Breathing To Control Stress

Image by Stock Unlimited

Image by Stock Unlimited

Breathing To Control Stress

In this video blog post, I’m going to be talking about how to use breathing to control stress. Now, this is something I’ve been aware of for quite a number of years, as it is an essential part of the martial art which I train in, Systema. Indeed, it is listed as being one of the 4 pillars of Systema-  the others being relaxation, posture and movement – and actually, Systema is not unique in this respect as breathing is also an important element in a lot of other martial arts as well, as well as many closely-related Eastern philosophies. However, in Systema breathing does very much take a central place. Therefore, as a result of having trained in this style, I have been able to use breathing as an effective means to control stress, especially during potentially combative situations.

And it certainly seems to work. However, I’ve always wondered why. And the answer is actually quite simple. Understanding how breathing can assist in managing the ‘fight-or-flight’ response (as it’s known) is actually extremely useful when teaching people personal safety, self-defence, physical intervention and de-escalation skills. Indeed, it’s one thing that I’ve often found when participating in or delivering conflict management or personal safety training, that it’s stated that in order to deal with a situation you should try and remain as calm as possible. Which is true. And there are people who can remain calm in conflict or confrontational situations. However, there are also a lot of people who can’t. However, it always irritates me when trainers tell people that they must try and remain calm, but don’t tell their participants how they can actually stay calm (or – even better – train themselves to stay calm.)

Well, in this video, I’m going to tell you why breathing can help to control ‘fight-or-flight’ and also about a great app that you can use to help you train to do so.

To watch the video on YouTube, click here.

How does breathing control stress?

Okay, so let’s have a look at controlling the ‘fight-or-flight’ response through Breathing. Now, this actually comes from the leading researchers and authorities in the field, such as Lt Col David Grossman, Bruce Siddle, Calibre Press and Gary Klugiewicz and has been used in personal safety training for quite a considerable amount of time (including martial arts, as mentioned before.)

But first of all, we need to ask ourselves what stress or – more specifically ‘fight-or-flight’ – actually is?

Stress is the primal response triggered by the part of the brain known as the amygdala when faced with a threat. When stress is triggered, the body releases hormones known as adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones cause the heart rate and breathing to increase in order to pump more blood and oxygen to the body – either to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. Also, blood starts to clot and muscles tense, saliva dries up etc.

In order to understand how the amygdala controls the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, we need to understand briefly how it relates to the nervous system. Basically, we have two nervous systems:

  • The Somatic Nervous System (which is for conscious control, and which we can control by conscious thought – such as picking something up such as a knife and fork.)
  • And the Autonomic Nervous System (for unconscious control, which controls autonomic responses such as involuntary breathing, sleeping, ‘fight-or-flight etc.)
  • The Autonomic includes the following:
  • Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS.)
  • And the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS.)

The SNS is basically the system that activates when we encounter a threat and which therefore leads to arousal through the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. When this is activated, the heart rate increases and more energy becomes consumed.

At this point, physiological changes take place, such as blood being pumped faster around the body to resupply oxygen, muscles tensing for fighting or running and digestion ceasing to function. Also, hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are also release to aid this process. (There are number of other associated changes that occur, but we’ll leave that for future videos.)

Conversely, the PSNS kicks in when we need to relax, especially after increased energy expenditure. This is effectively the body going through a process of rest and recuperation, when it needs to restore its energy levels. This is when natural bodily functions such as digestion and restful sleep occur.

The natural balance between these two interdependent systems is known to biologists, physiologists and psychologists as ‘homeostasis. This state occurs at certain times during the day, for instance when you wake up in the morning. However, a massive and spontaneous increase in SNS activation can cause a major activation of the PSNS following ‘fight-or-flight’.

What can often happen after the move from the SNS to PSNS is that any adrenaline that is not used-up during ‘fight-or-flight’ is retained in the body, and this can effectively lead you to still feeling ‘wound-up’ – and this will affect your ability to sleep.

So, the body’s stress response known as ‘fight or flight’ – and governed by the amygdala via the SNS- allows it to take action in order to defend, fight or run.

And this is generally a good thing when faced with a significant threat.

However, if stress levels rise too far then cognitive and many physical skills can decline and ‘burn out’ (again, this is something we’ll cover in a later video.) Also, there are times when using the ‘fight-or-flight’ response might not be appropriate – such as, for instance, when we should really be using de-escalation to calm a situation. Instead, FFF can make it worse and this is why, as a response, it is a little out-dated in the modern environment (after all, its original purpose was really to save us from being eaten!)

This is potentially dangerous and could lead to severe injury or death. Or – on the flip side, assuming we survive the incident – it could lead to moral and even legal repercussions afterwards.

Therefore, in summation, an inability to manage the ‘fight-or-flight’ response could potentially lead to a fatality.

Now, it’s impossible to completely control your heart rate in high-stress incidents and therefore reverse the activation of SNS.

However, it is possible to manage it in advance by through ‘stress inoculation’ (for instance, through conditioning) and this can allow optimal performance for as long as possible (again, that’s something I’ll be talking about in future videos.)

The other method is through breathing, which allows the somatic nervous system to control the autonomic nervous system. In other words, by actually consciously controlling our breathing, we can bring the autonomic nervous system under control – as we don’t just breathe involuntarily, but we can also breathe according to conscious command.

This is where the process known as tactical breathing, as taught extensively by David Grossman and others, comes in – and I’ll just briefly outline how this works as follows:

  1. First, you inhale with a deep breath slowly for four seconds
  2. You then hold your breath for four seconds
  3. This is followed by completely exhaling your breath slowly four seconds
  4. Finally, you hold your empty breath for four seconds
  5. Continue repeating until breathing and heart rate are under control.

Now, you actually have to be quite disciplined to use this under stress, especially if there is full on arousal. However, in this respect, it is good to practice it in advance by building up neural pathways so that recalling it under stress becomes automatic or second-nature. You can do this by repetition, in other words practicing it over and over again.

(And the best way that I could recommend doing this is to download a free app called ‘Tactical Breather’ to your smart phone. I’d strongly recommend using this and I use it myself as I believe it’s the best way of learning and practicing this technique. This can be downloaded from Android here and iTunes here.)

So, the great thing about tactical breathing (and using the App which I’ve recommended to practice with) is that you use this in any instance where stress is encountered (indeed, it is similar to many techniques taught by psychologists and psychiatrists to their clients.) The benefits of using breathing to control the SNS are demonstrated not just in terms of lowering the heart rate but also in reversing the other physiological changes that take place. This includes relaxing the muscle tension that takes place when the SNS is activated and it’s for this reason that breathing is used so extensively in Systema, in order to expunge tension from the body whilst working so that movement is more fluid and relaxed. The benefits of this are that not only does it increase the practitioner’s chances of survival in a real combat situation, but it also reduces the chances of injury occurring during training.

Now, interestingly, Vladimir Vasiliev – the Chief Instructor for Systema- has just produced a new DVD and digital download called ‘Breathing and Fear’ which is about this very subject and which is worth checking out. So, if you want to obtain a copy for yourself, check out the link to the RMA website here.

If you have any questions about this video, or any of the subjects covered in the other videos here, then you’re very welcome to contact me on and I’ll try and answer them as best as I can.

Thank you very much for listening – and I’ll see you in the next video!

References and Links:

If you’d like to find out more about combat psychology and how to manage stress during confrontations, then I would strongly recommend checking out these two books by the authors mentioned above (and which can be purchased on Amazon):

‘On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace’ by Lt Col David Grossman, Warrior Science Publication 2008

‘Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge: The Psychology and Science of Training’ by Bruce Siddle, Atlantic Books 1995

To download the Tactical Breather app from Android, click here:

To download the Tactical Breather app from iTunes, click here:

To purchase the ‘Breathing and Fear’ download from RMA, click here:

Please note: sometimes uses affiliate links. This means that if you decide to purchase something featured here (in this case, Amazon), I receive a sales commission. However, that does not mean my views/opinions are for sale. The items featured on this site are things I have used, reviewed or found highly useful in the past. But DO NOT take my word for it – make sure you do your own research online before buying anything.

Posted in Conflict Management, Personal Safety, Physical Intervention, Physical Skills, Self-Defence, Stress Control, Training Tagged with: , ,

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