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Relaxation and breathing

People in highly stressful situations can react in ways that may have negative consequences. However, with practiced relaxation and breathing techniques people are able to calm down, change their response and make better decisions.
This section looks at why relaxation and breathing are important and details three techniques that you can use to help you manage stressful situations.

Relaxation and breathing

Why relaxation and breathing are important

It is estimated that in an emergency scenario -such as a ship sinking - 70% of people will panic, 15% are going to make irrational decisions, and only the remaining 15% will be thinking clearly. Remaining calm already places you above 85% of the rest of the ship.

Both relaxation and breathing techniques counter the negative affects of stress and allows for better decision-making.  

Relaxation and breathing techniques achieve this by switching your body from using its sympathetic nervous system, which primarily stimulates the body's fight-or-flight response, to the parasympathetic nervous system, which is all about your body's rest and digest function.

This slows down your heart rate, and activates neurochemical systems, which helps to calm you down.


There are three proven techniques recommended to help relaxation and breathing.

What is it?

Tactical breathing (also known as square breathing) is one of the most effective skills to manage stress and keep you in the optimal zone for performance. It is a technique used by modern police and military, it allows you to rapidly regain control of you body during critical situations.

By breathing abdominally with control you can slow your heart rate, which calms you.  It also helps to clear out the nervous chatter of worries from your mind.

Snipers and professional athletes have been using this to improve their performance for many years.

How do I do it?

Most people find that when they are feeling stressed they take shallow quick breaths. This actually increases your stress levels.

The key to breathing is to take deep slow breaths into the diaphragm.  Tactical breathing delivers oxygen to the brain, relaxes the central nervous system, calms you down and improves your performance.

Practising this skill improves the likelihood that it will become automatic, and is absolutely critical for you to be able to use it during stressful times to improve performance.

The technique is simple:

1. Inhale (deeply) for 4 seconds

2. Hold for 4 seconds

3. Exhale over 4 seconds

4. Hold for 4 seconds

Repeat these steps four times. It is important to inhale through your nose with your abdomen (stomach) expanding while you inhale – your chest should hardly move.

You need to practice this for a few minutes each day FOR AT LEAST 1-2 WEEKS. You will then be able to use this skill during stressful training situations when your anxiety increases.  With practice you may be able to achieve the level of calm without repeating the steps all four times.  

What is it?

Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a method of relaxation with proven effectiveness. It relieves muscle tension, and can help switch off the ‘fight or flight’ anxiety response, by changing the type of signals our muscles transmit to the brain.

The brain stops sending panic messages to our nervous system, and a general feeling of physical and mental calmness begins to prevail. The two main principles of this technique include:

  1. Tensing muscle groups (one at a time) to become aware of the feeling of tension.
  2. Relaxing the muscles and feeling the tension in them subside – as if flowing out of the body.

How do I do it?

Find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted and allow about 15 minutes for this relaxation exercise.

  1. Sit in a comfortable straight-backed chair, with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Close your eyes and use the controlled breathing technique for about 5 minutes.
  3. Tense each of the following muscle groups for 5 seconds, then relax them completely for 15-20 seconds (pay particular attention to the different sensations of tension and relaxation):
    • Curl both your fists and tighten your biceps and forearms (as if lifting weights). Relax.
    • Wrinkle up your forehead; tighten the muscles in your face, causing your face to wrinkle. Purse your lips and press your tongue against the roof of your mouth; hunch your shoulders. Relax.
    • Arch your back as you take a deep breath into your chest. Relax.
    • Taking a deep breath, gently push out your stomach. Relax.
    • Pull your feet and toes backwards, tightening your shins. Relax.
    • Curl your toes at the same time as tightening your calves, thighs and buttocks. Relax.
  4. Now resume normal activities in a calm and peaceful manner.

What is it?

You can take a moment, even while you are at work, to slow your heart rate by breathing deeply, stretching, and focusing your attention on how your muscles feel as they are stretched. 

How do I do it?

  1. Stand with your feet apart.  Bend over and stretch your arms towards your toes.  Feel your muscles stretch and the blood flow downward. 
  2. Gradually stand up straight and raise your arms outward and upward, making a V and inhaling deeply to fill your lungs to capacity. 
  3. As you are standing completely straight with your arms extended upward, hold your breath for 10 seconds, and then let your arms slowly drop while continuing to keep them extended. 
  4. Exhale deeply and let out more air than you think you have to exhale. 
  5. Once your arms have dropped to an inverted V, repeat the entire process.

Try to visualise your muscles relaxing and your heart revitalising your blood. Imagine how that blood flows to your brain and brings nutrients that make your brain both relaxed and more alert. You can do all this in 2 – 5 minutes. 

When you return to what you have been trying to accomplish, you’ll find that you’ve rid yourself of built-up stress, and that you’re able to engage in the task at hand with renewed vigour and a calm sense of alertness.

Other self-help techniques to improve your resilience 

You can find more information about building resilience in the other pages in this section, or by downloading the complete toolkit below.

View pdf
Everyday Resilience - NZDF Resilience Toolkit
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