How to beat vehicle-pursuit stress? Just breathe

Part two of a two-part series

As I described in Part One of this article, I used to be passionate about telling others about the effects of stress. For years, I would stand in front of a class of law enforcement personnel and tell them about the dangers that the physiological effects of stress can have on them behind the wheel. 

“Don’t get tunnel vision,” I’d say, “because you will lose your peripheral vision and you will not be able to properly clear intersections and see hazards ahead.” I have done everything I could to get back in front of those same officers because of what I now know.

Telling someone to not let their heart rate increase or telling them not to let adrenaline enter their system is like telling Charlie Sheen not to party. It’s simply not possible, and if it’s not possible then our training should reflect that. Instead of saying “don’t get the effects of stress such as tunnel vision” we should tell them that it will likely occur and that there are things we can do to mitigate the adverse effects.

Learning to Survive
I’ve often heard my friend Lt. Col. Dave Grossman say that “you do not rise to the occasion in combat, you sink to the level of your training.”

In a stressful situation, you aren’t going to be successful unless your training has prepared you. We have done a remarkable job in preparing our warriors for a gunfight and we must place the same emphasis on driving. 

Dr. Donald Meichenbaum developed the theory of Stress Inoculation Training (SIT). Much like receiving vaccinations to inoculate yourself against disease, we can do the same when it comes to combating the physiological effects of stress. The stress can (and will) occur but we can avoid being overwhelmed by it.

Our training should involve more than fast driving on a closed course. We should explain to our officers why and how stress can affect them and that they should anticipate it occurring. 

A pre-test of a high-speed course or simply driving with emergency equipment while utilizing a heart rate monitor will show the officers that this phenomenon is real. A systematic training program integrating classroom and technical skills will help tremendously. 

This will build confidence in the student and will teach them the needed skills they will draw from in a stressful encounter. I’ve also seen some excellent training that will either simulate (or create) stress that will help prepare the student for driving under these conditions on the streets. 

For example, I once had an instructor block off my vision which made me move my head each way to regain my peripheral vision. It was an excellent way to demonstrate how this effect can be mitigated. 

Just Breathe
In 2003, I read an article by Sgt. Charles Humes called “Lowering Pursuit Induced Adrenaline Overloads.” 

He started the article by telling the readers that he could graduate officers from the police academy that would drive much safer during vehicle pursuits or code 3 runs. He had me hooked at that point and to this day that article serves as a reminder that we can indeed produce a safer driver through some very easy techniques such as Controlled Breathing or Tactical Breathing. 

It has been around for many years and while most in law enforcement have been introduced to it while holding a gun, very few have done it behind the wheel of a car. 

The Technique
As stressors begin, the driver should begin breathing through their nose for a four-count and hold their breath for a four-count. Then exhale through the mouth for a four-count and hold their breath for a four-count before beginning the cycle again. 

Research has shown that this simple technique can lower blood pressure, heart rates and lessen the negative effects of stress. Humes tells his readers to “breath deeply and methodically, completely filling and emptying your lungs during each cycle.” 

Humes’ final recommendation has never left me. Relating this technique to one we are all familiar with — Pavlov’s Dog — Humes said to “take a tape recording of a siren and play it for your cadets for five or ten minutes a day, EVERY day, at the end of the academy training day. While the siren plays, the cadets practice the combat breathing exercises we detailed earlier. 

“To enhance this, have them watch videos of pursuits from in-car tapes as you do this.  If you do this for the duration of your academy, when your cadets are on the street, they will start combat breathing subconsciously to the sound of a siren. Thus helping them to greatly control their adrenaline surges before they occur.”

Being Prepared for Stress
Most of you reading this will never be in a deadly-force encounter and some of you may never get in a vehicle pursuit, but you will encounter situations that cause your heart rate to jump dramatically. Adrenaline will dump into your body and you will experience things that you may not be able to initially control.

And that’s okay. 

We work in a profession with a long history of success in critical incident situations. The only difference today is that we know much more of what is going inside of our bodies, so we can do better and safer work on the outside.

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