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Ready, set, focus: Finding calm in a storm through the power of breathing

  • Published
  • Military Health System Communications Office
While circling over foreign seas in bad weather one night, Air Force Maj. William MacVittie and his co-pilot considered whether to return to base or continue on their mission. Fuel was dwindling and the chatter remained constant from the radio. MacVittie took deep breaths; the ability to focus helped him maintain control of the situation and make critical in-the-moment decisions, he said.

“By focusing on my breathing, clearing my mind on what I had coming up, and calming my heart rate in such a manner, I found I was able to move forward and be successful at whatever my task was,” said MacVittie, a former flight commander.

According to Harvard Medical School, stress response can suppress the immune system, and the buildup of stress can contribute to anxiety and depression. Air Force Lt. Col. Jannell MacAulay, director of human performance and leadership for the 58th Special Operations Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, said by taking controlled, deep breaths, people can lower their heart rate, retain focus, and alter their mindset.

“You can’t hyperventilate and take deep breaths at the same time,” said MacAulay, who holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology and a doctorate with work in the field of strategic health and human performance.

Stress is a perceived emotion and when people say they are ‘stressed,’ they’re often overwhelmed by their perceived circumstances, said MacAulay. In stressful situations, the body’s sympathetic nervous system response, also known as the fight-or-flight response, can be triggered. This response is intended to prepare the body for a dangerous or high-stress situation, but it can also happen in normal, less-monumental moments, like being stuck in traffic or studying for an exam.

Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing, allows the air coming in to fully fill the lungs, raising the lower belly. This exchange helps the body exchange oxygen, which slows the heartbeat and lowers blood pressure. Most people don’t use the full capability of their lungs, usually taking more shallow breaths, said MacAulay.

The ability to be present – and mindful – can alter a person’s mindset, level of focus, and ability to communicate, said MacAulay.

“Mindfulness is bringing an awareness to your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but not allowing them to distract you from the present moment,” said MacAulay, who recommends taking a minute to stop, take a deep breath, and be present for 10-12 minutes a day, whether it’s all at once or broken down in to 10 one-minute segments.

MacAulay was 13 years into her career, juggling growing responsibilities, success, and family, when she decided she needed a way to manage it all. Turning to yoga, she found an outlet to release stress and learned how to bring awareness to her breathing.

MacAulay started practicing meditation and taking deep breaths when she was in a stressful situation at work or at home, and it became a powerful force in her life. She started calling the moments of practice as “going to the cloud,” or pausing for a minute, taking deep breaths, and being present in the moment.

“I started implementing it into my own life and realizing how powerful it could be, so I wanted to share it,” said MacAulay, who was the 305th Operational Support Squadron commander at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey at the time. She taught her airmen how to be aware of their stress responses, as well the impact of those responses on decision making and communication. “It really changes the way you interact with others, the way you connect and the way you build teams.”

Over time, she taught them to ‘go to the cloud’ whenever they felt their stress responses gearing up. She also introduced the “mindful minute” into weekly staff meetings, flights, physical training sessions, and commander’s calls.

“I had learned the power of being still with your breath when I was young, but Colonel MacAulay brought the science to it,” said MacVittie. MacAulay also put a name to the practice and helped MacVittie refine it.

While there was some hesitation about the effects of deep breathing and ‘going to the cloud’ at first, the practice soon gained traction among others in the squadron, and results were visible, said MacVittie. Being centered and using controlled breathing helps people perform at a higher level, he added.

“We spend a lot of time training service members to perform in stressful fight-or-flight situations, which is controlled by our sympathetic nervous system,” said MacAulay, adding that people have everything they need within them to calm themselves and use their breath in a positive way.

“We also need to focus on the recovery interval, and teach our military how to practice their parasympathetic responses as well. We have the opportunity here in the Air Force to start this mental fitness trend to make the best and most effective warfighter.”