Deep Breathing for Trauma-Impacted People?

Mental health related Grunge brush drawing. Universe as brains.

In my last blog, Why Telling a Trauma-Impacted Person to Take Deep Breaths Can Exacerbate Their Trauma, I invited readers to appreciate that deep breathing can actually trigger some trauma-impacted people, based on research by many trauma-experts. Further substantiation came as a result of reading an article by Laura Khoudari, a self-described trauma-informed strength trainer and coach. Her article provides clear explanations for the physiology of how the body responds to deep breathing and some recommendations for alternative approaches for the trauma-impacted person who may find that deep breathing creates anxiety and even panic.

Trauma is stored in the senses. When someone is triggered as a result of a flashback, hyper-vigilance or dissociation which are common responses for trauma-impacted people, their reactions are sensory in nature. Books like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk and The Body Remembers by Babette Rothschild provide outstanding information to explain trauma responses in terms of how the body stores and expresses unresolved trauma.

yoga woman on green grass

As we become aware and bring our attention to parts of our body, we can notice where we are feeling stress, tension, irritability or anxiety. We can also notice where in our body we feel calm and peaceful. Khoudari and others like Peter Levine, who focus on somatic experiencing, invite trauma-impacted people to feel empowered enough to not only notice where in their body they are experiencing a trauma-related symptom, but encourage them to release whatever traumatic energy is currently being experienced there.

As we become aware, we could also focus away from any part in the body where there is stress and tension to focus instead on somewhere that is calm and relaxed. Appreciating that certain parts of the body actually are free from the stress of unexpressed trauma can be a source of relief and can promote calming.

According to Khoudari, “For some folks, turning inward at all is dysregulating. Suddenly becoming aware of your state can be quite jarring at times. For clients who cannot ground by looking for resources inward, I ask them to become situated and present by looking around and naming five blue things, five red things, and five yellow things. It gets people to closely look at their environment and keeps their prefrontal cortex turned on as opposed to triggering an emotionally reactive limbic response.” She goes on to say that a person can also notice things they are hearing or feeling; anything to allow sensory awareness in a safe way.

Cheerless moody nice man sitting on the sofa and thinking about his problems while being depressed

A person can be encouraged to notice how they feel as they breathe without asking them to do deep breathing, because that can produce anxiety. Khoudari suggest that eventually being able to comfortably engage in deep breathing might be a good goal for somebody, but needs to be done only on their terms and in their time. Relaxation in general can be a foreign sensory experience for some trauma-impacted people that actually takes away a person’s belief that somehow by being hyper-vigilant they are safer and more in control.

In summary, a trauma-sensitive person needs this basic awareness regarding what promotes and maintains safety for a trauma-impacted person that does not involve encouraging deep breathing. So much of this is having the trauma-impacted person become more aware of their sensations and to gain control over when and how they can release tension. In the context of safe, nurturing relationships, both the trauma-impacted person and the trauma-sensitive friend or caregiver can gently find ways that simultaneously maintain safety and promote sensory awareness and expression for the trauma-impacted person.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. How aware are you of where you hold tension in your body? Once aware, what helps you release that tension? Can you focus on that body part and mindfully encourage it to allow tension to be released? Can you shift to a part of the body that is not holding tension and appreciating the sensations involved in being calm and relaxed there?
  2.  If you have an opportunity to interact with a trauma-impacted person, what are some of the ways you would describe the processes that do not involve deep breathing, and instead invite the person to find ways to experience sensations that are safe and calming?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute