How Elite Firefighters Respond to Adversity
Jason Brezler, a FDNY rescue fireman assigned to a special operations company in Brooklyn, New York explains why it is important as a firefighter to have control over his breathing. “When responding to a fire there are only a few minutes from the time of the alarm in the firehouse to the time when the fire trucks arrive at the fire,” Jason said. “I have personally found it beneficial to work through a few breathing cycles while mentally rehearsing likely actions and visualizing the scenario. I think the value in breathing comes in controlling my heart rate. All of the science suggests that the ability to perform tactical tasks, whether they be searching, forcing a door, working off of a ladder, or even accurately communicating important information to others, are all contingent on arousal control and heart rate. The physical and mental demands involved when operating in an uncertain and dangerous environment naturally push a firefighter to a level of arousal that can be counterproductive to their mission. When you enter a smoke-filled home with limited to zero visibility its imperative you enter with a plan. It’s inevitable that your heart rate and respiratory rate are elevated. This is due to both the physical demands and the anxiety of operating in an environment where there is uncertainty.”
By regulating your breathing, you help to slow down biological alarm or sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight), it also aids in the process of managing your stress so you can make calm decisions and react in the best way possible, when there is a lot at stake. Lastly, breath regulation can be a part of a powerful routine to get mind and body in the most adaptive state in order to perform at your best in any situation.
How do I regulate my breathing? Ideally you want to reach a point where you take approximately six full breaths per minute. Although it is nearly impossible to time six breaths perfectly, this goal can be achieved by counting the number of seconds for each inhalation and exhalation. Begin by trying to regulate you breath into 9-10 second cycles: 4 seconds for inhalation and 4 seconds for exhalation followed by a 1-2 second pause. While breathing in, in your mind count, “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand.” On exhalation do the same thing counting, “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand, four-one-thousand.” Then pause for one or two seconds and start the process all over again. Make sure you are taking “belly breaths” also know as diaphragmatic breathing. Bring breaths in by inflating your diaphragm, the muscle below your rib cage; it will look as if you are filling up a balloon in your stomach. Then push your breath out by deflating the balloon, or sucking in your abdomen. If this is difficult, it is fine to just focus on timing your breaths and leave off the diaphragmatic breathing component.
Jason adds, “Additionally some senses that we humans are heavily reliant on, like vision, are frequently diminished. Without mental skills like managing stress through breathing, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Without a strong mental foundation, your fitness and your tactical and technical acumen or skill set is going to be of much less value. You’re going to have to maintain that state of mental fitness in order to apply your physical skills to prevent a negative outcome.”
Regulating your breathing can help when you are on your way to a rescue mission, breaking down a door, but it can also help you in every aspect of your life, be it a meeting, presentation, a disagreement, or having patience with a young child. The better you are at regulating your mental state and balancing yourself under stress, the more success and enjoyment you will derive from any situation.