Be Calm and Breathe

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

-Frank Herbert, Dune 

(It’s a work of fiction, I know, but this mantra has stuck with me since I read it in my youth, so here it is.)

Last week we started our discussion of the “ABC’s of Self Defense” in which we talked about Awareness. Awareness, of course, is the tool we use to avoid danger, minimize the risk of encountering it, or enable ourselves to see it coming when unavoidable. This week we’re going to begin looking at strategies for dealing with the complexities of confrontation.

Fear is a natural reaction to any given set of stimuli perceived as dangerous or potentially so. We’ve all experienced it to one degree or another; standing on the edge of a high precipice, being in an automobile accident, preparing to ride a roller-coaster, or the seemingly universal fear of speaking in front of a large number of our peers. Don’t feel bad. The increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shaky hands, and pit in your stomach are all results of your autonomic nervous system doing it’s job.

Fear is a healthy tool for survival. It reminds us to avoid danger, or to proceed with caution when in doubt. It can stimulate us to action in order to protect ourselves; whether to fight or to flee. The adrenaline leads to an increased heart-rate, and heavier breathing, making us stronger and faster. It focuses our vision and hearing, blocking out extraneous distractions. Fear can also render us incapable of rational thought, intelligible communication, or fine-motor skills. It can distort our vision and our erase our memory.  It can incapacitate us, leaving us frozen in our tracks, unable to decide what to do or which way to go. Therefore it is vital we learn to control our fear, and make it work for us, as it should. The key to this control lies in something as simple as our breathing.

Tactical breathing, or combat breathing, refers to a technique used in the military and law-enforcement to reign in our fear, so to speak. It is not unique to these agencies, however, as it is also taught in martial arts, yoga, and even the Lamaze technique. It is a way we can moderate our autonomic nervous system’s response, keeping it in a range that benefits us the most for the circumstances at hand. By controlling our respiratory response, we can stay “in the zone” of optimal performance.

As with all self-defense skills, this is one we should practice at every opportunity, in order to assure we have access to it under the most dire of circumstances. When you feel yourself getting “stressed out” before an exam – breathe. When you sense your anger rising during a discussion/argument – breathe. When you’re warming up before a competition – breathe. When you’re fixing your belt between rounds in a jiu-jitsu class – breathe

While breathing itself isn’t rocket science, here’s a basic method for reigning in your autonomic nervous system, and thereby your fear. As you practice and develop this skill, you’ll find a count that works best for you. In the meantime, just remember “4 X 4:

  1. Inhale for a count of four.
  2. Hold it for a count of four.
  3. Exhale for a count of four.
  4. Hold it for a count of four.

Repeat four times.

See you on the mat!

(**For a more thorough understanding of stress in combat, check out Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s On Combat. Every serious martial artist should put this book on top of their must-read list.)

 

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