With all the stressful and challenging daily activities, in addition to wanting to shoot your gun accurately, it is difficult to relax, focus, be calm, reduce movement, and not jerk or flinch when you are doing your sight alignment and sight picture, especially in the “heat of battle.” Our anxiety and excitement levels are very high and we don’t always have the proper smooth, minimal movement, non-intermittent, jerk-free trigger press straight to the rear when shooting our guns. I see this in students weekly, if not daily, when teaching handgun classes and experience this myself sometimes when shooting. Our brains are going 110 miles per hour, we are excited and nervous, want to do the very best we can and get bullseye hits, and it is difficult for most of us to relax, to not anticipate and to not flinch when shooting. We know that proper breathing practices and focusing or meditating have been a part of yoga and Eastern wellness cultures for centuries, but not so much in Western culture. Realistically, these unique (and some say unorthodox) approaches will probably not be the panacea or cure-all for our shooting problems. But are there some worthwhile techniques for us to consider for our relaxation, focusing, and help with our shooting accuracy? The more calmer, relaxed breathing, the less movement, the more accuracy help. I found this technique that works for me, it’s free, and I want to share it with you.
I remember one night years ago before a shooting match. I was just too nervous to fall asleep, my mind was racing about the next day’s event, and I was browsing on the computer. I discovered in one of the medical websites a technique, called the “4-7-8” breathing technique to help you relax and fall asleep quicker. Dr. Andrew Weil on the website discusses the affects of breathing on many activities of our lives. Some do not accept him, even call him a pseudoscience, unconventional alternative-medicine doctor, a snakeoil salesman, and say he does not practice helpful medicine. While I do not subscribe to several of his ideas, I do understand and accept what he says about proper breathing technique, its benefits, and it honestly has helped me to focus and be relaxed in general. Dr. Weil says that by “simply focusing your attention on your breathing, and without doing anything to change it, you can move in the direction of relaxation. Too much attention on upsetting thoughts may cause anxiety, guilt and unhappiness. Get in the habit of shifting your awareness to your breath whenever you find yourself dwelling on stressful situations.” Dr. Andrew Weil’s article about the technique was “The Art and Science of Breathing.”
Breath Control is one of the fundamentals of shooting accurately. It is also one of the most overlooked and neglected basics, compared to trigger control, sight alignment, proper grip, stance, etc. Like any fundamental, breath control and its related techniques require practice, a positive can-do attitude away from negatives and stress, and commitment to get the best results. This simple deep breathing technique has helped me, not only with relaxing and controlling my heart rate for shooting, but for my life in general, helping to calm and relax my body and mind. It also helps me fall asleep quicker than usual. For me, the long-term benefits are well worth the minimal effort, not only for shooting but for my long-term health.
The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique
This technique with 3 easy steps is very simple, takes very little time, requires no equipment, is free, and can be done anywhere… at the range, before class, prior to live-fire shooting, or even in bed before you go to sleep. Here is the simple deep breathing technique:
- close your mouth and then breathe IN deeply through your nose quietly for FOUR seconds,
- HOLD your breath for SEVEN seconds, and
- exhale OUT slowly, completely, deeply, and audibly (make a whooshing noise) through your mouth for EIGHT seconds. The whooshing noise helps you exhale more carbon dioxide. The deep breathing increases the oxygen flow to the brain and organs and permits more carbon dioxide emission.
Some medical researchers say that this combination of numbers and time has a chemical-like effect on our brains and slows the heart rate to soothe and relax you. This is an often-used technique in Yoga meditation. I was very skeptical to say the least after trying all sorts of suggested breathing shooting approaches, natural respiratory pause, etc. Also, initially I was having difficulty falling asleep at night, even after trying various pillows, melatonin, relaxation exercises, medications, etc. I must tell you for ME this simple technique works… and has been working for me for quit awhile now. I practice the technique with 3 or 4 sets of 4-7-8. Some do more sets and most do 2 or 3. You will have to determine the number of sets that work best for yourself. One student told me she uses this at night time and can never get beyond 2 sets and then she quickly falls asleep. We mention it to our students when we talk about the breath control fundamental in the handguns skills class. One caution from a classroom experience: a lady in her late sixties exhaled too long and did not breath in and almost passed out. So, remember to breath after exhaling and follow the cycle.
The Basic Principle
The main principle of this technique, in essence, is that it forces you to focus and slows your heart rate. Our bodies have a built-in stress reliever. Proper deep breathing positively affects your heart, brain, digestive system, etc., reduces your stress level, and has other affects, according to several studies. When you feel stressed or anxious to get that perfect bullseye hit, adrenaline rapidly flows through your veins, your heart beats at a rapid rate, and your breathing becomes quick and shallow and contributes to more body movement and stress. Of course a “no-no” for accurate shooting. You want to minimize as much movement as possible when shooting, so you don’t bob or nod your head, shake your hand, move fingers other than your trigger finger, have jerking movements, talk, chew gum, etc. This breathing technique works because in order to hold your breath for seven seconds and then to exhale for eight— when your breath is shallow and short under stress— your body is forced to naturally slow your heart rate. Holding your breath, and then slowly, deliberately exhaling for eight seconds, causes a chain reaction in your body. For me, it feels like going from a quick sprint race to a slow, leisurely, calming stroll through the park. For this unscientific, non-medical doctor, I understand that oxygen inhalation activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system (calming) response. A proper breathing process, like this one, will calm you.
National Public Radio highlighted the power of proper breathing in an interview with several medical researchers, including Dr. Mladen Golubic of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. He spoke about proper breathing to reduce the level of stress and positively enhance brain activity and function. According to Golubic, breathing exercises create positive changes that help improve conditions as serious as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart failure. He says breathing exercises improve lung function by “stretching” airway tissue and inducing the release of a “protective chemical” known to maintain airway integrity and oxygen saturation. As Esther Sternberg of the National Institute of Mental Health suggests in the interview, deep breathing also shifts the body out of sympathetic nervous system control and into parasympathetic mode, a healthier, relaxed, calmer state in terms of general well-being and biochemical balance. This curbing of stress hormones (like cortisol), in turn, preserves the body’s immune function and keeps blood pressure and heart rate in check. It reduces heart rate. Deep breathing for relaxation can also influence gene expression related to inflammation, oxidative stress, and cellular metabolism. The conclusion from these medical folks is the longer you practice proper deep breathing, the more pronounced the benefits for any particular condition and for gene activity. I see a relationship here to breath control in shooting.
It seems those who are stressed or anxious are actually chronically under-breathing, because stressed people breathe shortly and shallowly, and may even unconsciously hold their breath. By extending your inhale to a count of four, you are forcing yourself to take in more oxygen, thus allowing the oxygen to affect your bloodstream, reflexes, alertness, and reactions. When you hold your breath for seven seconds and then exhale for 8 seconds, you are emitting carbon dioxide from your lungs. The technique will effectively slow your heart rate and increase oxygen in your bloodstream, and may even act like a mild sedative to help relax you. It will quickly relax your heart, mind, and overall central nervous system because you are controlling the breath and your oxygen intake, versus continuing to breathe short, shallow gasps of air. Try it.
When you first practice this technique, you will probably want to quickly take in another breath, or you will want to desperately speed up your counting. But, if you discipline yourself to continue and practice it, stick to the numbers and process of this technique and not be tempted to resume regular breathing, you will literally “feel” your heart rate slow down, your mind become calmer and quieter, and your whole body physically relax. It affects me like this and helps with my accuracy. I can usually never remember getting past the second set of 4-7-8.
This simple breathing technique works for me and many others, has for some for centuries, and is supported by medical research by accepted medical doctors, as well as alternative medicine advocates. There is nothing new here, since Zen and yoga followers and others have been using similar breathing techniques for quite awhile. The bottom line is that you will not know if it works for YOU unless you try it. So with an open mind, follow the 3 steps of this simple technique and judge for yourself. I hope it works for you like it does for me, but if not it did not cost you anything but a little time. For me, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
Photo by author.
This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney in your state or jurisdiction for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, stand your ground law, and concealed carry. This is not legal advice and not legal opinions. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.
© 2015 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at ColBFF@gmail.com.