We hear a lot about mindful-breathing practices in Trauma Healing.
Perhaps you’re a seasoned Yogi or someone who meditates daily and you find focusing on your breath extremely helpful and calming. If that’s you – fantastic! 🥰
Unfortunately, so far, that has not been the case for me. What I’ve come to understand is that for me (as for so many trauma survivors), breath-work can be extremely triggering.
Over the years I’ve tried many forms and techniques with varying degrees of success. I’ve taken all kinds of yoga classes, done guided meditations, shamanic journeys, regressions and trained with Buddhist Monks. After all, breathing practices have been shown to have lots of benefits…
They can help us regulate our Nervous System, bringing us into a parasympathetic state (think rest, repair, digest). They can help improve the quality of our sleep, reduce stress and anxiety levels, help us feel more centered and grounded and can even aid weight loss. They can also help us uncover and work through past traumas.
These techniques include box breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, pranayama and water breathing (to name just a few). All of which can be wonderful, especially when properly learned and practiced correctly.
There’s a tremendous amount of stigma and shame attached to the perceived inability to “do it right!” Which can leave people wondering “what’s wrong with me? Why is everyone else so calm when I’m freaking out inside?”
This was exactly how I felt when I was pregnant with my oldest child and I decided to try Hypno-Birthing, a gentle, natural approach which uses breathing techniques to help the laboring mother relax and remain calm.
When I took the class, one of the lessons was on how to breathe. We were given a basic 4-8 pattern, where you inhale through the nose for 4 and then exhale through the mouth for 8.
Every time I’d practice counting and breathing I’d become increasingly panicky and anxious. The act of counting and trying to “control” or manage my state and breathing brought the usually unconscious, autonomic function to a starkly conscious level.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, when I worked through the experience later with a therapist, I learned that what I was experiencing was a flashback to a past memory of sexual abuse, where strangulation, suffocation and choking were used as forms of manipulation and control.
Trying to control my breathing during my hypo-birthing class and practice, flooded my system with terror. It was the terror I’d felt back then about how easily my breathing could be restricted or stopped and my life taken away. A person, especially a child, can lose consciousness in this way in as little as 10 seconds.
And though this may be unsettling to read, it is unfortunately an extremely common experience among trauma (and particularly sexual abuse) survivors.
If you can relate to any part of this, please take a moment to check in with yourself and take care of yourself in any way you need right now. Maybe that means taking a break, moving your body, going for a walk, shaking or drinking a little water. Do whatever you need to do.
*Please know that if you do find focusing on your breath triggering some or all of the time, there is likely a very good reason. This is not to say that you have experienced the same things that I have, but that you Nervous System is working as it should and it is trying its best to keep you safe.
Focusing on our body can feel unsafe. Some survivors may have experienced medical trauma, sexual trauma, blunt-force trauma or many other kinds of trauma that make connecting with their body and their breath feel unsafe.
When we’re feeling stressed-out, anxious, or having a panic attack – our breathing patterns change. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase. We may feel like our heart is pounding or that we can’t breathe. Our breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Our body is preparing to fight or flee.
In this state, our body needs to take in more oxygen to fuel our muscles and provide them with the burst of energy needed to take action (think of gazelle being startled by and then fleeing from a lion). To bring in the fuel (oxygen) needed to fight or flee, we begin to hyper-ventilate or “over-breathe”.
When people are in this state it often looks like they’re taking “quick sips of breath” where the focus is predominantly on the inhale.
This kind of breathing pattern throws our blood-gases out of their normal balance. In this state it can feel like we can’t catch our breath. The “quick sips” bring in more and more oxygen, but without a balancing, long-enough exhale, the levels of carbon dioxide in our brain and blood are not properly regulated, creating a deficit of CO2.
The result can leave someone feeling light-headed, dizzy or faint. They may experience blurred vision, numbness or tingling in their extremities and in some cases, the person may pass out.
This is why, when we tell someone who’s in this highly activated or triggered state to “take a breath” (ie-bring in even more oxygen) it can be unhelpful and can even make things worse.
If focusing on the breath can increase feelings of panic and anxiety in some trauma survivors, and the very act of hyper-ventilating (or over-breathing) in preparation to fight or flee can exacerbate these feelings, it’s essential that we learn how to break this loop.
There are several super simple and effective ways we can do this.
1) Focus on the Exhale:
When we hyper-ventilate we take in too much oxygen and create a deficit on Carbon Dioxide. This is what can increase the symptoms we discussed earlier like dizziness, blurred vision and racing heart.
2) Let Yourself Sigh:
Similar to focusing on the exhale, when we can allow ourselves to let out a long, audible sigh, we’re removing some of the excess oxygen from our body which helps regulate our nervous system and calm our feelings of anxiety and panic.
3) Sing or Hum (in the shower, in the car, anywhere…)
This tip works on a couple of levels. If we put on a song we like, firstly, it can be calming in and of itself. When we add humming or singing, it regulates our nervous system and balances our oxygen levels too! Rarely do we sing when we’re anxious or afraid, so this sends a clear signal to our amygdala that we are safe in the here and now. It lets our body and brain know that we are not in danger. We are safe.
4) Visualization is Your Friend.
If we think back to my experience with Hypno-Birthing and how the breathing exercises did not help me – what did?
I did end up using Hypno-Birthing while in labor with all 3 of my children, but I was able to modify the breathing principles to make them work for me. ☺️ In doing so, what I found most helpful was visualization.
Whenever I felt my breath shorten or become ragged with contractions, I focused on visualizing a big red balloon being filled with air.
As I felt each contraction (or surge as they call it) I breathed in to fill and expand the balloon. When I felt ready, I’d let out a looooong exhale and imagine watching the balloon floating away in the sky.
I still did not like counting, but I was able to stay calm and relaxed by finding what worked for me. And you can do this too!
5) Dip Your Toe in – Ask Yourself Questions and Get Curious About Why Breath-Work May Be Triggering For You…
From a Somatic standpoint, when we experience a traumatic event (anything that’s too much for us to process or handle in the moment), we may dissociate in order to survive.
Likelihood is that back then, during our past trauma, our body did not feel like a safe place to be. If we were panicky, fearful or anxious, this probably manifested in a fight or flight response which in turn affected our breathing patterns.
This is why for so many trauma survivors, focusing on the breath (or any other physical, bodily sensation) can feel threatening or unsafe.
When we can understand what’s happening in our body and nervous system – and why – it becomes a much less frightening place to be.
Little by little we can come back home to our body and begin to understand why breath-work may have been triggering for us in the past.
6) Use Tapping and Somatic Experiencing (SE) to Process and Release Past Traumas:
Over time and using tools like Tapping and Somatic (body) mindfulness, we can learn to sit with and gently observe what’s been triggering this panic or fear response in us.
Just as I learned that I had experienced trauma around strangulation, suffocation and choking during sexual abuse, you can become consciously aware of your past traumas (whatever they may be) and begin to gently and safely process and release them.
It might feel daunting at first, but with these tools and tips, you can begin to feel more empowered – reclaiming your breath and your body so that it can become a safe place to be, perhaps for the first time.
I want you to know that wherever you are on your healing journey – whether you love breath-work, whether you’re completely new to it, or whether it’s been a challenge in the past, there is no right or wrong. There is only a willingness to explore things that can help you continue to move forwards into the life you want and deserve.
Sending you love and compassion today. 🥰
P.S. If you managed to catch my presentation on Anxiety during this year’s Tapping World Summit and would love to own it so you can watch it again and again…
Or if you missed it live but would love to catch up, it’s not too late!
You can go here or click the image below to upgrade and own all of this year’s presentations: