Breathwork is gaining popularity as a way to bio-hack our nervous system. But, not all breathwork is suitable for people with trauma.
What is trauma?
Trauma is any event that overwhelmed our nervous system and our capacity to cope. What distinguishes trauma from stress is that when we’re faced with a stressful situation, we go into fight or flight mode of our nervous system, and we are able to fight and defend ourselves or run, retreat and withdraw from the stressor. Once we’ve escaped the stress, our body and nervous system return to balance.
But in trauma, we can’t fight or flee. When we are overwhelmed by the situation, we freeze, and the survival energy of the nervous system stays stuck in our body, leaving us feeling hyper-vigilant and unable to relax. This survival energy can remain stuck in our system for years.
Trauma isn’t what happened to us; it’s how our nervous system was able to process what happened to us. It can leave our nervous system frozen. Trauma is more than having bad memories, and when trauma is stored in our body, it is a physiological response for survival.
There is no quick fix when it comes to trauma.
The best approaches to healing trauma are slow, subtle and create safety in our nervous system. If we go too fast, too quickly, we risk being activated again.
I always recommend clients seek a therapist trained in treating trauma. Both EMDR and Somatic Experiencing are practical and effective tools that address trauma at the nervous system level.
Yet many people with trauma in their body don’t realise it and haven’t received a diagnosis. All they know is that they feel stressed, anxious or hypervigilant, and they want to do something about it. Many of these people turn to yoga. And one of the main features of yoga is pranayama, or breathwork.
The link between the breath and the nervous system
The breath is the interface to our nervous system because the Vagus Nerve runs through our diaphragm. The way we breathe affects how we feel and sends powerful messages to our nervous system that we’re safe. The Vagus Nerve is the nerve responsible for activating the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation response).
Many breathing techniques from yoga have a range of health benefits. But not all of them are suitable for people with trauma. Things that can make trauma worse include:
- Holding the breath mirrors the freeze response, which is not ideal for releasing trauma.
- Over breathing and hyperventilating mimic the stress response, which activates more stress.
When trauma is stored in the body, it is like trapped survival energy. That energy will only be released when the nervous system feels safe.
Aggressive breath work, circular breathing, holotropic breathing and over-breathing might create an altered state of consciousness in people without trauma. But if we have trapped survival energy in our system, this type of breathing can make us feel more wound up, keeping the survival energy trapped.
Subtle breathing is best. But it’s also slow and steady.
Breathwork for people with trauma
My two favourite breathing techniques to relax the nervous system for people with trapped survival energy in their bodies are:
- Extended exhales. This type of breathing emphasises the exhale. We make the exhale twice as long as the inhale. The reason for this is that all the relaxation happens during the exhale. It’s the way we exhale (long, slow and smooth), that signals to the nervous system that we are safe. Try inhaling for a count of two and exhaling for four, and repeat ten times. Note: if that feels challenging, you can inhale for one and exhale for a count of two. As long as the exhale is longer than the inhale, it will calm the nervous system.
2. Spinal breath. This type of breathing creates safety in the nervous system and builds neuroception, which is the ability to be present with the subtle sensations in the body.
3. Alternate nostril breath. This technique brings balance to the two branches of our nervous system and creates safety.
These are enough. It’s really tempting to seek more and more and fall into the trap that more complicated techniques are better. Simple is good. Safe is good. When dealing with trauma, simple and safe are our best bets.
Watch this masterclass to Breathe Your Way to Less Stress.
Trauma is stored in the body. It’s the clenching of the jaw, the tension in the neck and shoulders, the tightness in the chest and the ache in the lower back. Trauma is the sleepless nights, the racing heart, the feeling of panic and butterflies in the tummy. It’s the part of us that’s easily startled by loud noise or sudden movement. It’s the feeling of always being on edge, waiting for something terrible to happen. It can be the inner critic or the voice in our heads telling us that we’re shameful, pathetic, weak or not good enough. Trauma is feeling disconnected from our body, feeling stuck in our head and feeling numb or lost in our own world.
Most of all, trauma is energy that won’t leave us alone, and it wants to come out.
When the nervous system feels safe, the survival energy will come up and out of our body in the form of shaking, tremors and involuntary movement.
Yoga is a fantastic tool for moving trauma through the body, but it needs to be done mindfully and with intention. A consequence of trauma is that we disconnect from our bodies and shut down our ability to feel. Yet paradoxically, connecting with our body and learning to feel is crucial in healing from trauma. Many yoga practitioners who have hidden trauma will seek out strong or aggressive practices because they struggle to feel the subtleties in their bodies. Strong and aggressive stretching does nothing to create safety in the body and just keeps the trauma suppressed. That’s why people struggle with the subtleties of being present with the body and breath in yoga because they can’t feel anything; they assume nothing is happening.
Supported Bridge Pose is a classic example. This pose is where we elevate our hips with a block or bolster to release the psoas muscle. The psoas stores much of the trauma in our body as it’s the primary muscle involved in the fight or flight response. Releasing the psoas is a slow and subtle process, yet many get frustrated because they can’t feel a stretch, so they try to force the stretch and sensation by lifting the hips higher.
Releasing trauma doesn’t work that way. It can’t be forced from the body. Trauma will only release when the nervous system feels safe.
This is a good thing.
Nervous system healing is a bottom-up approach. Rather than using our minds and thoughts, we connect with the wisdom of our body and nervous system. Our body knows how to come back to balance. We just need to create the right conditions for it.
Leave a comment below if you found this helpful.
Monica founded Cultivate Calm Yoga in 2013 – a sanctuary for people seeking more than exercise yoga. She has created a hub for physical, emotional and mental wellbeing.
Monica has a Bachelor of Behavioural Science (psychology), is a Level 2 Yoga and Meditation Teacher, a certified Neuro-Linguistic Programming Coach and Timeline Therapy Practitioner.
Monica is an expert at holding space for people to feel safe to unravel the layers of past hurt and trauma. She’s supportive and compassionate, and because she’s done the work herself, she’s incredibly non-judgmental.