Breathwork for trauma is being talked about more and more—and for good reason: 70 percent of adults across the globe have dealt with at least one traumatic event in their lives. These traumas can be the result of events or experiences that range from violence and abuse to serious accidents or even exposure to death or loss.
Using deep breathing and various breathing techniques with a trauma-informed practitioner or program can be invaluable for healing. This can be a way to work through the experience, the physical manifestations, and the disconnect from your body that often happens as the result of a traumatic event.
Breathwork was a tool that I used when I healed through the trauma of my stroke. It continued to be invaluable as I worked through the collective trauma of a pandemic and social and political unrest, which most (if not all) of us experienced.
As such, this is a very personal topic for me and something I feel passionately about sharing. Let’s look into how trauma affects the body and how breathwork can help restore balance and connection within yourself so you can heal.
How Trauma Manifests in the Body
The brain’s reaction to trauma stimulates an acute stress response, causing imbalanced cortisol (stress hormone) levels. If this cortisol imbalance goes unresolved, it can cause an allostatic load (cumulative chronic stress) to manifest in the body. This leads to anxiety, depression, inflammation, and a handful of other physical bodily experiences.
Trauma can also cause dissociation from the body. Dissociation is as “an involuntary detachment from reality,” and is one of the ways your brain protects you from the experience. This survival instinct is biological. It’s meant to keep you safe from the trauma, however, it can also keep you stuck in the experience because your body doesn’t recognize that the trauma is now gone and you are safe.
Breathwork with a trauma-informed program or practitioner can safely get you back into your body to begin the healing process.
Breathwork as a Tool in Trauma Recovery
This work is so powerful for trauma healing because slow, controlled breathing techniques produce a meditative effect on the autonomic and central nervous system. This can help increase feelings of comfort, relaxation, alertness, and positive energy. At the same time, it also reduces stress, arousal, fear, depression, anxiety, confusion, and anger.
Think of it as quieting the noise of the trauma in your body and coming back to a space of balance and calm where you can reconnect with your body to process and heal.
New research shows that fast-paced breathing modalities can also help build stress resilience and regulate sympathetic nervous function. This style of breathwork, categorized as “temporary voluntarily-induced stress,” builds stress resilience in a different way than slow, deep breathing. Despite being different, it’s still supportive in the healing process.
If you want to experience the power of this fast-paced breathwork, join me for Exhale Hour where we use somatic techniques to drop into the body, be present with emotions, and move through them with energy work.
What to Keep in Mind With Trauma and Breathwork
Breathwork can play an important role in trauma healing. As a consistent practice, it can also expand your mental and emotional capacity to deal with future challenges as they arise. However, I do want to emphasize that breathwork is not a cure for trauma. This tool is most effective and beneficial when used alongside other therapeutic modalities.
I always encourage trauma survivors to seek out licensed professionals with clinical education and expertise in trauma-informed care. When I suffered from complex trauma and PTSD after my stroke, breathwork was the initial access point. This led me to a team of trauma therapists who specialized in somatic (body-centric) treatments. This is what ultimately motivated me to become a somatic practitioner myself.
A Simple Breathwork Practice for Trauma
Given my own experience and the scientific research surrounding it, I love to use breathwork with clients as a helpful adjunct to their trauma healing. One of my favorite breathing exercises to create calm and reconnect with the body is simple:
- Take a full inhale.
- Breathe out a long, slow exhale.
- As you breathe out consciously repeat the word, “peace.”
- Repeat 3-5 times.
This breathing practice calms the heart rate and lowers heightened states of arousal. This allows you to come to a place of mental, emotional, and physical equilibrium. While this one practice can be helpful, breathwork for trauma is not a one-time thing. To heal, you need to be consistent with the work, and in many cases, pair it with other modalities.
Don’t Overlook Breathwork for Trauma Healing
Traumatic events can cause you to disconnect from your body, but with trauma-informed support and interventions, it’s possible to restore a sense of well-being, balance, and connection within your own body.
Remember: healing looks different for everyone. The healing process is unique and non-linear, so I encourage you to move at whatever pace feels manageable. While breathwork for trauma healing is becoming more well-known, it’s important that you assemble a team of clinicians who specialize in trauma care to get the care you need.
As someone who’s been through it before, I can promise you that with the right support team, you will be able to find yourself and your own sense of safety again.