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article / April 27, 2023

Tactical Breathing Strategies for First Responders

Axon Aid’s tactical breathing is a stress management technique for boosting performance when it matters most.

Last updated: 4/27/2023

Has anyone ever told you to “just breathe” when you were stressed? As hard as it might be to follow this advice in the moment, it might also be the best thing you can do. Changing your breathing pattern can significantly impact your ability to think and act effectively in trying situations, which is why police officers, military personnel and emergency medical staff all use a technique known as “tactical breathing'” to improve their performance under pressure.

Keep reading to learn how to use this proven tactic to enhance your ability to deal with stress.

What is tactical breathing?

Tactical breathing — also known as “box breathing” — is a technique that uses structured and paced inhales, exhales and pauses to improve an individual's stress response. Ahead of, during and after stressful situations, the body can engage the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — also known as the “fight or flight” response — which speeds up breathing, dilates pupils, tenses muscles and flushes the skin. SNS activation can be overwhelming, and in a first responder situation, this activation can undermine your ability to respond or help in a high-stress situation. Tactical breathing keeps an individual's breathing pattern from accelerating, slowing the SNS response and helping public safety professionals effectively navigate crises.

What are the benefits of tactical breathing?

Research on the effects of tactical breathing is still in its infancy, however early results indicate that tactical breathing has numerous benefits, including reduced physical response and improved performance.

  • Reduced physical response: Tactical breathing counters the body’s desire to accelerate physiological arousal in emergencies. Recent research indicates that tactical breathing mitigated stress responses in study participants more effectively than similar breathing exercises1.

  • Improved performance: Tactical breathing has been shown to enhance task execution during stressful situations. A 2016 study found that participants who use the technique had a 15% higher success rate2 performing life-saving procedures under pressure than those who did not.

  • Enhanced state of mind: Tactical breathing can help curb the physiological precursors to anxiety, negative emotions and intrusive thoughts. This results in a quieter headspace and enhanced overall mental health.

  • Enables decompression: High-stakes scenarios can be extremely taxing on the nervous system, and can drain emotional energy. Tactical breathing provides a controlled outlet for stored tension.

Who should use tactical breathing?

People in all professions can use tactical breathing, and this technique is especially helpful for those in high-stress jobs. For first responders and military personnel, tactical breathing is a useful technique for maintaining decision-making abilities during emergencies. EMTs can use the technique to steady their nerves en route to the scene of an accident. Dispatch employees can use it in between calls. Police officers can use it to return to baseline after responding to a civilian in crisis.

While tactical breathing can help people prepare for, deal with and bounce back from stressful situations, it’s also useful as a daily practice. In fact, individuals who perform tactical breathing routines for 10 or 20 minutes a day may adopt the breathing pattern as an unconscious preference. This practice could result in improved cognitive and physiological performance throughout the day.

What are the steps to execute tactical breathing effectively?

Tactical breathing is easy to learn and integrate into daily life. There are 5 simple steps for performing this stress management technique:

  1. Controlled exhale. Put your right hand on your stomach and push the air out of your chest through your nostrils. This process should take you to the count of four.

  2. Hold. Once your lungs are empty, wait for another count of four. Do your best to relax and concentrate on the sensations in your empty lungs or the rest of your body.

  3. Controlled inhale. Starting at the base of your stomach and moving up your chest, breathe in through your nose. Like the other two steps, this phase should take a full four seconds. Don’t rush it. The point is to keep the airflow as smooth and consistent as possible.

  4. Hold. It should be easier to hold for a count of four with air in your lungs versus empty, so staying relaxed during step four should be easier too.

  5. Repeat. It’s usually good to perform this breathing pattern for about five minutes, but you can extend it if you have the time3.

Get the support you need

From walking into burning buildings to administering life-saving medications, first responders show up to offer aid during some of life’s most difficult moments. But these front-line personnel — as brave and capable as they are — also need our support.

Axon has the utmost respect for those who respond to the call to service, and is dedicated to being a partner to all first responders. That’s why we created Axon Aid, the philanthropic arm of Axon dedicated to supporting first responders, their families, and agencies through no-cost resources. Interested? Contact our team today.

  1. Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response, Harvard Health Publishing

  2. The Effectiveness of Combat Tactical Breathing as Compared with Prolonged Exhalation,

  3. 296 Implementation of Tactical Breathing During Simulated Stressful Situations and Effects on Clinical Performance, Annals of Emergency Medicine