Health & Wellness
Keep calm and carry on breathing
Mental training is as critical as physical training for law enforcement officer preparedness and hardihood. Not only does frontline law enforcement come with the obvious physical risks, it has also been referred to as the most dangerous job emotionally and psychologically.
By Isabelle Sauve
Similar to the human body, the mind can also be strengthened and sharpened with training. Indeed, a calm mind is at the heart of mental toughness and resilience. That being said, the practice of calming the mind can be a very difficult and daunting exercise as our minds are continuously processing thoughts or “self-talk.”
In addition, we are constantly bombarded by noise and flooded with external stimuli. With our brains on autopilot, we rarely spend time clearing the chatter and focusing on the basics, cerebrally speaking. Despite being a necessity of life, breathing is something we pay little attention to.
Relaxing the mind through a conscious breathing practice promotes a calmer, clearer and more objective interpretation of our surroundings. As a result, practitioners are more likely to opt for a calculated and controlled response to situations rather than mindlessly reacting or overreacting to events. Breathing exercises provide a safe outlet for repressed feelings such as anger, sadness and grief.
I know what you might be thinking — breathing exercises?! Isn’t that better suited for tree huggers, yogis or hippies? These exercises are actually being increasingly practiced worldwide. Even those at the top of their respective industries are jumping on the bandwagon.
Masters of the martial arts have long understood the importance of mental training and the connection between breathing and mental fortitude. Martial arts practitioners have even illustrated how mental training and breathing exercises allow them to unleash “super human” powers by breaking stacks of bricks and other remarkable performances.
Mental training is also fundamental to a holistic approach to wellness. These types of techniques have been used since the early 1970s to improve the athletic performance of professional athletes and as we know, many of the concepts utilized in sports conditioning and competition are directly transferrable to law enforcement.
Mentally tough officers will undoubtedly tend to cope with adversity and stressors in productive, healthy and adaptive ways. These positive habits are likely to have a reciprocal effect, further strengthening mental toughness.
Breathing exercises can assist law enforcement officers enhance their personal and professional relationships, gaining more satisfaction from their interactions with others. Overall effectiveness and efficiency on the job can also be improved. Specific skills (firearms proficiency, use of force application, vehicle operation, etc.) and those utilized in complex situations (immediate rapid deployment, warrant service, stealth clearing, etc.) can be sharpened. Tactical law enforcement experts indicate a calm mind is a precursor to a sound tactical performance.
While experiences vary, most newcomers to breathing practices claim a tremendous shift in their state of being. Conscious breathing signals the brain to alter the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. This shift lowers heart rate and controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Impressively, a mere five minutes of practice lowers cortisol levels by approximately 20 per cent on average.
There are numerous types of breathing techniques, which are easy to learn, readily implementable and can be practiced nearly anywhere.
Here is a simple one:
1. Find a relaxed, comfortable position, preferably seated rather than laying down.
2. Close your eyes. Allow yourself to feel some “heaviness” set in as you relax your muscles. Remember to especially relax your jaw and other facial muscles.
3. Feel the natural flow of your inhalations and exhalations. Turn your entire focus and attention to your breath.
4. Persist for 5 to 10 minutes. Wandering thoughts and distractions are normal. Gently redirect your attention right back to breathing.
5. Once the time is up, do a quick self-evaluation. Notice how you feel. Allow yourself to relax even more, if possible, for a minute or two before you finally open your eyes.
I encourage every law enforcement officer to spend a little more attention on his or her lungs. Give a breathing exercise a whole-hearted attempt for just one week at first and see how it goes.
Isabelle Sauve is a 10-year OPP veteran currently with the Emergency Response Team (ERT) at the Almaguin Highlands Detachment in Burks Falls, about 300 km north of Toronto. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.