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Breathwork & Trauma Healing

Updated: Jan 31




Let's dive into the power of Breathwork and why it’s one of my favorite modalities for trauma healing and somatic release. 


The Power of Breath 


Nowadays many people are awakening to the healing power of our breath. In truth, we as a species are re-awakening to this power, which many ancient traditions have always been attuned to. 


Breath is integral to a wide range of Eastern spiritual practices such as Kundalini yoga, Pranayama yoga, and meditation in general. While there can be spiritual themes connected with these practices, there is no requirement for participants to align with any spiritual belief system or religious doctrine. 


Finally, modern science is catching up and re-discovering breath as a powerful tool to promote emotional and physiological regulation within the nervous system. One of the core beliefs about healing with breath, is that breath is life force energy and that changes in our breathing, can bring about different somatic and emotional states. Our breath is our anchor to the present moment, and an important component of most mindfulness-based practices. 


Many mental health and other wellness professionals teach breathing exercises to support with management of anxiety and other stress-related symptoms. Some examples of breathing exercises are box breathing, 4-7-8 breath, and alternate nostril breathing (Nodi Shodhana). Typically, these practices involve a combination of breathing slowly and deeply, using the nose and the mouth.  I share this because breathing exercises are different than the Breathwork I will describe hereafter. 


What is “Breathwork”?


Breathwork is a healing modality that combines rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing and attention to the body and sensation, to elicit transformation. There are several different contemporary breathwork traditions such as Transformational Breathwork,  Holotropic Breathwork, and the style popularized by Wim Hoff. In each of these styles, breathing patterns are used to release stored physical and emotional tension, which supports healing on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels.


"Since earliest times, virtually every major psychospiritual system seeking to comprehend human nature has viewed breath as a crucial link between nature, the human body, the psyche, and the spirit."- Stanislav & Christina Grof, Holotropic Breathwork: New Perspectives in Psychotherapy and Self-Exploration

The Cycle of Breath & Emotional Suppression 


When we experience a threat, we unconsciously change how we breathe. If our nervous system kicks into "fight or flight" mode, we may experience rapid upper chest breathing. If we go into "freeze" mode, we may take only shallow breaths or hold our breath. These changes happen automatically and without our conscious awareness. Changes in breath are not just a nervous system response to threat, but also a way to keep the emotion or sensation suppressed when it's beyond our capacity to cope.


Stressful Event → Fight/Flight/Freeze/Appease → Breathing is Altered → Emotion & Sensation Suppressed → Habitual Altered Breathing


Inhibited breathing can be a safety mechanism of the body to prevent us from getting flooded with uncomfortable emotions and sensations. However, over time we may develop holding patterns in the body, and continue to suppress these emotions, even when it would better serve us to process and move beyond them. When we are stuck in fight, flight, freeze, or appease mode, we tend to breathe shallowly and not utilize the diaphragm to take deep full breaths.


Breathwork & Trauma


Trauma researchers that focus on the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system have attempted to understand what can help people move out of these trauma and stress responses. Those who are proponents of the polyvogal theory suggest that the ventral vagus nerve is partially responsible for experiencing safety in the body and connection to others - which survivors of trauma and extreme distress often struggle with.


Removing the inhibition of breath and consciously deepening the breath can allow for emotional integration. Breathwork supports us with accessing suppressed emotions, because it bypasses the conscious mind and its’ defense mechanisms, which may be preventing us from having an embodied experience. Emotions in the body and psyche that were previously suppressed can be processed and released, providing a sense of calm and wholeness.


It’s important to note that Breathwork doesn’t necessarily elicit traumatic memories or require people to re-live them in order to heal. In Breathwork, one is free to express the emotions and sensations through laughter, tears, shaking, movement, screaming and anything else that releases the emotional residue from the event. You may know what you’re releasing or you may not, it doesn’t matter. The power of Breathwork is that it allows the body to do what it already naturally knows how to do - release and restore itself.


What to Expect During a Breath Session


Breathwork should be learned and practiced with a trained practitioner, who will guide and assist you in how to properly do the breathing practice. During the session, a facilitator may use music and other sounds, affirmations, scents, and gentle movement to encourage the breath and release stuck energy.  Sometimes the emotions and memories that arise can lead to intense experiences. Memories, emotions, or other sensations that have been deeply buried can rise to the surface, which may feel a little overwhelming at first. This resurfacing is a good thing, as this is how healing occurs. When our repressed experiences become conscious, they can be met with compassion and re-integrated into a place of wholeness.


Every breathwork experience is unique and different, and I believe the breath always leads you where you need to go. Sometimes that's joy and laughter, sometimes it's sadness and grief, other times it's wisdom, clarity or bliss. Sometimes it’s all of these emotions in the same session!  It is best to stay with and trust your experience, and to allow your facilitator to support and guide you through. 


Using Breathwork is not a cure-all or a substitute for the other aspects of physical or mental health care. However, breathwork is an additional tool that can work wonders for our mental clarity, emotional well-being, and even our immune system. Breathwork is a natural, safe, and healthy technique that, once learned, can be used as a self-healing practice, similar to yoga and meditation. 


Learning to Feel Safe in the Body & To Express 


Breathwork is an embodied practice. During Breathwork, many people report a greater awareness of the body and sensation. For people recovering from trauma, practicing feeling embodied can be challenging or uncomfortable in day-to-day life. Breathwork elicits somatic sensation and awareness of the body in a deeply relaxed and uninhibited environment. Through practicing in this safe context, people can experience a greater trust in the body, and growing awareness that the sensations, pain, or tension arise to bring forth integration.


One of the biggest ways that trauma and stress can inhibit us is by suppressing our expression. Part of the healing process is learning to express anger, pain, sadness, and fear in ways that support our growth and our relationships. In Breathwork, all forms of expression are allowed (as long as they don't harm oneself or others). This permission is crucial for building self-trust. Often we mistake the ways we've been conditioned to swallow, stuff, hide, or repress our feelings with who we really are.


Breathwork allows the space to connect with our truest feelings in a safe and supportive place, and is conducted with no specific end goal or expectation. The goal is to breathe and feel what emerges. This allows us to let go of the desire to "figure it all out" or to demand something of our bodies and minds. We breathe at our own pace and treat ourselves with gentleness. All emotions and sensations that arise are treated with a quality of acceptance - our anger, pain, joy, and physical sensation are all allowed to be. With acceptance, resistance decreases, our tolerance for discomfort and uncertainty increases, and we become more loving with ourselves.


Healing & Altered States


On a psychological level, breathwork works by unearthing stored trauma in the subconscious mind. When you participate in breathwork, you are oxygenating the brain and body, which activates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the largest nerve in the body, it connects the brainstem to all of our major organs and is responsible for regulating emotion. When stimulated through breathwork, it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, putting the body into a relaxed and altered state of consciousness. In this state, you may reveal and release trauma, confront behavior that sabotages you, and release stored stress, anxiety, tension and pain from the body. 


Benefits of Breathwork can include:

  • Reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, & insomnia

  • Promoting feelings of relaxation and peace 

  • Increasing oxygenation of the brain and body

  • Improving immunity

  • Stimulating circulation & reducing physical pain 

  • Increasing energy & concentration 

  • Increasing sense of self-awareness

  • Increasing positive emotions such as self-love, compassion, gratitude & a sense of connectedness  


Breathwork has the potential to elicit altered states of consciousness, similar to a deep meditation. In this state, we have the potential to bypass mental stories, projections, judgements, and resistance that prevent us from healing. Breathwork opens the space to allow the body's inner intelligence to emerge and access our own innate wisdom, which exists beyond the mind. In altered states, we can access our subconscious true feelings without assessing, rationalizing, or mentalizing the experience. Meeting the experience in this way allows a much deeper release and integration.


Inhaling is the first thing we do when we enter this world, and exhaling is the last thing we do when we exit this world. Your breath is available to you always, yet we so often take for granted this precious gift. Breath is sacred, and so are you. 


I offer a deep bow to each of my breathwork teachers, and to all beings who have the courage to choose healing. If you are interested in exploring this practice further, feel free to reach out to me for a consultation to learn more.


With Love & Gratitude, 

Ann  



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