Science Behind Breath: Exploring Breathwork Benefits
From Breath to Benefit: How Science Supports Breathwork
Breathing deeply influences mental health and is intricately connected to the brain's stress response regions.
Traumatic experiences can alter normal breathing patterns, with the amygdala, hippocampus, pre-frontal cortex, and vagus nerve playing key roles.
Recommended healing breathwork techniques include Heart Coherence, Guided Breathing w/ CalmiGo, Box Breathing, Wim Hof's method, 4-7-8 Breathwork Meditation, Holotropic Breathing, and Alternate Nostril Breathing.
Regular breathwork practice promotes relaxation, stress relief, and improved physical health.
Daily breathwork, even briefly, provides immediate calm and grounding.
Breathing - it's the first & last thing that we do in life, and yet, we often take it for granted.
Its influence on mental health, particularly for those healing from trauma and Complex PTSD, is profound.
For today's blog, I have delved deep into understanding the neuroscience and therapeutic power of breath.
I have also seen its positive impact on my clients personally!
We will cover the power of breathwork, breathwork exercises you can try, different breathwork techniques, and different ways to add it to your daily routine.
Let's dive into the most powerful tool needed to navigate our stressful modern world, your breath.
The Mind-Body Connection
Our breath connects directly with the brain, particularly regions governing emotion and stress response, like the autonomic nervous system.
For instance, when chronic stress grips us, our breathing patterns often become shallow.
This not only elevates heart rate but also activates the 'fight or flight response', heightening anxiety.
This phenomenon can sometimes lead to panic attacks in the middle of the day because once we feel our heart rate increase "randomly", it freaks us out.
This then triggers a fear response, further increasing our heart rate, and further freaking us out until we're in a full-on panic attack.
All because our breathing was off...
This is how connected our mind, brain, and body are to our breath.
The good news is the intentional practice of deep breathing can promote relaxation, regulate blood flow, and modulate our stress response, offering considerable stress relief!
How Past Experiences Shape Our Breathing Patterns and Neurobiology
It's a widely acknowledged truism: our past experiences, particularly traumatic ones, leave indelible marks on our psyche.
But few realize these experiences also impact one of our most fundamental life processes – our breathing.
Understanding the link between trauma and breathing patterns, rooted in neurobiology, can shed light on the profound ways trauma shapes our physiological responses.
Individuals who have experienced trauma, especially prolonged or repetitive trauma such as in abusive relationships, often display altered breathing patterns after being in these kinds of stressful situations.
They might breathe more shallowly, hold their breath frequently, or even hyperventilate during moments of distress.
This is distinctly different from the regular, deep abdominal breathing observed in those not affected by trauma.
At the heart of this altered breathing pattern is our brain's intricate response system to threats.
Here’s a breakdown:
Amygdala Activation: The amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nuclei located deep within the brain, plays a pivotal role in processing emotions and determining responses to threats. When trauma occurs, the amygdala becomes hyperactive, perpetually sensing danger even in safe environments. This heightened state of alert can lead to rapid, shallow breathing, prepping the body for the "fight or flight" response.
Hippocampal Alterations: The hippocampus, responsible for memory and distinguishing between past and present experiences, can be affected by trauma. If it starts associating certain cues with past traumatic events, even benign stimuli can trigger a stress response. This includes altered breathing patterns as the body prepares to face a perceived threat.
Pre-frontal Cortex Regulation: The pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the brain's executive center, regulates our reactions and emotions. In trauma victims, the PFC may become less active, making it challenging to regulate stress responses, leading to persistent patterns of irregular breathing.
Vagus Nerve Response: The vagus nerve, a significant player in the parasympathetic nervous system, is responsible for calming the body after a stress response. Traumatic experiences can impact vagus nerve functioning, meaning the body remains in a heightened state of stress for longer periods. This can be observed in prolonged rapid breathing or breath-holding.
To simplify this, let's use a former client of mine as an example.
Jane survived a traumatic car accident before we started working together.
The first thing she ever mentioned to me was that every time she hears the honk of a horn or screeching tires, she would get "triggered."
And guess what would proceed this "triggered state"? Her breathing would become rapid and shallow.
This was happening for the reasons above, her autonomic nervous system and vagus nerve perceived danger, which started the cascade of events we just covered in the amygdala, hippocampus, and PFC.
So, even though she was in a safe environment, her nervous system didn't know it, and one of the leading indicators of this response was her breathing!
As you can see, breathing, while an automatic process, is deeply intertwined with our emotional state and neurological state.
And for trauma survivors, breathing patterns can become an unconscious reflection of past pains and fears.
By understanding the neurobiological underpinnings of these changes, we can better empathize with and support those on their healing journey.
Breathing Techniques for Healing
Alright, so what are some breathwork techniques and exercises that we can use as a part of our daily routine?
Let's go over various practices that breathwork experts agree can help!
Heart Coherence Breathing:
I just talked about this one in a recent blog, so I won't go too far in-depth, but if for sure deserves to be on this list!
As you may remember, heart coherence breathing can help align these 3 things into 1 coherent rhythm using your breath, which scientists call your “resonance frequency.”
The optimal respiration rate to achieve this state is about 5.5sec for each inhale & exhale
I do this daily for 10mins in the morning!
Here are a couple of guided videos I use as well:
Guided Breathing w/ CalmiGo
Again, I covered this one recently as well, but it doesn't hurt to repeat doing some guided breath work sessions with CalmiGo can be a great way to calm your nervous system!
It applies adaptive breathing regulation, sensory stimulation, and aromatherapy techniques to activate your body's innate calming systems.
It for sure has my stamp of approval, and if you’d like to get one, they’re letting me give you $30 off!
Just use the code: MBBLab
Popular among healthcare professionals & Navy SEALs for its ability to bring focus and calm, box breathing involves inhaling, holding, exhaling, and holding the breath again, all for equal counts of four.
Wim Hof Breathwork:
Wim Hof, often referred to as "The Iceman" is a breathwork expert and has become synonymous with a unique combination of breathing exercises and cold exposure.
His method, widely popularized in recent years, promises a range of benefits like increased energy, improved immune response, reduction of psychological stress, lowering high blood pressure, and much more!
The Wim Hof breathing exercise is relatively straightforward:
Deep Breaths: Begin by taking 30 to 40 deep breaths, inhaling deeply through the nose or mouth, and exhaling gently and passively. This hyperoxygenates the body.
Breath Retention: After the series of deep breaths, exhale fully and hold your breath for as long as you comfortably can.
Recovery Breath: Once you feel the need to breathe again, inhale deeply and hold for around 15 seconds before exhaling.
This cycle can be repeated for several rounds.
4-7-8 Breathwork Meditation:
There are numerous breathwork meditations that you can try as well, in fact, most meditations generally have you control your breathing in some way, no matter what kind of meditation it is.
One of my favorites is 4-7-8 Breathing, here's how it works:
Inhale for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven and exhale for a count of eight.
This pattern acts as a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. Over time and with consistent practice, its calming effects become more profound.
Pioneered by Christina Grof, this type of breathwork is typically practiced in group settings and involves rapid breathing patterns.
It aims to tap into altered states of consciousness for healing, though it's crucial to note that this method may have adverse effects for some, especially those with certain medical conditions.
Please make sure you check in with your healthcare providers about potential risks you might run into if you have certain health problems before trying this.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Borrowed from yoga practice, this method is a type of yogic breathing and involves inhaling through one nostril, holding the breath, and then exhaling through the opposite nostril.
It's lauded for its ability to bring balance and inner peace to the mind.
The Science Behind Different Breathing Techniques
When we engage in breathing techniques like I've covered above, we stimulate the vagus nerve, a critical component of our parasympathetic nervous system.
This nerve plays a pivotal role in moderating our heart rate and easing tension in blood vessels, ultimately promoting a relaxation response.
In recent studies of various breathwork practices, it was evident that regular practice could be a potent tool for stress relief, mitigating chronic pain, improving physical health, and even addressing specific medical conditions.
Breathwork & Mental Health
Breathing patterns are a mirror to our mental health.
Irregular or shallow breathing is often indicative of anxiety, stress, or underlying trauma.
Breathwork therapy, championed by many healthcare professionals, serves as a bridge to address these mental health challenges, grounding individuals in the present moment.
Moreover, in the context of Complex PTSD, an overactive stress response can perpetuate feelings of unease.
Breathing exercises, by moderating this response, can act as a therapeutic anchor.
Breathwork in Daily Life
Incorporating breathwork into daily life doesn't necessitate hours of commitment.
Even a few minutes of focused breathing can infuse a sense of calm into a hectic day.
Whether it's box breathing before a challenging task or engaging in belly breathing during moments of overwhelm, these techniques can be lifelines.
Engage, explore, and immerse yourself in the world of breath.
As you breathe in deeply, imagine drawing in strength and healing. As you exhale, visualize releasing pain and trauma.
Every breath is a step toward a brighter, healthier future!
Until next time… Live Heroically 🧠
**Remember, while breathwork offers incredible benefits, it complements, rather than replaces, traditional therapies. Always consult with healthcare professionals to tailor a healing approach best suited for you.**
Brown, R. P., & Gerbarg, P. L. (2005). Sudarshan Kriya yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression: Part I—neurophysiologic model. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 11(1), 189-201.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2006). Clinical implications of neuroscience research in PTSD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071(1), 277-293.
Kox, M., Stoffels, M., Smeekens, S. P., van Alfen, N., Gomes, M., Eijsvogels, T. M., ... & Pickkers, P. (2014). The influence of concentration/meditation on autonomic nervous system activity and the innate immune response: a case study. Psychosomatic medicine, 76(5), 374.
Grof, S., & Grof, C. (2010). Holotropic breathwork: A new approach to self-exploration and therapy. SUNY Press.
Telles, S., Nagarathna, R., & Nagendra, H. R. (1994). Breathing through a particular nostril can alter metabolism and autonomic activities. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 38(2), 133.
Zaccaro, A., Piarulli, A., Laurino, M., Garbella, E., Menicucci, D., Neri, B., & Gemignani, A. (2018). How breath-control can change your life: A systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 353.
Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., ... & Li, Y. F. (2017). The effect of diaphragmatic breathing on attention, negative affect and stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874.
Breit, S., Kupferberg, A., Rogler, G., & Hasler, G. (2018). Vagus nerve as modulator of the brain-gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 44.