In November 2018, I completed a grueling three-day training for journalists and aid workers heading into countries with tenuous security situations and war zones.
I learned a ton during the training — what worst-case scenarios look like, how to avoid them, and, perhaps most important, how I might act when it hits the fan. But the most important thing I picked up was an easy-to-learn tactic anyone could use.
Held at a nondescript warehouse in suburban Maryland, the training was led by Global Journalist Security, an organization founded in 2011 to help people going to dangerous places acquire what it calls the “physical, digital, and emotional aspects of self-protection.”
It was founded by Frank Smyth, a veteran journalist who has covered conflicts in El Salvador, Colombia, Rwanda, and Iraq, where he was held in captivity for nearly three weeks in 1991.
I had some vague idea of what I was getting myself into. I’m traveling to Egypt, Nigeria, and Ethiopia over the next couple of months, and fellow journalists had recommended the course as preparation for the worst-case scenarios: kidnappings, terrorist attacks, active-shooter situations, and war zones. How a three-day course in suburban Maryland could credibly do that was anybody’s guess.
Training prepares people not to freeze or panic in worst-case scenarios
The chief trainers Paul Burton and Shane Bell, a former British Army sergeant and a former Australian Armed Forces elite commando respectively, are experts at putting people in distressed mindsets. The two have accompanied journalists and aid workers in the world’s most dangerous places, been kidnapped, and negotiated kidnapping releases. They know what they’re talking about.
Female war correspondents during World War II.
Over the course of the training, Bell, Burton, and the rest of the GJS team thrust attendees — yours truly, included — into simulations designed to trigger your adrenaline.
“You want to give people skills to stay in the moment and not freeze or go into panic mode,” Smyth told Columbia Journalism Review in 2013. “Some people will forget to yell, ‘Hey, she’s being dragged away — we have to help her!’ [The training] plants seeds, things to remember.”
I had to save a fellow aid worker from an “arterial puncture wound” that was squirting a fountain of (very real-looking) “blood” from a gaping “flesh wound.” Hooded actors interrupted PowerPoint presentations firing blanks into the class as we scrambled to find cover and escape. There was a kidnapping during which I was told to “slither like the American snake that I am.” And finally we were put through a final course across fields and hiking trails designed to mimic a war zone with grenades thrown, artillery shelling, landmines, and snipers.
My 13-year-old self thought it was pretty wicked. My 28-year-old self was shook. By the end, I was praying I would never have to use any of it, particularly after I “died” in the first active-shooter scenario.
But that scenario came before I learned the most valuable skill Burton, Bell, and company imparted upon us: tactical breathing.
U.S. Army Spc. Chad Moore, a combat medic assigned to 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Dustin Biven)
Combat troops, police officers, and first responders are trained in tactical breathing
Tactical, or combat, breathing is a technique taught by the military, the police, and first-responders. And there’s increasing scientific evidence to back up the practice.
The idea behind it is simple: When you enter high-stress situations, your sympathetic nervous system throws your body into overdrive. Adrenaline kicks in, your body starts to shake, and your mind races to solve the problem.
It doesn’t just happen in war zones. If you hate public speaking, it’s likely to happen before you get onstage. If you’re nervous about an important exam, it may kick in as the timer starts.
What Burton and Bell hammered home is that you can’t prevent this response. It’s instinctual. Your brain’s three options are fight, flight, or freeze. And while you may know enough about yourself to know how you’ll react when you have to make the big speech, you probably have no idea what your reaction will be during an active-shooter situation or in a war zone.
Usually, in that state, you aren’t thinking logically, if you are thinking at all. Flubbing the speech may not be a big deal, but if you enter that state in a war zone, it could get you killed.
Tactical breathing overrides that stress response by activating the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing down your heart rate and calming you down so you can make a rational decision.
It works like this: Breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, and exhale for four seconds. Repeat as necessary until your heart rate slows and your mind calms. Yes, it is very similar to yogic meditation breathing.
Once your mind calms, you can make a rational decision about whether it is best to keep hiding or whether you need to run, rather than flailing in panic.
It’s sad to say, but with 307 mass shootings in the US alone this year, that’s information anyone could use. Not just war correspondents.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.