March 21

How Breath Can Heal Your Trauma

You might have heard it before: breath is essential for our well-being. Unfortunately, unless they have experienced ‘breathwork’, most people would say: Yeah, I know how to breathe, not even fathoming the possibility of the profound healing that can happen within a breath session.

But first things first. Let’s define some terms here.

What is breathwork?

There are many types of breathwork: Holotropic Breathwork, Rebirthing, Alchemy of Breath, Biodynamic Breath and Trauma Release System (BBTRS), Transformational Breathing and many more.

Even though I haven’t tried all of them, I know they have one thing in common: breath. Duh.

The idea is to charge the body with oxygen through deep connected breathing. No pause between inhalation and exhalation. This brings you in a slightly altered state of consciousness and creates all sorts of unexpected unfamiliar sensations in the body. Some very pleasant, some initially maybe less so. But all of it can serve as a trigger for deep insights, in which you can feel more clearly the energetic undercurrent of your life.

It’s like letting go of the left brain perspective of your life only and taking a deep dive into the unchartered waters of your subconscious

In BBTRS the goal is to trigger the fight and flight response in order to give it an opportunity to complete its cycle. But before we go further into that, we have to understand one thing:

What is trauma?

The best way to describe it is through Peter Levine’s example in his book Waking the Tiger.

Photo by Mark Galer on Unsplash

Imagine a zebra being chased by a lion. Its adrenalin pumping as it runs for its life. Then the lion gets hold of it! What happens to the zebra? It goes stiff. Numb. Frozen.

According to Levine, this response has two functions:

a) when numb, the zebra won’t feel much whilst being eaten alive (which is a compassionate mechanism of nature itself) and

b) this ‘playing dead’ may give it another opportunity to run for its life at a later time when the predator’s attention is averted.

Let’s see what happens if for some reason the lion gets distracted and the zebra indeed gets a second chance for life. Imagine it: It’s stock stiff lying there on the ground. How does it get from that frozen state into running at 100km/h again? Or put it another way: what happened to all the adrenalin pumping through its blood before going into freeze?

Exactly, it froze. It didn’t just disappear.

That means it still is inside, somewhere. For the zebra to be able to get up and run again, it will first have to ‘shake off’ all that access energy. It literally does so through shaking, trembling and tremoring for some time. (Watch this youtube video to see a polar bear going through this process, only 2 minutes).

After having gone through the ‘discharge’ process, it will take a few deep breaths, get up and join its zebra mates without experiencing trauma.

As part of our brain is ‘reptilian’ in nature, we are wired the same way as our four-legged friends. This whole cycle is called the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. And every time we experience danger, this cycle gets triggered in us. It’s a fantastic tool that nature created to ensure our survival.

There is one problem, however.

Many of us are experiencing ‘fight and flight’ on a daily basis. The danger might not be a tiger, but the traffic jam making us late for work and maybe risking losing our job, an angry boss or spouse, the impending economic crisis, the emotional unsafety in our family homes, etc. They can all trigger our Nervous System into survival.

These dangers are much more abstract and therefore less tangible. This means often we don’t even notice that we are in a state of fight and flight because society normalizes it. And through that, it invalidates the need for discharge or emotional release.

(author’s note: there are of course many varying degrees and types of trauma. For the sake of this article, I will keep it general and mild as the principle behind is the same)

To put it simply: We go through the ‘Fight, Flight and Freeze’- Response oftentimes without being consciously aware of it. Without understanding it, and without having the safe space to complete the cycle through discharge, like the zebra. Therefore the access build up energy stays inside of us which leads to trauma.

Trauma results from the ‘Freeze’ energy in our bodies, energy that hasn’t had the chance to complete its cycle through a discharge. Trauma does NOT result from what happens to us. It results from how effective our Nervous System was able to deal with the energy that was triggered in us.

Two people can go through the same horrific event, one ending up feeling traumatized and the other one without any adverse effects. It depends on whether the person went into ‘freeze’ and stayed there or whether they took action (fight and flight).

The good news is that, regardless of the ‘what’ happened to you, you won’t have to carry it with you all your life if you give your self the chance to release it.

How can breathwork help?

As mentioned above: breathwork can create a safe space for the cycle of ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze’ to complete itself. Through charging the body with oxygen, and therefore energy, the Fight and Flight kicks in and the body can go through a process of discharging: shaking, tremoring, sweating, shivering, crying, laughing, shouting, myofascial unwinding (the body moving by itself).

Emotions that had never been acknowledged can finally rise up to the surface, be felt and released. Muscular tension that has been holding the ‘frozen energy’ in place can finally relax and create a feeling of spaciousness inside.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

People often report they can breathe better and more freely. The feeling of looking at their lives from behind a window and not fully participating goes away and they start feeling part of everything. A sense of belonging emerges. They start sensing their own presence and the presence of others.

They feel more connected to themselves, their feelings, their needs, and their physical aliveness. They have more confidence and trust in expressing their emotions and truth.

They start feeling safe.

In the last century humanity made huge leaps in understanding the physiology of trauma. There are countless techniques and tools to help individuals move beyond it.

Personally I have found Breathwork and especially BBTRS to be incredibly fast and effective. Deep held tensions in my being started releasing just after 2,3 sessions, opening me up to a whole new felt-sense of existence.

I hadn’t known, I had kept so much inside till I started releasing it. Which is the same I hear from all my clients!

Wow, I had no idea I could feel like that just through my breath!

And that’s exactly the beauty of breathwork: it’s the one thing that you have available 24⁄7 and it’s free. Of course, a skilled facilitator is needed to guide you through the process, however, this whole notion of ‘healer’ disappears as you are healing yourself through your own breath.

And that’s empowering on a whole new level.

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