox: Stress brings both haste, but also indecision. Depending on your role, for example as a first responder, your indecision can mean death.
In order to manage this type of experience, first you have to recognize it. Being under performance stress brings along with it noticeable physiological changes, for example a quicker heart rate, clammy hands and a dry mouth. In these moments, even though you know thinking clearly is imperative, it may not be immediately possible.
One way to counteract haste-and-indecision is to purposively focus on your breath, something most of us simply take for granted. Before exploring breathing further, let’s take a quick look at that three-pound piece of intelligent jelly inside your skull.
Your brain sits on top of your spine, which is the main highway for your nervous system. The spine feeds information from your peripheral nervous system (PNS) about what is happening in your body, to your central nervous system (CNS) to then be processed in your brain. It controls a great deal of what goes on in your body — including your breathing and heart rate.
Without your brain you wouldn’t be able to think. But your brain is not just inside your head. It is, in fact, distributed all over your body through your nervous system.
Your peripheral nervous system (PNS) has two parts and functions:
- External: Your sensory-somatic nervous system responsible for gathering information about your external environment.
- Internal: Your autonomic nervous system (ANS) responsible for monitoring and controlling your internal organs (e.g. heart, lungs, viscera, and glands). Your ANS also affects your motor nerves that determine how your body acts and reacts in response to internal and external stimuli.
Your ANS is mostly beyond conscious control. It operates behind the scenes; it is mostly unconscious and involuntary. By contrast, your sensory-somatic system responds directly to your conscious will.
The ANS, then, perceives your body’s internal environment; and after the information is processed in the CNS, the ANS regulates the functions of the internal environment. Most of this is done completely unconsciously.
The ANS itself has two subdivisions: The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems.
- Sympathetic Nervous System — Stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for emergencies. It kicks into action in high-stress situations, such as in a firefight. Sometimes referred to as the fight-or-flight system, the sympathetic nerves direct more blood to the muscles and the brain. The heart rate and blood pressure increases, while the blood flow to the digestive and eliminative organs decreases.
- Parasympathetic Nervous System — It calms the body down, bringing it back into a state of balance. In other words, the parasympathetic balances the sympathetic. Without the parasympathetic nervous system for balance, the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) system can overwhelm the body with an over-abundance of energy causing dizziness, spaciness, confusion, fear, anxiety, apprehension and/or other forms of hyper-arousal and distress.
The Importance of Breath
Now back to breathing.
It is no accident that Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy noted “fear is excitement without the breath.”
Your breath is one of the most effective links between your brain and your body. Being mindful of your breathing, then, is a great way to help you manage your autonomic nervous system (i.e., your flight and fight system). In addition, it will help you slow down your thinking mind, allowing you to be more methodical and concise in your actions.
As noted previously, whereas most ANS actions are involuntary, some, such as breathing, work in tandem with the conscious mind. This means that breathing is the one tool we can use to have a direct effect on the ANS. Crucially here, your breathing is the only part of the ANS that you can consciously control.
Putting This Into Action
When you are under immense performance stress it is natural that your ANS will engage. In those moments, you want to center your focus on breathing. Here, what is important, is a focus on the exhalation, which we know engages the PNS that enables you to come back to a balanced state.
Personally, the way I have taught this is to get operators to engage in training that requires a measure of stress. Then as they move to complete their tasks I instruct them to pay attention to engaging long, sustained, slow exhalation, while allowing their inhalation to regulate itself. So in other words, the conscious part of this exercise is to focus specifically on the exhalation.
Because we breathe automatically, a person does not have to spend too much of their cognitive budget to remind themselves to breathe. In short order, proper breathing becomes an easily accessible habit. But the outcome is profound. Overall it improves mission performance. And when it comes to being on the line, that matters.
This article was written by Dr. Rodney King PhD, MA, RSME, M.ISRM. Dr. King has taught personal threat management and peak mental performance to Special Operations units, law enforcement officers, and close protection teams all over the world. You can learn more about his work on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter.