You might do well as a prepper to learn (and learn well) the single most important skill that will keep you alive in a crisis. What is this unusually critical skill, this crucial, all-important element? Keeping your head.
You can call it “keeping your cool”, “staying frosty”, or just keeping calm and thinking clearly. No matter what label you put on it, the ability to think rationally and quickly in a crisis without being affected by the panic that is surely nibbling at your consciousness is invaluable.
Sure, it is true that some people are just born cool under fire, cold-blooded like snakes, but these people are comparatively few and far between. For most of us, we have to learn to stay cool.
That moving-too-fast, wheels-coming-off, oh-God-what-now feeling when something- BANG! – happens fast and the pressure gets cranked up is a combination of physical and mental stressors.
Both can be managed, but you might be surprised to learn that one can influence the other, and, in particular, physical stressors can start to insidiously corrode your mental state if you don’t stay on top of them.
Lucky for us, a big element that is easy to control and has a disproportionately positive impact on our mental state is our breathing.
It might sound silly, but breathing correctly in a high-pressure situation will significantly improve both your physical and mental performance under fire.
One of the best techniques in this category is called “box breathing”, and is used by all kinds of professionals who have no margin for error when the chips are down. It is simple, easy to learn and easy to put into practice until you make it a habit. In today’s article, we will teach you how.
Control Stress or It Will Control You
Not everyone deals with stress the same way. We might say that some people rise to the occasion, but they are really just falling back on their default level of training or habits, training in this case meaning their ingrained responses to stress positions.
Other people deal with stress by growing increasingly more stressed out until they eventually have a meltdown or just check out.
Abdicating your physical and mental position is indeed a response, though not a healthy or often successful one unless you are counting on someone else to save the day.
If you are one of the latter people, and typically deal with hair-raising situations by growing increasingly freaked out, or perhaps you just noticed yourself getting mentally overtaken by panic, anxiety or fear when the jets get turned on, you must start getting a handle on your responses!
It is easy to feel like this is just the way you are, the way you are wired or that you just can’t help the situation and have to deal with what comes as you are. This is just not true.
You can train yourself and practice to cope with stressful situations better. It is just another skill that, if you practice enough, will become a habit and then after it becomes a habit it will become an ingrained and default response, just like throwing a punch, shooting a gun or applying the correct medical intervention to an injury.
You might think it backward to approach controlling your mindset by controlling your body’s physical processes, but the process by which it works is well-known and scientifically proven, not some hippie, New Agey “woosah” technique.
Breathe to Live, Breathe to Survive
When your breathing is out of whack, especially when you are in a high-stress position, your mental state will degrade. If you are gulping air- hyperventilating- you are not using oxygen efficiently and as your body’s demand grows your sense of panic will increase.
Hyperventilation is also pretty good way to get lightheaded and even faint. The last thing you want to do in a serious emergency!
Holding your breath is just as bad. While, sometimes, an automatic response to danger or the fear of discovery, it definitely does not help you cope with stress.
Starving your body of oxygen will greatly increase a feeling of panic, a sense of overwhelming lack of control and reduced visual acuity on top of what is already occurring due to your body’s fight-or-flight response.
No matter which way you go on the road to bad breathing choices, the end result is degraded capability both mentally and physically. Your body will be using oxygen inefficiently or not getting enough, respectively, and your brain will be in full-tilt panic mode.
Your vision will be narrow and things will seem to happen entirely too fast to process. Not good. By not controlling your bodily reaction, you pave the way for your mental reaction to fall apart.
There is a way to counter both of these undesirable modes of breathing and you can do it consciously until you make it happen enough to do it unconsciously as a default response.
The technique is called “box breathing”, and it is a powerful stress relief technique that takes seconds to work!
Box breathing is a simple and easy to do performance respiratory technique that can give you a triple punch of mental and physical Improvement anytime, but especially when you are already in a high-stress situation, or immediately prior to heading into one.
Performing box breathing properly will significantly relieve stress, help you get a handle on your thoughts and improve your overall performance mentally and physically. It is science!
All kinds of professionals who must perform on demand, cold bore and with no mistakes, make use of box breathing.
Perhaps most famously used by United States and other nation’s Special Operations forces, box breathing is also used by elite athletes, trauma care nurses and doctors, police officers and even musicians who struggle to deal with stage fright.
Box breathing works by helping to throttle your body’s autonomic nervous system, the same system responsible primarily for triggering the fight-or-flight response.
The autonomic nervous system, or ANS, will cause all kinds of not-necessarily-helpful physiological reactions when triggered by stress, including:
- Accelerated heartbeat
- Increased respiration
- Constriction of blood vessels
- Attendant spike in blood pressure
- Dilation of the pupils
- Temporary loss of hearing (auditory exclusion)
In short, once your ANS activates the fight-or-flight response you will be a mess! Box breathing, even if done only for a cycle or two, helps combat the effects of stress response by doing the following:
- Slowing and normalizing respiratory rate.
- Slowing heartbeat
- Lowering blood pressure
- Reducing muscle tension
- Improving focus and mental clarity
Essentially, you will be more in control of both your body and your thoughts. This is too potent a technique to pass up! Let’s learn how to pull it off.
Box Breathing in Four Simple Steps
Box breathing could not be any simpler. While it will take work to master, practice is a cinch, and can be done anywhere, and also done discreetly and quietly.
No one around you needs know you are trying to perfect your breathing, and think you’re some kind of weirdo! It definitely will not feel natural at first, but keep after it!
Also, box breathing works best when you are otherwise completely relaxed, sitting up straight with proper posture and so on and so forth, yadda yadda yadda.
That’s fine if you are just trying to perfect your yogic mastery but you and I, reader, are far more practical people and need practical solutions; luckily, box breathing still works just fine no matter what your position is or your posture, and I will testify to that.
Step #1. – Let All Air Out of Your Lungs to a 4-Second Count
You should really focus on letting all the air out of your lungs during this step. Most people don’t even do this in the normal course of their day – we are under so much stress and so tense all the time!
We roll in a more or less perpetual state of holding our breath to a degree, and we have the stress levels to show for it.
When you are breathing out, time your exhalation so that you can imagine every last gram of air leaving your lungs, all the way down to the very bottom near your diaphragm as you complete your count.
It should not leave in a big huff or gust, and should not hiss out like a leaking balloon. It should sound, and feel, like a relaxed 4-second sigh.
Step #2. – Keep Lungs Empty for 4-Second Count
Only when the lungs are completely empty, should you begin your four second count for this step. It might not be as easy as you are imagining if you, like most people, have a faster than prescribed respiratory rate.
Most of us live lives of significant pressure, stress and rush, and have breathing rates to match. You should not feel like you are struggling for air during this time.
If you are, start over at a modest rate and try to time yourself so that your natural respiratory pause stretches to match this 4-second count.
Step #3. – Inhale, Filling the Lungs to a 4-Second Count
Time to gas up! Now you want to breathe in, focusing on stretching out the inhalation until your lungs are completely full, right to the very tip-top, with oxygen timed to complete with your 4-second count.
This is another part of the exercise in box breathing that you might find surprisingly challenging; most people are in such a hurry, especially when you are under severe stress, that you gulp down air like a fish out of water or a dog going at its water bowl.
Take your time, slow down (literally!) and draw those breaths in one, 4-second lungful at a time!
Step # 4. – Keep Lungs Full for a 4-Second Count
You could probably guess this step by now. Simply keep your lungs full and topped off for a complete 4-second count before beginning the process over again with step one.
That is a single cycle completed with box breathing! Keep going and you will feel a major improvement, I promise.
Much better! If it helps you visualize the technique and the process, imagine a square with a single step assigned to each corner, starting with the upper left corner and step number one.
With the completion of step number one, you move on, 4-seconds at a time to the next step. And around and around the square you go while completing this breathing exercise.
It is for this reason that box breathing is sometimes called “square breathing” or “four square” breathing.
Focused, Calm and Ready!
If you are thinking that you don’t have the 16 seconds that it takes to complete even a single round of box breathing right at the instance, you are perhaps right, but you don’t have to have 16 seconds to spare to benefit from it in an emergency situation.
If you make it a point to routinely utilize box breathing as your default mode of breathing you will sort of inoculate yourself against sudden increases in stress, allowing you to react more appropriately and under control to any rapid stressor.
Of course it goes without saying that if you suspect you are heading into a dangerous situation, or one where stress levels are about to skyrocket, you can preemptively kick in box breathing to give yourself a leg-up.
Box breathing is a dead-simple technique that has proven stress reduction effects no matter who you are, and no matter what you are doing.
With just a little bit of practice you can make box breathing habitual, and reap the benefits or you can use it as a deliberate stress mitigation technique when things start to get hairy.
Make sure you spend just a little bit of time practicing until it is second nature so you can always call upon it at a moment’s notice when you need to win the stress battle so you can win the physical battle.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.