Back to Top Skip to main content

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

Airmen and Soldiers practice breathing and relaxation during their off duty time in a deployed location. Stress can take its toll on your mental and physical health, including your heart health, but there are breathing techniques to buffer yourself from it. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung) Airmen and Soldiers practice breathing and relaxation during their off duty time in a deployed location. Stress can take its toll on your mental and physical health, including your heart health, but there are breathing techniques to buffer yourself from it. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

Recommended Content:

Preventive Health | Mental Wellness | Health Readiness

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — 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.”


You also may be interested in...

McCaffery AMSUS Remarks 2019

Publication
12/5/2019

McCaffery statements made during the 2019 annual meeting of AMSUS

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness

McCaffery calls for military medical strategic framework for warfighting readiness

Article
12/5/2019
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Tom McCaffery speaks on Thursday at the annual meeting of AMSUS, the Society of Federal Health Professionals. McCaffery announced to the nearly 2,000 conference attendees that he has asked the Military Health System's senior leadership to develop and codify a formal strategic framework to guide integrating and optimizing all MHS components to meet his vision. (MHS photo)

'New reality' includes tight synchronization, expanding partnerships

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | MHS Transformation

Mental Health Professionals

Congressional Testimony
11/26/2019

S. 3129, SAC Report for FY 2019, 115-290, Pg. 211

Recommended Content:

Mental Health Care | Mental Wellness

Military medical reform is an opportunity to make trauma care better

Article
11/21/2019
Army Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, U.S. Army Surgeon General, spoke to surgeons at the Defense Committee on Trauma and Committees on Surgical and En Route Combat Casualty Care Conference held in San Antonio, Texas, on November 13. He spoke about the plans for current and future trauma and surgical initiatives within Army Medicine and that surgeons must be involved in improving trauma care during this time of military medical reform. (U.S. Army Image by Rebecca Westfall)

There is an opportunity to bring real change to how the military handles combat trauma care

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness

Are you sad or are you SAD?

Article
11/20/2019
Some individuals suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also referred to as Depressive Disorder. As the name suggests, it’s a form of depression that occurs during the seasonal change to winter. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

In the U.S., SAD is estimated to affect 10 million people

Recommended Content:

Mental Wellness

Preventing seasonal influenza

Article
11/13/2019
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jaqueline Mbugua and members of the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 102nd Medical Group traveled to the Roxy Theater on Joint Base Cape Cod to provide flu shots to Airmen Nov. 2, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Thomas Swanson).

The best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated every year

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Immunization Healthcare | Immunizations

The art of moulage

Article
11/6/2019
Combat Medic Training program students at the Medical Education and Training Campus at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston conduct an emergency cricothyrotomy on a “casualty” during simulation training. The “wounded” manikin also presents with facial burns that were created with moulage techniques. (DoD photo by Lisa Braun)

METC combat medic manikins rock realistic wounds

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness

MSMR Vol. 26 No. 11 - November 2019

Report
11/1/2019

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Editorial: Mitigating the risk of disease from tick-borne encephalitis in U.S. military populations; Tick-borne encephalitis surveillance in U.S. military service members and beneficiaries, 2006–2018; Case report: Tick-borne encephalitis virus infection in beneficiaries of the U.S. military healthcare system in southern Germany; Update: Cold weather injuries, active and reserve components, U.S. Armed Forces, July 2014–June 2019

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Public Health

The Defense Health Agency participates in AUSA 2019 annual meeting

Article
10/18/2019
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, DHA Director, discusses upcoming Military Health System changes designed to improve the readiness of combat forces during a seminar held at the Association of the United States Army 2019 Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, D.C.  Lt. Gen. Place explained how DHA is standardizing systems to improve healthcare across the enterprise.  (DHA Photo by Hannah Wagner)

Focus on quality care, innovation at home and on the battlefield

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Preventive Health

The Military Training Network transitions to the Defense Health Agency

Article
10/11/2019
The Military Training Network or MTN transferred from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences to the Defense Health Agency in September 2019. MTN oversees basic, advanced, and pediatric life-support training for more than 350,000 medical and non-medical personnel at 345 military facilities around the globe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexandra Singer)

Shift speeds training where it’s needed most

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness

The Head, Hand, and Heart of Women’s Health

Article
10/4/2019
Maintaining peak health is critical for all military personnel. This month, we focus on women whose health concerns and symptoms may be different from those in men. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Roger Jackson)

Health is universal for military personnel and civilians, but some health concerns affect women differently. Here are a few examples.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Preventive Health | Women's Health

Women's Health Month: Take ownership of health, wellness issues

Article
10/1/2019
Navy Cmdr. Francesca Cimino, M.D. (standing) confers with a colleague in the Family Medicine department at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. (Courtesy photo)

Regular cancer screenings are vital, but there's much more to longevity

Recommended Content:

Preventive Health | Women's Health

Suicide Prevention spotlight: Military behavioral health technicians

Article
10/1/2019
Senior Airman Brandon Haag goes through new patient paperwork, Feb. 9, 2015, at the Mental Health clinic on Scott Air Force Base, Ill. A typical protocol when a new patient comes in is getting to know the background history of the patient to help them and the provider they will see know what will help in a crisis or difficulty. Haag is a 375th Medical Group mental health technician. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Erica Crossen)

Suicide prevention is aided by behavioral health technicians in many settings

Recommended Content:

Mental Wellness | Suicide Prevention

MSMR Vol. 26 No. 10 - October 2019

Report
10/1/2019

A monthly publication of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch. This issue of the peer-reviewed journal contains the following articles: Editorial: The Department of Defense/Veterans Affairs Vision Center of Excellence; Absolute and relative morbidity burdens attributable to ocular and vision-related conditions, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2018; Incidence and temporal presentation of visual dysfunction following diagnosis of traumatic brain injury, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2006–2017; Incidence and prevalence of selected refractive errors, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2001–2018; Incident and recurrent cases of central serous chorioretinopathy, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, 2001–2018

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness | Public Health

Measles Myths: The Measles Can Be Life-Threatening

Video
9/30/2019
Measles Myths: The Measles Can Be Life-Threatening

Measles can be life-threatening, especially for children and among people who have a compromised immune system.

Recommended Content:

Preventive Health | Children's Health | Immunizations | Immunization Healthcare | Vaccine-Preventable Diseases | Measles-Mumps-Rubella
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 45

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing: Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.