Why Telling a Trauma-Impacted Person to Take Deep Breaths Can Exacerbate Their Trauma

There are many trends in the growing world of becoming and/or being trauma-informed. One of them is to encourage people to learn skills that involve deep breathing. There are many YouTube videos and TED Talks giving specific instructions and touting the many positive results of deep-breathing for anyone who is stressed, anxious or trying to cope with unresolved trauma.

However, speaking from experience, being told to take a deep breath when feeling highly anxious greatly increases my anxiety. It may be very helpful to some people to learn some of the deep-breathing techniques to allow them to become more regulated and calmer, but for others, it can actually exacerbate trauma symptoms.

This outstanding website explains the physiology of this reaction by those with deep trauma-related issues.

Author Laura Khoudari, who describes herself as a trauma-informed strength trainer and coach, begins her article with a detailed description of the physiology of breathing. She explains how, when we are doing restful breathing, we are in a parasympathetic state. A parasympathetic state, according to Google, is one of the three divisions of the autonomic nervous system. It is the part that conserves energy as it slows heart rate and increases intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. It is the part of the nervous system that calms us. It has been compared to the brake pedal in a car. The problem, Khoudari explains, is that theoretically when you are at rest, the various muscles in your chest region are also at rest.  “Even when you are working hard in a sympathetic state [which is the part of the autonomic nervous system that is concerned especially with preparing the body to react to situations of stress or emergency. It has been compared to the gas pedal in a car,] they [your muscles]are only handling some of the load. That said, if you live with chronic stress or trauma, these muscles are often overused, and your diaphragm does almost none of the work.” 

Telling the trauma-impacted person that they need to relax their constricted chest area and make their diaphragms more active goes against what is happening in the body. The constriction and bracing around it is what makes that trauma-impacted person feel prepared to deal with the onslaught of their deep-seated fear responses. It may seem counter-intuitive but instructing a trauma-impacted person who is usually in a state of some level of hyper-vigilance that they need to lower their defenses by breathing deeply, can actually make them feel less safe and therefore even more anxious.

Perhaps you already experienced this and are greatly relieved to find out that you aren’t crazy when deep-breathing for you just made symptoms worse. It is helpful to know that there is a physiological reason that deep-breathing often is not a stress-reducer or the end-all be-all for helping someone with unresolved trauma become calmer.

When a trauma-impacted person is triggered, the muscles in their body, including those in their chest area, constrict. In those moments of great stress and even after some of that stress has subsided, Khoudari states the following: “… Your diaphragm will probably still be constricted with the lingering stress. Many of us don’t realize that we have not relaxed our diaphragms and that we are always bracing our primary breathing muscles to some extent.” 

In my next blog we will look at some alternatives to helping the trauma-impacted person use their body to bring down some of their anxieties.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. If you have experienced significant trauma and have tried deep-breathing to help yourself become calmer, has it actually helped, or has it made you feel more anxious? If it actually helps, please continue doing it. It’s a way to train your body to not be in a constant state of fight or flight.
  2. If, on the other hand, deep breathing made you feel more anxious, consider how this information explains the possible reasons for that. Hopefully, it gives you permission to say that deep-breathing is not a skill you find useful.

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute