You might be asking yourself what does mindfulness have to do with safety or self-defense? After all, when we hear the word mindfulness, it often conjures ideas such as calm, awareness, being fully present, peacefulness and the like. Whereas, when we think about “safety” or “self-defense,” images contrary to calm and peaceful arise. Stereotypes of muscular men fighting off men in Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movies come to mind. In short, we associate self-defense with acts of physical violence, most of which invoke terror.
But what if instead, we think of self-defense as anything that helps us be physically safe—yes physical safety is important—but also feeling emotionally strong and respected in our everyday life.
When we start to pick apart and analyze what are the things that help us feel emotionally safe, strong, and respected in everyday life, it becomes more clear that mindfulness can be a useful skill. So you might expect that this article is about mindfulness as a tool for prevention of violence—a tool for noticing red flags and other warning signs that danger may be imminent. Mindfulness of our surroundings, mindfulness of someone else’s behavior—these are all important skills.
But that’s not what this article is about either. This article is about, simply, mindfulness of breathing as a skill, a tool, and how it can be useful in both emergency-level situations, and as a skill to practice in non-emergency (but still highly stressful) situations in everyday life.
When we teach empowerment self-defense, we talk about different tools we can use to keep ourselves safe—both how to increase the number of tools in our self-defense toolbox and how to hone the tools and skills that we already possess. The voice as a tool is a common one; we practice both setting boundaries and de-escalating others who may be dangerously upset. An essential skill in self-defense is emotional self-regulation. Often this is explored in self-defense classes through adrenaline management. Participants practice physical skills in simulated high-adrenaline situations in class and subsequently have the opportunity to practice emotionally regulating during and after the experience.
Culture of Safety has started making the emotional regulation piece a core part of our classes. In our newly re-branded BODY * VOICE * MIND framework, every one of our trainings now incorporates at least one (if not several) mindfulness and meditation-based exercises.
Deep breathing and adrenaline management in everyday life
Why do we think this is important? We’ve always talked about breathing as a mental tool we can use to calm the mind in moments when we feel threatened. For example, several of our verbal exercises (where participants practice saying what they need or otherwise setting a boundary) include taking one or two deep breaths before responding. We also talk about breathing as a tool to help calm ourselves (self-de-escalation). And we know from studies on mirror neurons that when we breathe deeply and others see us breathing deeply, they will automatically start breathing more deeply themselves. Thus breathing deeply can also be used as a tool for de-escalating others.
Breathing mindfulness is an important tool in everyday safety. When our body goes into fight or flight (sympathetic nervous system), our body is focused on reacting to external threats. When encountering a bear (or a would-be attacker), this is useful and protective. But often, our sympathetic nervous system is activated when the ‘threat’ is in fact something more like ‘discomfort’ or ‘anxiety’ in which a physical response is less likely to be useful. By introducing intentional breathing at that moment we bridge between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, allowing us more freedom to choose our responses in the moment. That pushy colleague asks you for a favor and you start to feel defensive (fight or flight). How do we skillfully respond in that moment? In most everyday situations, fighting or fleeing probably isn’t going to get us what we want, but our body is still sending those signals telling us to do so. So how do we find another response? We take a deep breath. We take a moment to notice that adrenaline (and the emotions accompanying that) are flooding the body. This could be important information telling us that this person isn’t (emotionally) safe for us. Or it could be an unconscious response—maybe we hate conflict and our body is forewarning us that conflict could arise. Or it could be a combination thereof. So how do we tell the difference? Only when we pause to breathe and assess will we be able to determine which situation it is and what responses will keep us safest and happiest.
But, while we all know that breathing and mindfulness are useful skills (yes, skills! mindfulness can be learned and practiced!), we don’t always create the space to practice it in our lives, either on our own time, or in the moment when faced with a scary or uncomfortable situation.
This is not so different from the verbal skills we teach. We we may know how to set boundaries, but without practice, we may struggle to actually do this in day-to-day life. So, just like we create opportunities for participants to practice their verbal skills, we’ve created opportunities to practice and hone our mindfulness and self-regulation skills.
Why do we practice breathing in a self-defense class?
After every physical skills section in Culture of Safety workshops, we include a short guided breathing mindfulness practice. We’ve found that this can be especially effective when we’re working with groups where the participants have survived significant trauma. This practice helps them experience the connection between their body and their mind—when the body is calmer, the mind can be calmer, and vice versa.
Many, if not most, of our participants tell us that they believe breathing can help them feel calmer, but that it is difficult to do in the moment when they’re under stress or angry. Part of the reason we do the meditation at the end of our sessions rather than the beginning is that we want the students to have the experience and practice of moving from an adrenalized, excited state to one of more calm. The excitement of practicing the fighting skills serves as a stand-in for other “activated” states, such as the rush of energy that anger brings.
We know that regular meditation practice helps calm and slow down the mind. We are essentially retraining the mind, building new neural circuits for how to respond to stressful situations. Even for adrenalized situations, the mind learns to slow down and respond from a calmer place. This can feel very threatening to folks coping with PTSD or other traumatic stress syndromes. If you’re used to being always on your guard, purposely quieting the mind can feel dangerous, and it can be a challenge to sit quietly breathing for just two minutes—let alone for longer. But the mindfulness that comes with regular meditation is essential to healing symptoms of traumatic stress, and being on a hair trigger actually creates more danger than it protects us from.
Meditation, mindfulness, and deep breathing are skills we can also practice in daily life, and you don’t have to be traumatized to reap the benefits. Just as we can make the choice to use our verbal skills to set boundaries or de-escalate others to keep ourselves safe, we can make choices regarding how and when to practice breathing and calming the body.
If you’re interested in gaining some of the benefits of breathing mindfulness for yourself, here is one simple and quick practice I like to recommend to beginners:
Deep breathing (1-2 min)
Find a comfortable seated position. You can stand or lie down if you prefer, but I find that it can be harder to relax the body while standing, and a little too easy to relax (i.e. you might fall asleep) if you are lying down. From your seated position gently close your eyes (if this is a safe practice for you).
- On the first in-breath, inhale to the count of 4, exhale to the count of 4.
- On the second in-breath, inhale to the count of 4, exhale to the count of 5.
- Next, inhale to the count of 4, exhale to the count of 6.
- Continue in this way until your exhale is twice as long as your inhale (8 counts, or 5 breaths!)
- Allow the breath to relax. And notice how your body feels. Is there tension in your body?
Exercises that encourage you to exhale longer than you inhale are useful for quickly shifting the body from operating via the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) to the parasympathetic (tend and befriend).
Optional post-deep breathing body scan (additional 3-4 minutes)
After completing your deep breathing exercise, start to pay attention to your body. Can you feel your feet on the ground? Can you feel the pressure of your hands against your legs or your lap? Can you feel the breath moving in and out of your body? Is there tension in your neck? In your shoulders? See if you can release some of that tension. Notice where there isn’t any tension, and celebrate that! All the while, continue breathing slowly and gently.
See if you can continue breathing like this for 5 minutes. Then afterwards, check in with yourself and see how you feel. Do you feel calmer? More relaxed?
Breathing mindfulness for even 5-10 minutes a day can have a profound impact on your daily life, enabling you to feel calmer, more centered, and less easily annoyed or on edge. Dr. Epperson has a 30-minute mindfulness of breathing practice they do daily. What are your favorite go-to mindfulness exercises? How has meditation or mindfulness improved your life? Reply below to share.