The Mindful Officer: Take a Deep Breath …

Mindful breathing is tactical breathing; here's how to do it

By Shawn Perron  |   Feb 17, 2017

In last several articles we’ve learned about the myriad benefits of mindfulness techniques for any first responder (here, here, and here, for example). The foundational anchor for mindfulness is breathing. Even just a single breath can improve your situational awareness, lessen the impact of your body’s stress response, and provide an increased sense of calm.

So let’s put all that together in relationship to how this can effect our daily work, and life in general.
We are all in fact human (even us cops). And yet some of our customers often have expectations that we are superhuman. They seem to think that nothing effects us, that we don’t feel emotion, and that our personal lives are story-book perfect and would never bleed over into our “job.” While we give all we can to meet such expectations, each of us knows that our reality flies a little closer to the ground.
Sometimes we have days when we’re so exhausted it seems like every decision is like pulling a tooth. Maybe staff meetings and mandatory training burn up our daytime hours. Meanwhile, we’re pulling ten-hour tours at night. Then, when we finally punch out, we may have to coach our kids ball team or see the dentist. Sound familiar?

When we are exhausted mentally or physically there’s no doubt our level of performance is lowered, as is our ability to stay present (attentive). In these moments we even knowingly think to ourselves, “If I could just offload all those extras, I’d be good.” You know: everything we’ve been carrying left over from those meetings, assignments, training, and playbooks—get rid of it! You have probably said it to your kids or heard it from your parents and coworkers and even from yourself.

Take a Deep Breath

A single deep breath taken slowly can do several things. As mentioned above and in previous articles, deep breathing induces nearly instant effects. The physiological reaction is due to stimulation of the vagus nerve (you may recognize the vagus nerve from defense tactics/P3CT), which directly activates your parasympathetic nerves system. This will lower blood pressure, and heart rate, producing feelings of calm.

The psychological effect is a simple shift of focus to the act of breathing. It cuts through the anxiety and guilt and mental chatter that too often clouds our minds and brings us back into the present moment. It reconnects the mind and the body. The more deep breaths you practice, the longer you can hold your attention.

This is like a reset button or reboot. When we’re anxious we aren’t present, and our thoughts are on future events that have yet to happen (i.e., don’t exist). When we are feeling things like regret, guilt, or shame we are stuck in the past. When your target of attention is in the future or past, you are essentially “jammed” or “having a malfunction.” You are surely not on your front site or actively engaged with current target. Deep breathing will get you back to where you need to be. Whatever that task may be, you can get back to it with a deep breath.

In this line of work, you need to be able to calm yourself during the kind of storm that is preceded by four letters and beginning with ‘s’ (hint: not a snowstorm). Let’s call it a crisis situation.

Remember to remind others to take a deep breath too, if needed. If you see your rookie or FTO or another brother or sister going into the red, just calmly ask them to take a deep breath.

During calls for disturbances or situations in which such a suggestion would not be appreciated, offer a bottle of water or other drink. Anxiousness, nervousness, and fear lead to a dry mouth. You compassion will be appreciated. Not only that, but the act of drinking naturally causes a person to breath more deeply and slowly thus leading to greater sense of calm.
The simple practice of mindful breathing will improve your leadership skills (and not just as a training officer or supervisor). This works great for anyone interested in promotion or promotional exams. After just a few days of focused breathing, you might notice improvement in clarity and awareness. Over time you can create new and regular neuropathways (or connectivity), particularly in the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain includes the ability for executive control, attention, and other mental skills associated with emotional assessment.

One area we might be interested in would be self-assessment. We should be doing this regularly for safety and performance alone. Recognizing our unhealthy or self-defeating thought cycles should also be part of this self assessment. When we are practicing mindfulness through deep breathing we can better discern or separate reality from mental stories or mere thoughts. When we are extremely exhausted, or not at our “best game,” we may not notice the difference.

Using regular triggers can help us remember to take a few deep breaths. These triggers can be anything you wish: a iPhone reminder, stop lights, church bells, sirens, or crossing the threshold of the door at home. Any of these will work well for you when you need to reset or reboot.

One of the better times to experiment with mindful breathing is when you end your tour. As you cross the threshold of door at home, take a moment to take a deep breath and return to yourself. Your presence (full attention and awareness) when returning home from work is most loving gift we can offer our families, thus shifting of gears from “superhuman” cop to just super, human.

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Shawn Perron

Shawn Perron

Sgt. Shawn Perron has worked as a police officer in Texas for 22 years. He regularly attends mindfulness retreats and has studied meditation and eastern philosophy at many Zen Centers throughout the U.S. Sgt. Perron writes in his spare time and voluntarily teaches basic mindfulness techniques.