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Ready, set, focus: Finding calm in a storm through the power of breathing

Airmen and Soldiers practice breathing and relaxation during their off duty time in a deployed location. Stress can take its toll on your mental and physical health, including your heart health, but there are breathing techniques to buffer yourself from it. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung) Airmen and Soldiers practice breathing and relaxation during their off duty time in a deployed location. Stress can take its toll on your mental and physical health, including your heart health, but there are breathing techniques to buffer yourself from it. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lance Cheung)

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. — While circling over foreign seas in bad weather one night, Air Force Maj. William MacVittie and his co-pilot considered whether to return to base or continue on their mission. Fuel was dwindling and the chatter remained constant from the radio. MacVittie took deep breaths; the ability to focus helped him maintain control of the situation and make critical in-the-moment decisions, he said.

“By focusing on my breathing, clearing my mind on what I had coming up, and calming my heart rate in such a manner, I found I was able to move forward and be successful at whatever my task was,” said MacVittie, a former flight commander.

According to Harvard Medical School, stress response can suppress the immune system, and the buildup of stress can contribute to anxiety and depression. Air Force Lt. Col. Jannell MacAulay, director of human performance and leadership for the 58th Special Operations Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, said by taking controlled, deep breaths, people can lower their heart rate, retain focus, and alter their mindset.

“You can’t hyperventilate and take deep breaths at the same time,” said MacAulay, who holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology and a doctorate with work in the field of strategic health and human performance.

Stress is a perceived emotion and when people say they are ‘stressed,’ they’re often overwhelmed by their perceived circumstances, said MacAulay. In stressful situations, the body’s sympathetic nervous system response, also known as the fight-or-flight response, can be triggered. This response is intended to prepare the body for a dangerous or high-stress situation, but it can also happen in normal, less-monumental moments, like being stuck in traffic or studying for an exam.

Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing, allows the air coming in to fully fill the lungs, raising the lower belly. This exchange helps the body exchange oxygen, which slows the heartbeat and lowers blood pressure. Most people don’t use the full capability of their lungs, usually taking more shallow breaths, said MacAulay.

The ability to be present – and mindful – can alter a person’s mindset, level of focus, and ability to communicate, said MacAulay.

“Mindfulness is bringing an awareness to your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, but not allowing them to distract you from the present moment,” said MacAulay, who recommends taking a minute to stop, take a deep breath, and be present for 10-12 minutes a day, whether it’s all at once or broken down in to 10 one-minute segments.

MacAulay was 13 years into her career, juggling growing responsibilities, success, and family, when she decided she needed a way to manage it all. Turning to yoga, she found an outlet to release stress and learned how to bring awareness to her breathing.

MacAulay started practicing meditation and taking deep breaths when she was in a stressful situation at work or at home, and it became a powerful force in her life. She started calling the moments of practice as “going to the cloud,” or pausing for a minute, taking deep breaths, and being present in the moment.

“I started implementing it into my own life and realizing how powerful it could be, so I wanted to share it,” said MacAulay, who was the 305th Operational Support Squadron commander at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey at the time. She taught her airmen how to be aware of their stress responses, as well the impact of those responses on decision making and communication. “It really changes the way you interact with others, the way you connect and the way you build teams.”

Over time, she taught them to ‘go to the cloud’ whenever they felt their stress responses gearing up. She also introduced the “mindful minute” into weekly staff meetings, flights, physical training sessions, and commander’s calls.

“I had learned the power of being still with your breath when I was young, but Colonel MacAulay brought the science to it,” said MacVittie. MacAulay also put a name to the practice and helped MacVittie refine it.

While there was some hesitation about the effects of deep breathing and ‘going to the cloud’ at first, the practice soon gained traction among others in the squadron, and results were visible, said MacVittie. Being centered and using controlled breathing helps people perform at a higher level, he added.

“We spend a lot of time training service members to perform in stressful fight-or-flight situations, which is controlled by our sympathetic nervous system,” said MacAulay, adding that people have everything they need within them to calm themselves and use their breath in a positive way.

“We also need to focus on the recovery interval, and teach our military how to practice their parasympathetic responses as well. We have the opportunity here in the Air Force to start this mental fitness trend to make the best and most effective warfighter.”


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During the 5-year surveillance period, 105 cold weather injuries were diagnosed and treated in service members deployed outside the U.S. of these, 39 (37%) were immersion injuries; 33 (31%) were frostbite; 16 (15%) were hypothermia; and 17 (16%) were “unspecified” cold weather injuries. Pie chart for cold weather injuries during deployments displays depicting the information above. Number of cold weather injuries bar chart: Of all 105 cold weather injuries during the surveillance period, 68% occurred during the first two cold seasons. Bar chart shows the number of cold weather injuries by year: •	2012-2013 cold season had 35 cold weather injuries •	2013-2014 cold season had 100 cold weather injuries •	2014 -2015 cold season had 13 cold weather injuries •	2015-2016 cold season had 11 cold weather injuries •	2016 – 2017 had 10 cold weather injuries Access the full report in the October 2017 MSMR (Vol. 24, No. 10). Go to: www.Health.mil/MSMR  #ColdReadiness

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Did you know when all cold weather injuries were considered, not just the numbers of individuals affected, frostbite was the most common type of cold weather injury, comprising 53% (n=177) of all cold weather injuries among active component service members in 2016 – 2017? •	In the Air Force and Army respectively, 60.9% and 58.9% of all cold weather injuries were frostbite, whereas the proportions in the Marine Corps (42.9%) and Navy (25.0%) were much lower. •	For the Navy, the 2016-2017 number and rate of frostbite injuries in active component service members were the lowest of the past 5 years. •	The number of immersion injury cases in 2016 – 2017 in the Marine Corps was the lowest of the 5-year surveillance period. Bar graph: Percentages of each Service’s cold weather injuries that were frostbite, 2016 – 2017 cold season •	Air Force (60.9%) •	Army (58.9%) •	Marine Corps (42.9%) •	Navy (25.0%) For all active component service members during the 2016 – 2017, the proportions of non-frostbite cold weather injuries were as follows: •	19.5% hypothermia •	17.7% immersion injuries •	9.9% Other & unspecified cold weather injuries Access the full report in the October 2017 MSMR (Vol. 24, No. 10). Go to: www.Health.mil/MSMR  #ColdReadiness

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1/18/2018
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From July 2016 through June 2017, a total of 24 military locations had at least 30 incident cold weather injuries (one per person, per year) among active and reserve component service members.  The locations with the highest 5-year counts of incident injuries were: •	Fort Wainwright, AK (175) •	Bavaria (Grafenwoehr/Vilseck), Germany (110) •	Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island/ Beaufort, SC (102) •	Fort Benning, GA (99) •	Fort Carson, CO (88) •	Marine Corps Base Quantico, VA (86) •	Fort Bragg, NC (78) Map displays the information above. 2016 – 2017 cold season During the 2016 – 2017 cold season, the numbers of incident cases of cold weather injuries were higher than the counts for the previous 2015-2016 cold season at seven of the 24 locations. The most noteworthy increase was found at the Army’s Fort Wainwright, where there were 48 total cases diagnosed in 2016 – 2017 , compared to just 16 during the 2015 – 2016 cold season. Bar chart shows annual number of cold weather injuries (cold season 2016 – 2017) and median number of cold weather injuries (cold seasons 2012 – 2016) at military locations with at least 30 cold weather injuries during the surveillance period, active component, U.S. Armed Forces, July 2012 – June 2017. Access the full report in the October 2017 MSMR (Vol. 24, No. 10). Go to: www.Health.mil/MSMR Image in background includes  service members out in the snow.

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Incidence rates of cold weather injuries: Non-Hispanic black service members, five cold weather seasons, July 2012 – June 2017

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1/18/2018
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