The 16-Second Survival Breath

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Image: man sitting on mountain, man and sunsetWhen I think about it, I still get a queasy feeling in my stomach from a scenario several years ago when I was forced to put into practice survival breathing.

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, 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 tenser and tenser. No information was given to us, other than being told to stand here, stay there, now go outside and wait.

Coincidentally, 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.

How fear affects our breathing

When I heard those sirens and the yells of security officers at the airport that day, my body reacted in a predictable way.

Image: infographic anatomy of fear
I wish I knew exactly where this infographic originated so I could give proper credit.

Immediately upon sensing a threat to my safety, the amygdala in my brain jumped into action and began firing messages that were initially confusing.

At first, I didn’t think the security officers could possibly be talking to me, so I kept walking. I wasn’t doing anything illegal or wrong in any way, and my brain reassured me that all was well. See normalcy bias.

Once I realized that, yes, actually, I DID need to stop walking and stand against a wall, my brain then went into a fuzzy mode as it tried to make sense of this strange situation. I didn’t feel combative, exactly. I just had never been in this type of scenario before and my brain struggled to make sense of it.

I remember that my hands were cold, and my breathing was shallow.

That’s when I began practicing survival breathing right where I stood. As I focused on counting each breath, it gave my brain something logical and predictable to focus on. My breathing became more regular, I didn’t feel the continued rush of adrenalin, and my thoughts became more focused and rational.

Learn the 16-second survival breathing technique

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 the opposite of how we want to react and know we need to react! In fact, at times, the brain can become our worst enemy.

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.

24 thoughts on “The 16-Second Survival Breath”

    1. I realized this morning that I left that part out! They never did tell us directly what was going on or why we were all herded outdoors. Later another passenger said that a gun had been found in the terminal. It would have been nice if, at some point, they would have to thought to inform us, but I guess we were on a need-to-know basis and they didn't think we needed to know.

      1. A gun in someone's hand may be worth all that screaming and yelling. A gun safely tucked in luggage us no reason to panic a whole airport. Just hand the luggage to an officer and snag the person responsible, without the sirens! Good grief! The sheepherders are worse than the sheep!

  1. I just think that airport security is getting a bit much. Now I have no problem with security measures, even strict security measures. But I hear more stories of this Rambo type stuff and I think it escalates a problem or at least makes more problems.

  2. Great and simple advice! This also works when the kids are out of control, fighting, making a scene in public, etc. and you think you might just loose it with them–even if there is no emergency! Then is a good time to practice breathing and staying calm. 😉

  3. One advantage to living in DC is that we have so many false alarms and sirens on a daily basis that an alarm going off and SWAT team response is not so alarming anymore.

    I assume when they bring out the bomb-diffusion robot yet again that all it will find is a forgotten backpack and PBJ.

    There is danger in complacency from the Boy Crying Wolf too often….

    1. Oh Lord Almighty, ain't that right! Jin Vance comes on the news and says "A suspicious package was found in Dupont Circle today. . ." my first thought is "Yeah, yeah. . . cuz the postal service can't get anything right. . ."

  4. This is so simple, yet something that everyone should practice. It took a life threatening illness (personal survival in it's most basic state) for me to learn this and it still comes in handy for big and little stresses. Thanks for listing the directions for everyone!

  5. I heard once, of people (ordinary no-bodies who have no reason to believe someone would send them a bomb) who came home to find a package on their doorstep. Despite the fact is was 4 days before Christmas, they didn't know of anybody who said they were sending a package. Sooooo, in the great wisdom of common sheep, they carefully put the package in their car, drove to a nearby ravine, and threw the package in!
    They returned home, sighing with relief that they avoided being blown to smitherines. The phone rang. It was Aunt Sally, calling to find if they had received the gift she'd sent. She was sending all her relatives an expensive Virginia Ham.
    Always think, even when someone else says they're doing the thinking for you. Always breathe deep. Your brain works better with oxygen.

  6. I both shudder and laugh when I read stories like this.
    All that kind of display does is cause panic, and give "eye candy" to spectators who don't know any better. It lets the uninformed say "My how impressive and effective their security force is". It's all Window Dressing.
    Part of my job includes contingency planning for "large population facilities". Back in 2002, we had an emergency situation at the facility I was responsible for at the time (a 260K square foot, single floor retail facility with 92 vendors). When the emergency hit, we did a full evacuation and verification of the facility in 14 minutes…while I was outside conversing with Emergency Services staff, a gentleman approached me and asked if he would be able to speak to the facility manager. I asked him if there was an issue I could assist with, and he was adamant that he wanted to speak to the manager, so I asked him to wait on the sidelines, and once he was available, I would deliver the message.
    Long story short, after establishing credentials, it turns out that the person was a New York Fire Marshall vacationing in my hometown, and he had wanted to know who had developed our evacuation plan…at this point, I'm starting to dread what's about to happen, because I developed the plan and the drills, and considering what this man had been through 8 months ago, I figured I was about to get "torn a new one".
    To my surprise, he wanted to congratulate me, and take a look at our evacuation plan, because he thought it was one of the most efficient evacuations he had ever seen done for a multi entry, single floor facility, and wanted to see if he could use it as a basis for some facilities he was dealing with back in NY. Needless to say, the grin took a while to wipe off my face!

    While grand and flashy may be great for media, TV/Movies, and to provide a false sense of security, a calm, well though out, and tested plan will work better every time. (The consultant check I got from the City of NY was a nice bonus too!)

    Oh! And for those of you wondering what happened to prompt the evacuaction, someone got mad at the bank for foreclosing on his mortgage, so he dropped an explosive device in the garbage can just inside the door of the bank.

  7. That was such a good reminder. I read the book and really did like it several years ago. I remember too how she said when you practice evacuation or what you would do in a disaster, you just kick in and do it. The example was given of the World Trade Center and one company that practiced evacuating. They all got out (except the CEO who wouldn’t evacuate and the man who went back in to get him.) This is why we practice!

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