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The adrenaline dump: It’s more than just breathing

An increasing emphasis is being placed on awareness and management of the potential negative effects of the “adrenaline dump” on police performance. For example, it has been said that the “holy grail” for firearms instructors is to teach management of the effects of adrenaline on shooting performance (1). That’s a good thing.

Excellent resources from Remsberg(2), Siddle(3), Grossman(4), Murray(5) and others, have now well described the performance changes that occur with and in high stress situations. It is also a good thing that more and more training conferences discuss these effects in a variety of presentations with the goal of preventing and managing negative effects. When participants are asked how to control such effects, there is almost always a resounding chorus with the answer: Tactical Breathing. . . and there it stops.

Tactical Breathing is a good thing; it is a very effective self-regulation technique; but, there is much more to tactical arousal control than just breathing techniques.

Physical arousal refers to those physical and psychological changes (biochemical) that occur in your body to prepare you to fight (if you are a warrior) or flee (if you are a typical untrained civilian) at maximum capacity. These effects are linked primarily to the release of adrenalin by the body to create such readiness. While some arousal is necessary for optimal performance, excessive arousal can impede effective response.

There are two types of arousal. Primary arousal comes from the challenge at hand and promotes effective action and survival. Secondary arousal is different. It is not challenge-focused and comes from factors that can distract an officer from the goals of success and survival in an encounter. As examples, secondary arousal can come from worrying about whether you can handle the situation, whether adequate support and back-up will be present, whether training was sufficient, whether you have adequate equipment, or what the consequences of your actions will be (sometimes called “reading tomorrow’s headlines”).

Secondary arousal can be a problem. It can be hard to control, so it interferes with performance. It can be distracting and affect concentration. It can exaggerate the performance inhibiting effects of high stress.

The ability to physically and psychological control oneself in high stress situations is the essence of Tactical Arousal Control Techniques (TACT) and it is a good thing to develop. The goal of TACT is usually to remain calm and focused in high stress situations. However, sometimes TACT is about increasing readiness and alertness to be at your highest readiness (though not necessarily all “pumped up”). Usually though, tactical arousal control it is about self-regulating too much arousal (preventing a personal “Condition Black” as characterized by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman). This is what will be discussed here.

Tactical Breathing is a most common form of TACT and its effectiveness is well known.

Siddle(3) has written that: We would argue that breath control should be a mandatory component of survival stress management

There are many forms of tactical breathing such as combat breathing, four-count breathing and diaphragmatic breathing. Whatever form works best for you is great.

However, we shouldn’t get “tunnel vision” about ways to self-regulate in high stress situations. There are other effective approaches to tactical arousal control that can be considered.

Centering Techniques derive from martial arts like Aikido. Centering adds a calming image to deep breathing. In traditional martial arts, centering is accomplished by taking a deep breath and when exhaling letting all of your “awareness” settle at your center of gravity.

A little more specific and clear to many officers is a variation on this of taking a deep breath and when exhaling, picturing a feather or leaf, slowly, slowly, floating down, lower, and lower until it gently stops and floats and just softly hovers at the height of your belly button. The gentle floating image is intended to enhance he relaxation effects of the deep breath.

Since this is usually done initially with your eyes closed, it should only be done in a safe environment. However, with practice and mastery it can be done quickly, with your eyes open and while maintaining situational awareness.

Attention Control Training developed by performance expert Dr. Robert Nideffer(6) builds on Centering. In Attention Control Training, a centering technique is performed, but after exhaling and imaging, a “command” is given to yourself that gets your attention back to the challenge, threat or responsibility. So after centering, focus might be regained by a self-command of “Scan,” “Hands,” or even “Focus.” Attention Control Training can be used when tension is building (to slow or reduce it), when something surprising happens that distracts you, or when a mistake has occurred to get back on focus.

Muscle Relaxation Techniques can be very effective if they have been practiced and trained. They are effective in controlling the physical effects of stressful situations. They are an “active” approach (where you “do something” instead of just trying to be still or passive) which fits well with the action-oriented nature of police officers.

While, at first, it often takes ten to fifteen minutes to go through a muscle relaxation technique to produce relaxation, with adequate practice, relaxation to various degrees can be brought on more quickly. By “conditioning” or attaching a self command or cue word (like focus, smooth, steady, etc.) to the state of relaxation, effects can be triggered more quickly, as well.

Meditation and Yoga are the foundation and forerunners of more modern arousal control techniques. They are often part of various forms of martial arts training. Yoga has rhythmic breathing as a point of focus for relaxation and meditation uses a repeated word or phrase (mantra) to achieve relaxed control.

These approaches sometimes may seem mystical or “weird” to those of us in a Western culture. However, it should be realized that it was the practitioners of these arts that taught Western Medicine that we can actually control heart rate, muscle tension, brain waves and other bodily processes. (These were seen as part of the “autonomic” nervous system as it was believed they were “automatic” and could not be willfully controlled.) There is some evidence now that, in addition to relaxation, these techniques can promote concentration, attention and reduce reaction time.

The Relaxation Response was developed by a Harvard University Medical School physician and is a western form of meditation. Therefore, it may seem a little less “mystical” to some people (which is why it was developed). It been shown to reduce blood pressure and produce relaxation.

Autogenic Training is another from relaxation training. It uses self-suggestions of “warmth” and “heaviness” to induce a relaxed state.

Biofeedback involves practicing some form of relaxation while “hooked up” to a machine that tells you if the relaxation is having an effect and to what degree. Biofeedback measures bodily responses that are associated with stressed or relaxed states such as muscle tension, skin temperature (cold clammy, sweaty hand when scared), heart rate or brain wave activity. The machine gives you “biological feedback” on how much of an effect is being produced by your relaxation efforts so you can fine tune your technique. Astronauts spend time working with biofeedback to gain better self-regulation ability during space flights.

Biofeedback has also been used, not just for relaxation, but to more directly influence performance(7). For example, some research shows that expert marksman will trigger squeeze at a certain point in their cardiac cycle (heartbeat) called asystole. This is the point in a heart beat cycle where the heart actually rests (doesn’t beat) and therefore the body is most “still.” Timing the trigger squeeze to this point has been associated with better shooting accuracy and so some marksman are given heart rate biofeedback to learn to fire when the heart is “resting.”

These types of tactical arousal control techniques are generally used in one of two ways. First, they are used to break a cycle of increasing tension. They are performed whenever any (beginning) signs of stress are noticed and used to prevent the effects of stress from escalating. They can also be used by doing the technique briefly at random times during a call or during the day to “prevent” or “reset” stress buildup and remind you to assess your psychological state and survival mindset.

However they are used, practice is essential. The regular practice of techniques like muscle relaxation, yoga or meditation on a daily basis not only makes you better at the technique, but the regular practice may well improve general resistance to stress.

These techniques can be combined with more complicated and sophisticated psychological training programs. Stress inoculation training developed by Meichenbaum is prominently mentioned by Grosssman(4) in his book, On Combat. Visuo-Motor-Behavior Rehearsal developed by Dr. Richard Suinn(8) has been very successful with Olympic Athletes including those in shooting sports.

There are several considerations and cautions in learning and using Tactical Arousal Control Techniques

  1. They need to be practiced
  2. They need to be practiced correctly and therefore expert guidance when learning is important
  3. They should be practiced initially only in safe environments and applied wisely; for example, clearly there are times when too much relaxation may not be good
  4. Relaxation techniques are generally safe and without any “side effects.” But since they do affect physiology, you may want to check it out with your physician.
  5. These techniques can be integrated with other police skills training. They are not a substitute for physical and police skills training, especially reality-based training. Tactical Arousal Control Training combined with Reality Based Training can enhance the effectiveness of both.

There are other sources of approaches, as well, that can be used for as tactical arousal control such as techniques from the various martial arts. The point is that there are many skills in addition to tactical breathing that can help maintain focus, optimal arousal and maximize performance in high stress situations. That’s a good thing.


(1)Williams, G. (2004) Real world tunnel vision and training. The FireArms Instructor, (38), 6-9.

(2) Remsberg, C. (1986). The Tactical Edge. Northbrook, Ill: Calibre Press.

(3) Siddle, B. (1995). Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge: The Psychology and Science of Training. Milstadt, Il: PPCT Research Publications.

(4) Grossman, D. (2004). On Combat. Milstadt, Il; PPCT Publishers.

(5) Murray, K. (2004). Training at the Speed of Life. Gotha, Fl: Armiger Publications.

(6) Nideffer, R. & Sharpe, R. (1978).Attention Control Training: How to Get Control of Your Mind Through Total Concentration. New York: Wide View Books.

(7) Landers, D. & Daniels, F. (1985). Psychophysiological assessment and biofeedback: Applications for athletes in closed skill sports. Chapter prepared for J. Sandweiss & S. Wolf (Eds.). Biofeedback and Sports Science, NY: Plenum.

(8) Suinn, R. (1985). Imagery rehearsal applications to performance enhancement. The Behavior Therapist, 8, (9),179- 183.

The content and opinions contained in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the policies of practices of the Pennsylvania State Police.

Dr. Asken is the psychologist for the Pennsylvania State Police. He is the author of MindSighting: Mental Toughness Skills for Police Officers in High Stress Situations at

Dr. Michael Asken is the retired psychologist for the Pennsylvania State Police, specifically the Special Emergency Response Team. He was involved with the selection and training of troopers, as well as cadet performance issues at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy where he also taught. Asken holds a BA in social & behavioral sciences from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology at West Virginia University. He was a Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology fellow at the American Psychological Association. Asken has written articles for SWAT Digest, The Crisis Negotiator, The Tactical Edge, Law Officer, The Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police, and the FireArms Instructor.