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Slow breathing patterns, like the Tactical, 4-7-8, or Box technique, have been shown to increase higher-brain function and cognitive performance. This is likely due to increased blood flow and oxygenation of the brain that accompanies slower breathing techniques.
When we’re breathing rapidly and not exhaling fully, our body is in a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state. Rapid breathing increases blood oxygen levels, which leads to the release of cortisol, a stress hormone. Higher levels of stress mean a greater likelihood of feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and exhausted. Tactical breathing takes you out of fight-or-flight mode and puts you in rest-and-digest mode.
Mentally counting each portion of the breath can help cultivate a sense of mindfulness and perspective. There’s a reason this technique is used by Navy Seals in high-stakes situations.
In high-stress situations, we tend to build up a lot of stress in the body. Our shoulders become tense, our eyes become strained, and our fists become clenched. The exhale naturally triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, our body’s rest-and-digest mode. Use each exhale as a way to soften the eyes, relax the shoulders, or release the fingers.
Nose breathing is better breathing. When we breathe through our nose, not only do we get up to 20% greater efficiency, but we also produce a compound called nitric oxide, which acts as a vasodilator and helps prepare air to enter the lungs. This helps keep our respiratory system happy and healthy.
Chest breathing is an emergency response, triggering our body’s fight-or-flight mode. Conversely, breathing out of the belly (diaphragm) stimulates the vagus nerve & activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, our rest-and-digest mode. It’s also considerably more efficient than chest breathing. Place one hand on your chest while you breathe and one hand on your stomach for a simple reminder to breathe out of your belly.
On each inhale, breath-hold, and exhale, mentally count from 1 to 4. This can help ground you and provide a sense of calming focus to the exercise.
Navy Seals have used Tactical and Box breathing since at least the 1980s as a simple way to stay alert and focused. Both patterns are versatile and easy to use in intense situations. First responders, professional athletes, and world-class performers also use these techniques to prepare before performances or emergencies.