Master the 16-Second Survival Breath

When I think about it, I still get a queasy feeling in my stomach.  It was a sunny day in Baltimore, and I was returning home from a business trip.  I had passed through security with flying colors, of course, and was browsing the selection of breakfast sandwiches at a kiosk when I heard the unfamiliar and sudden sound of blaring sirens.  In less than a moment, a dozen or more security personnel appeared out of nowhere, jumping up from cafe tables, riding into view on Segways, all of them racing toward the security checkpoint.  At the same time they were yelling, “Everybody freeze!  Stop where you are.”

In a matter of minutes, every single passenger in the terminal, including me, had been herded into a large group.  None of us knew what was going on, and my winter coat, purse, and carry-on bag were becoming heavier by the minute.  Some of my fellow passengers looked panicked, a few kids were crying, and I knew that memories of 9-11 were passing through more than just a few minds.

While I stood waiting, I felt myself becoming more and more tense.  No information was given to us, other than being told to stand here, stay there, now go outside and wait.  By happenchance, I had been reading Amanda Ripley’s book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why. I remembered her description of, what I call, survival breathing.  It’s a simple technique that forces you to concentrate on your breathing while allowing your body to remain calm.  In an emergency, the worst response is panic, yet it’s also the most natural.

Here are the simple directions for this breathing technique.

  1. Take four seconds, 1, 2, 3, 4, to inhale, taking a slow, deep breath.
  2. Hold that breath for four seconds, 1, 2, 3, 4.
  3. Exhale to the count of four, 1, 2, 3, 4.
  4. Relax for four seconds before taking the next breath.

This technique helped me remain calm even though the sirens and alarms continued to blare and others around me reacted with confusion, irritation, and fear.

In survival situations and emergencies, our bodies usually react in a way that is exactly opposite of how we want to react and know we need to react!   It’s easy to say that training is the answer, but how does one train to be prepared for a home invasion, a rollover accident, or a terrorist attack?  Practicing and remembering just this simple breathing technique may be what helps you make rational and smart decisions while everyone else around you is losing it.

This is simple enough that your kids and grandkids can easily learn it. My daughter forced herself from a near state of pre-SAT test panic into being able to calm down enough to take the test, just by focusing on the 16-second breathing technique. My son has used it before going up to bat during a baseball game, and I’ve used it during times of extreme stress when I desperately needed to focus and use my wits.

In a survival situation, this technique will go a long way toward helping you observe, orient yourself to the new reality, and then proceed with logical decisions.

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