The Mindful Officer: Conscious Breathing for First Responders

August 31, 2016

Those who are passionate about mindfulness often get asked the question, “What is so important about breathing consciously?” Kind of a silly question, but I have always been of the “there-are-no-silly-questions” mindset. Anything living must breathe, right? So let us look closely at that life sustaining activity.

How many breaths do you take each day? You’ve probably have never considered it. That would be first thing to note. Breathing is one of those things that we feel we do consciously, but at the same time, subconsciously, it is done to us. I mean, try it: Try not to breathe. If you’re fit, you can hold your breath for a few minutes at best.

I would think a lot of us would not be around today if it was left up to us to remember to breath. It’s also the first thing we do when leaving the mother’s womb. Most folks, depending on age and health, take anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 breaths daily. Not many of those are taken consciously (and many while sleeping).

Sticking to basics, the in breath oxygenates our body through via the blood and lungs.  The outbreath removes poisonous CO2 from our bodies. How’s that for basics? If we fail to breathe in (and out), then comes brain damage, suffocation, and death.

Now, let’s look at the two different kinds of breathing we do (mostly unconsciously) and how it effects your body and performance.

Shallow breathing or chest breathing: We have all done this, and most often see it in the field when folks are excited or frantic. We may remember this type of breathing from when we were kids and crying uncontrollably. As a child, when really upset, you heard mom or dad say, “Slow down, take a deep breath.” The main bodily movement is up high in the chest. The breathing is shallow, and short fast gasps for air can easily be recognized.

People prone to hyperventilation are chest breathing. When we are exerting ourselves physically, during sports, for example, we chest breathe. As a child I had severe asthma and allergies, and eventually needed to learn deep breathing techniques in order to stay conscious on the ride to the ER.

Regardless of WHAT or WHY this type of breathing pattern is occurring, chest breathing elicits a physiological response, which is commonly known as “fight-or-flight” mode. We get a dump of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and after just 2 – 4 days of this “normal” physiological reaction we can have major problems.

For us cops and first responders, this goes on at least five or more days a week. It creates the many of the current health issues we face, adversely effecting everything from sleep, to our immune systems. The body basically turns on itself in a defensive measure to what it perceives as inflammation, injury, and/or sickness. Fight-or-flight response also increases our cravings for foods high in fat and sugar.

The good news? There’s a simple prescription for improving the unhealthy effects of this type of shallow, chest breathing.

Conscious deep breathing (or belly breathing): We mentioned how shallow chest breathing often accompanies athletic activity in sports and any strenuous activity or excitement.  If you played sports or ran track, do you remember the go-to posture after a sprint or play? That’s right: Hands above or behind the head, with elbows out to side. This posture is what induces natural deep breathing or belly breathing. It is also referred to as “diaphragmatic” breathing (relating to diaphragm).

While seated clasp your hands behind you back and notice that you will begin breathing from abdomen. Remember this that is only take around three conscious belly breaths to drop your respiration rate, pulse rate, and even your blood pressure. This also helps remove toxic CO2 and lactate from the blood system.

In less than 20 seconds deep conscious breathing will release serotonin (the feel-good stuff) into the blood stream, and commence generation of alpha brain waves. Alpha brain waves are associated with sports term of being in “the zone,” as well as a “second-wind.” They generally produces a notable sense of calm and clarity in thought. Part of this calm feeling is created from the belly moving and pushing against the vagus nerve (nerve bundle which runs down the spine).  Most of only know the vagus nerve from PPCT instruction in the academy.

Are you a chest breather? Don’t worry because we are all naturally belly breathers. Watch a baby breathe and notice his belly rise and fall. Yours does too while you sleep. As cops we should have no issues watching our respective bellies (usually there’s no shortage of buddies willing to point them out to us). Practice conscious deep belly breathing just a few minutes at a time.  With each day improve your health, and ability to respond, serve, and make decisions.

Also note that we often hold our breath during tense, anxious, or angry moments. Try to notice when you do this: it might surprise you. We unwittingly practice holding our breath like this unconsciously several times each day. Try to breathe consciously each time you notice.


As cops we are—we should be—attentive to training our physical fitness and muscle strength. In my opinion, it’s equally important to make an effort to train or practice your conscious breathing to supplement those efforts.

In many aspects of life, holding almost anything too long or too tight usually brings pain and suffering as the result.  Breathing is nature’s way of teaching us to constantly let go moment after moment. The Sanskrit word for nirvana means “to breathe out,” “let go.”

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