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You Are Breathing Wrong! A Call to Action to Teach First Responders How to Breathe

Updated: October 1st, 2021

If you are reading this, chances are you may not know any breathing techniques other than your standard automatic breathing that occurs without you having to think about it, and the classic, most well known, deep breathing. You may have a huge aversion to “mouth breathers,” as they are so politely referred to, and have no idea that you yourself likely engage in mouth breathing and may be doing so as you read this article. Not only are you potentially breathing through your mouth but you are breathing in a shallow manner from your chest. What I am here to tell you is you are not alone and there are more than two ways to breathe. Think about your breath as a multipurpose tool that you carry with you every second of every day. Certain scenarios may require one specific tool, while others may require a different tool.

I can say with certainty that you are currently breathing as you read this article.

Your breath is an indicator of life.

You are breathing; therefore, you are alive. In case you are wondering.

No, I am not a pulmonologist. I was raised by two first responders (now retired) and decided to take another path in life. I became a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC). The first responder environment continues to be a large part of my life, as I am married to a full-time firefighter/paramedic. As a firewife, you see and hear things about the job but as a counselor, you pay close attention to their mechanisms of coping, whether good or bad. What I can tell you is that I have never heard about first responders being taught different breathing techniques to help the copious amounts of scenarios they face. Firefighters, in particular, know the importance of breathwork because of their Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA). Slowing down their breathing means longer canister life, but are they breathing in a way that is more efficient for their body in and outside of fire scenarios?

Retraining your mind to breathe starts with nasal breathing.

Even if you have a blockage of some kind, i.e. deviated septum, it is still a skill that is essential to get the most out of your breath. In The Breathing Cure, Patrick McKeown (2021) stated, “Nasal breathing performs at least 30 functions on behalf of the body. One of the most important of these is oxygenating the blood, organs and cells” (p.113). Increased oxygen will boost your energy, decrease stress, increase recovery time after exercise or exertion, improve focus and concentration, increase your ability to relax, and more. The side effects of breathing through your nose? You will perform better, sleep better, feel better, and handle stress better.

As an LCPC, I have worked with many clients in which I have shared the power of the breath. What I often say is, “To change your thoughts, you must first change your breath.” When the mind becomes stressed, worried, or panicked, the breath rate increases and is in a shallow state. Shallow breathing enables your lungs to partially fill with air and the breath remains in the chest. The key to gain control over your breath is to inhale slowly through your nose and send the breath down to your belly. There are more components than just those two parts. As you inhale slowly through your nose, your belly will expand, your ribs will expand, and your chest will rise. As you exhale slowly out of your nose, your chest, ribs, and belly will lower. In Yoga For First Responders, this is referred to as your three-part breath and is one form of tactical breathing. With this breath, you are completely filling up your lungs. Three-part breath takes practice and is encouraged to be utilized throughout the day, while on or off shift.

Now, swap out the word thoughts from the previous paragraph with the word brain.

“To change your brain, you must first change your breath.”

The breath and the brain are connected.

Changing our breath allows for the ability to change the mind. In Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, Sharon Begley (2007) discussed how the adult brain is capable of neuroplasticity, meaning, the brain can form new connections and be rewired. When you think about this ability, think about it in the world of first responders. Our first responders are facing distressing situations and compounding traumatic events on a daily basis. They have been armed with the knowledge on how to protect and serve the public but have not been taught how to protect and serve themselves. First responders are more likely to have significant health issues both physical and mental, increased divorce, increased substance use, increased suicide, and more. If our first responders change the way they breathe to breathe more effectively and efficiently, it would give them the ability to be proactive in their health and prevent the ailments listed, so they can live long, healthy lives rather than becoming another statistic.

We expect our first responders to be superheroes or Godlike, often needing to remind ourselves that they are, in fact, 100% human.

Departments focus so heavily on training first responders for their careers and are not arming them with the most important tool they need to thrive, their breath. You are breathing wrong, yes, but you are not alone. I encourage you, the reader, to educate yourself on nasal breathing, three-part breath, and other breathing techniques to help you be successful in your field and cope with the compounding stress you will face. If you are a first responder, go to your department and share what you have learned. Encourage them to look into Yoga for First Responders. Show them the evidence behind breathing. The tools are out there to help our first responders shift out of survival mode and become thrivers as they continue their careers or carry on with life past retirement. I am speaking to you as a firewife, as the daughter of a retired law enforcement officer and a retired director of 911, and as a mental health professional in the field who specializes in trauma. Civilians are not the only ones who need saving.

Written by YogaShield® Instructor Marissa Ebet, M.S.Ed., LCPC, NCC, RYT-20 Class 0019 S6

Marissa Ebert is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) in Illinois, a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT-200), EMDR trained, and specializes in working with trauma. Marissa is the co-owner of Alternative Wellness Therapies and the owner of Alt Yoga, an alternative style to yoga. She understands the importance of focusing on the whole mind and body. Marissa has been surrounded by first responders since birth. She is the daughter of a retired director of 911 and a retired law enforcement officer, and is married to a firefighter/paramedic. Marissa is passionate about reaching out and helping as many people as possible, whether it be through her mental health practice, yoga, workshops, or community involvement


The Breathing Cure by Patrick McKeown (2021)

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley (2007)

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