While the benefits of controlled breathing have been talked about for over two decades in law enforcement training, we rarely go beyond talking about it and maybe practicing it a few times in a classroom. The most common breathing pattern taught has been box breathing where you inhale for the count of 4, hold the breath for 4, exhale for 4, hold for 4 and repeat. The research now shows that the cyclic sigh (also known as a physiological sigh) is a more effective breathing pattern than box breathing.
Melis Yilmaz Balban PhD is a Harvard trained neuroscientist with expertise in the neurobiology of the fight or flight system. She is also the CEO and Co-Founder of Neurosmart, where they are developing a wearable system for enhancing cognitive performance for first responders, military members, and athletic teams. I have had the pleasure of doing two interviews with Melis for The Excellence in Training Academy to discuss the applications of her work for law enforcement training. Melis is the lead author for a paper that was published with a number of her colleagues from Stanford in Cell Reports Medicine in January, 2023 titled Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. This study showed the psychophysiological effectiveness of cyclic sighs and found it to be more effective than box breathing, which has traditionally been taught in law enforcement training. If you are a follower of Andrew Huberman PhD, you will know that he has been advocating for the use of the physiological sigh for a number of years. The work of Yilmaz Balban et al. now provides evidence for how effective that breathing pattern is.
In the above-mentioned paper Cyclic Sighing is described as: Participants were informed they should sit down in a chair or, if they prefer, to lie down, and to set a timer for 5 min. Then they were told to inhale slowly, and that once their lungs were expanded, to inhale again once more to maximally fill their lungs — even if the second inhale was shorter in duration and smaller in volume than the first, and then to slowly and fully exhale all their breath. They were told to repeat this pattern of breathing for 5 min. They were also informed that ideally, both inhales would be performed via their nose and the exhale would be performed via their mouth, but that if they preferred, they were welcome to do the breathing entirely through their nose. They were also informed that it is normal for the second inhale to be briefer than the first.
While the study had participants do 5 minutes of the breathing interventions, even two or three cycles of these cyclic sighs will have a beneficial effect on the way to a call or at a call. This type of breathing is the easiest way to counter the physiological effects of stress and help the officer get back down to a level of arousal where he or she can function more effectively. This is a simple and powerful tool for all law enforcement and public safety professionals. If you want to break it down to its simplest form, teach them to focus on inhaling through the nose and make the exhale longer than the inhale.
The question for you now is, “Are you actually teaching breathing, or are you just talking about it?”
By teaching I do not mean explaining a breathing pattern (ideally the cyclic sigh), and its benefits, and then having people practice it a few times in class. That is a great place to start, but you are simply exposing them to the technique, not teaching it. If you are going to teach it you need to weave it into every element of training and anchor it to predictable times, events, and actions to make it a habitual response.
How do you weave it into recruit training and engrain it as a habitual behaviour? Here are some ideas:
- The first week of training take the recruits out to a patrol car and show them where the emergency equipment controls are. Allow them to sit in actual patrol vehicles and practice reaching over and turning on the overhead lights and siren from both the driver and passenger seats. Let them experience what a siren sounds like from inside the vehicle. If the size of your recruit classes makes this logistically impossible then at least show them a video of the inside of a patrol vehicle, where the emergency equipment controls are and someone activating them from both the driver’s seat and the passenger seat. After watching the video have them go through imagery where they imagine activating them in their mind.
- Take the recruits back in to the classroom and have them close their eyes and imagine they have just been dispatched to an emergency call. Have them imagine reaching down and activating the lights and siren. As soon as they reach to activate the emergency equipment have them start the breathing cycle. The instructor can activate an audio file with the sound of a siren as the recruits imagine activating the emergency equipment. Practice this a few times then move on with the next topic of instruction.
- Provide every trainer in the academy with an audio file of a siren. Have every instructor at least once a day take a couple of minutes during their instructional block and take the recruits through that same exercise where they imagine receiving an emergency call and reach down to activate the emergency equipment. Have the instructor activate the audio file with the sound of the siren as the recruits imagine activating it. Have the recruits focus on their breathing and notice the calming effect of the breathing as they safely, smoothly, and efficiently respond to the call. After 2 to 3 minutes the instructor can end the exercise and resume their block of instruction.
- On the range, firearms instructors need to ensure the recruits are practicing their breathing after every string of fire. They should start the breathing pattern before they start to scan and continue while they are scanning. While scanning make sure they are actively looking for threats and not just turning their heads.
- In Control Tactics (defensive tactics) have the recruits practice their breathing after they have been in a physical altercation and have establishing control of the subject. Have them breathe, then scan for other threats while continuing to breathe.
- As the training progresses you can add audio of dispatched calls to the practice in the classrooms. They can be calls of shots fired, an active killer, or an officer needs help. The instructor can stop their class and play the audio of the dispatched call. They have the officers start to breathe as they imagine reaching over and activating their emergency equipment. They notice how calm, focused, in control they are as they maintain awareness of vehicle and pedestrian traffic and radio communications. They are calm when they communicate on the radio, as well as with their partner in the car and they are formulating plans for getting to the call quickly and safely as well as possible actions at the call. Every instructor can do this once per day for about 3 to 5 minutes.
- During scenario training have the recruits breathe before they go into the scenario. Have them breathe as soon as it is over before you start the debrief.
- They can use the breathing during the scenario when they feel their level of arousal going up.
- During they EVOC training continually reinforce the importance of breathing and have them breathe prior to and during exercises.
- Have them breathe prior to interviewing victims, witnesses, and suspects.
- Have them breathe prior to and during CIT training when they are dealing with emotionally distraught people, suicidal people, people under the influence of drugs or alcohol and people with possible mental disorders.
- Have them breathe before written and practical exams.
- Encourage them to take 5 minutes when they get home at the end of a shift to sit in their vehicle and breathe as part of their transition ritual.
- Teach your FTOs / PTOs to continually communicate with the recruits during emergency response runs to “breathe” and after the call again tell them to “breathe”. They can model it while having the officer in training do it.
- Teach your incident commanders that when they hear in an officer’s voice that they are jacked up to tell the officer, “Take a breath and tell me ………..” “Now take another breath and tell me …….” You can build this into your pursuit training as well so when officers are calling in a pursuit, that is what they hear from the incident commander over the radio.
- Encourage all your people to commit 5 minutes every day to the practice of cyclic sighing to help build a strong foundation and reap the many positive benefits for every aspect of their life.
This will take a bit of work up front as well as require coordination, communication, and commitment from all the training staff. Breathing is not the domain of any one instructor, or group of instructors, it is the responsibility of all instructors. Once the up-front work is done it only takes a few minutes every day from each of the instructional staff to weave it into their block of instruction. For those who would argue that you cannot afford to take time out of your classes to do this, I would suggest that you can no longer afford not to make the time. You owe it to the people you have the honour and privilege of training to take 5 minutes out of your instructional day to teach officers this critical skill. It may save their career. It may save their life. It may save someone else’s life.
Note: I posted a version of this back in 2017. In that post I talked about box breathing. Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I have been talking about physiological sighs in my training for a number of years, but never updated this blog. Now, thanks to the work of Melis Yilmaz Balban and colleagues we know better, so it is time to do better.
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