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Pace your breathing to perform under stress

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Filed under: Breathing, Mind, Mood
Want to perform well under stress? Don’t just take a deep breath…take some long exhales. Learn more about paced breathing and get some resources to hone the skill.

In stressful situations, people often say, “Take a deep breath!” But perhaps they should be saying, “Take a long exhale!”

When your breathing is rhythmic, and your exhales are longer than your inhales, your heart rate will tend to follow: As you inhale, your heart rate increases, and as you exhale, your heart rate slows down. This more variable heart rate is associated with fewer physical and psychological problems over the long run, and lower stress and better situational awareness during the short-run. Better situational awareness means being aware of your changing environment, while also tuning into whatever is most important right here and right now. When you hold your breath or take short, shallow breaths, your heart rate varies less—which is a sign of stress. When you’re under stress, your attention can get stuck on a perceived threat. Instead, you need to allow your attention to shift from a broad focus (such as a landscape), to a narrow focus (such as the origin of a weapon firing), and back to a broad focus (such as the whole landscape, where there may be additional threats). Paced breathing can help you do this.

Optimal breathing rates vary slightly from person to person, but about six breaths per minute (with four-second inhales and six-second exhales) tends to be in the ballpark for most people to experience some benefits.

To learn to breathe at this rate, get some audiovisual guidance with the Breath2Relax app, or simply listen to the tutorial and guided breathing music provided by HPRC. 

Switch up your heart rate a bit: Heart Rate Variability 101

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Your heart rate is (hopefully!) not steady; it should vary. The more it does so—rhythmically—the better for health and performance. And you have the power to influence it.

“Heart rate variability,” a way to track how your heart rate rhythmically goes up and down, helps you objectively assess your mind-body optimization. When your heart rate varies more, it’s good for your health and performance. Breathing at certain paces has a big impact on heart rate variability and—in turn—the mind-body connection and performance. And because you can learn to control your breathing, you can also improve your HRV. For more information about HRV and breathing to increase your HRV, read HPRC’s “Vary Your Heart Rate to Perform Your Best.”

Deep Breathing Instruction Card

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Learn how to use deep breathing for relaxation through HPRC’s downloadable instruction card.

You may have heard how deep breathing can help you relax and focus, but have you tried it yet? It’s a great strategy for helping your mind and body relax, but maybe you don’t know how to do it. You can learn how—and keep reminders handy—with this downloadable card that HPRC created recently for the Strong B.A.N.D.S. campaign. Try it out.

Meditation strategies to manage pain

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Tap the power of your mind—manage pain through the practice of meditation.

Pain is a sensation of both the body and the mind—and it’s within your power to use strategies such as meditation to control the mental aspect to decrease the physical sensation of pain. Meditation can teach you to have a focused, calm mind, and rhythmic breathing. It may sound easy, but it requires practice. The payoffs can be improved well-being, reduced pain, and relaxation. Want to know more? Check out HPRC’s new Pain Management section, where you can find strategies such as meditation that you can use on your own or with the help of a healthcare provider.

Take a deep breath and relax

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
All the added stresses of military life can leave your body’s muscles tight and sore. Deep breathing exercises can help release that excess physical tension.

Have you breathed deeply lately? Breathing’s not something we usually have to think about, so we tend to take it for granted. But our breath can be a powerful tool for relaxation and stress relief. Taking time every day to focus on deliberate breathing—that is, breathing deeply and with control—can allow your body’s relaxation response to kick in and help you de-stress.

Slow-paced and deep-breathing exercises have been widely studied for their relaxing effects on the body’s stress response system. There are several types of deep-breathing exercises you can perform, but one of the easiest and most common is just called “deep breathing” (or “diaphragmatic breathing”). HPRC has a video on Breathing Exercises for Optimized Performance that introduces three breathing strategies for human performance optimization: “Deep Breathing,” “Alternate Nostril Breathing,” and “Fast-Paced Breathing.” A longer version is available for you to practice along with the instructor, or you can download a Performance Strategies transcript that takes you through these breathing exercises step-by-step to achieve relaxation.

For more ideas on relaxation strategies, check out the Stress Control resources in HPRC’s Mind Tactics domain.

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