Are breathing techniques actually helpful for trauma survivors?

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.

But all these well-documented benefits do is make me feel like a failure for not getting the same results…

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.


Quick Check In…

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. 

Why Breath-Work Is Trig
gering, and Even Counter-Productive, For Some Trauma Survivors...

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.


So what can we do instead?

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.

  • When we can learn to focus primarily on our exhale, we can quickly turn things around, lowering our blood pressure, heart rate and calming our  nervous system.
  • You can do this (as I do with my kids when they’re upset) by imagining blowing out a candle.
  • Blowing air out through pursed lips until all the air is gone helps to correct the balance of O2 and CO2 in our blood and brain. Which in turn reduces symptoms of hyper-ventilation and panic. Heart rate and blood pressure will return to normal too.
  • You can achieve the same goal by imagining blowing away the clouds in the sky – or really any other image that works for you. ☺️


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:



Key Takeaways:

  • Breath-work can very helpful for many people, but it does not mean you’re doing anything wrong if you find focusing on your breathing triggering.

  • Breath work may trigger you because it can bring about hyper-ventilation (or over-breathing)— a similar pattern of breathing that you likely experienced during past traumas.

  • For many trauma survivors, the body does not feel like a safe place to be. Because of this, focusing on the breath (or other bodily sensations) can trigger anxiety.

  • When we go into a fight or flight response (during a traumatic event) we gulp in more oxygen to fuel our body to take action. This can lead to too little Carbon Dioxide in the brain and blood that can make us feel dizzy or light-headed.

  • These feelings can increase levels of anxiety and panic, creating a loop where the more we focus on bodily sensations (like our breath), the worse our anxiety becomes.

  • There are tools we can use to help break this loop and calm our body, breath and nervous system:

    • Focus on your exhale (the inhale will naturally happen).
    • Imagine blowing out candles on a cake or blowing clouds away in the sky.
    • Visualize inflating a big red balloon with your breath.
    • Sigh or hum.
    • Use tools like Tapping and Somatic Experiencing to get curious about past traumas – especially those involving the breath – such as anesthesia, medical trauma, sedation, suffocation etc.
    • These tools can help you safely explore, process and release past traumas so that you can begin to feel safe in your body and in your breath.
  • Please be sure to reach out for support from a coach or therapist to help your work through  past traumatic events.

What Did You Take From This Blog Post? Leave Me Your Comments Below. I Love Hearing From You! 😊


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2 Comments on this post

  1. Thank you Karen for this wonderful explanation! I had learned that meditation/breathing was often harmful for many trauma survivors but I never learned exactly why. I never had success with meditation/breathing and after learning that it might be harmful for trauma survivors I stopped trying to do it and feel much better just crossing it off the list. I loved your presentation at the Tapping Summit and actually tried to attend most of the presentations. Surprising to me, I was doing one of the medical presentations that I really did not expect to work but most of my hip pain disappeared! It actually motivated me to try to do tapping more often. I’ve also had success with visualization as one of my childhood survival practices was to dissociate. I feel much more comfortable being outside of my body and it’s something I’ve had to work on as an adult to stay in my body! I will try some of your other recommended techniques too.

    • You’re so welcome Mary. I’m so glad you found the explanation helpful and that you’ve been able to listen/watch so many of the Summit presentations. And how amazing that your hip pain has mostly gone away. Just fantastic! ☺️

About Me

I'm Karen Ortner, an EFT Tapping expert, personal development coach, and childhood abuse survivor and I'm passionate about helping YOU in your healing journey!


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