Breathing and Trauma

When you’re in the thick of a panic attack or have just been exposed to one of your triggers, breathing may seem like a bandaid. But hear me out–you better grab that bandaid. Trauma is a monster–something innately unmanageable. In order to manage your symptoms and begin healing, you’re going to need to fill your emergency kit up with coping techniques, routines that serve you, and yes, you’ll need metaphorical bandaids, things that feel like you’re barely stopping the onslaught. It might be frustrating at first, and you may feel silly counting your breaths, but eventually breathing became one of my go-to techniques & focusing on my breathing is one of my favorite states of being.

Breathing and Control

As you likely know by now (but check out this blog post if you’re curious), trauma happens when you are going through something (a moment, a marriage, a car ride) and suddenly things get out of control. For whatever reason, your normal coping mechanisms (fighting, fleeing, talking) are not helping you to find a resolution. For example, one traumatic memory I have is watching my mother get arrested when I was a young kid. I couldn’t help my mom, and since she represented safety to me, not being able to get to her while police physically restrained her–well, that’s trauma.

One of the first steps I took towards healing was taking back control.

In the beginning, I wasn’t ready to tackle big things like debt, employment, relationships, and mindset. Quite unhealthily, I began to plan out my day down to the minute each night before I went to sleep. In my notebook, I would write tiny lists about everything. I kept my room impeccably clean. But if anything threw me off my schedule, I became a mess. After the therapist I was seeing at the time asked me what would happen if I lost my notebook (which contained all of my lists and schedules) I realized how hard I had dived into control as a coping mechanism and began the slow and painful process of purging the safe but obsessively scheduled life I had built for myself.

It took me a very long time before I was able to build a list of things I could control, but when I did, breathing became my number one method for regaining a feeling of control in situations where I felt lost and drowning.

Breathing and Panic Attacks

Some 80 percent of the fibers of the vagus nerve (which connects the brain with many internal organs) are afferent; that is, they run from the body into the brain. This means that we can directly train our arousal system by the way we breathe, chant, and move, a principle hat has been utilized since time immemorial in places like China and India, and in every religious practice that I know of, but that is suspiciously eyed as “alternative” in mainstream culture.

– Bessel Van Der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

As usual, Bessel Van Der Kolk (a human I quote often) is right. Breathing is part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is often responsible for the body’s rest & digest function. The PNS works with the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in a beautiful balancing act. (Or it’s supposed to.) To put it very shortly, the SNS panics and the PNS calms us down–and breathing is one piece of the PNS that we are capable of controlling. Trauma survivors suffer from an SNS that is trained to panic. By breathing deeply from our diaphragm, we can send all the right signals to our brain to communicate that the danger has gone and we are safe. It’s important to breathe the right way, and I’ll explain more about that in the sections below.

Daily Deep Breathing; Why???

The benefits of daily deep breathing are so incredibly important and valuable.

Practice Makes Perfect: Daily deep breathing teaches our bodies how it’s done. If you practice proper breathing techniques daily and purposefully, you’re more likely to breathe properly on the regular. Which means that you’ll never accidentally trigger your PNS into a panic response, and when you are panicked, you’re more likely to naturally lean on deep exhaling in order to find a balanced state once again.

Additionally, breathing deeply on the daily can actually help your body create more capillaries–which is super important for cardio, which in turn is super important for your SNS/PNS because of something called Heart Rate Variability. (HRV for short, and I’m working on a blog post about it now but you can google it for a quick summary.)

Teaching yourself proper breathing techniques will also inherently improve your posture, which will inherently improve your mood. (If you don’t believe me, next time you catch yourself feeling very sad or irritated, check your posture and your breathing. I guarantee it will make you feel at least .01 percent better, and like I said before we trauma survivors need all the band-aids we can get.)

And most importantly, deep breathing reduces stress and can combat the negative effects of stress. Which sounds nice… so let me highlight some of those negative effects of stress so we can really see what we’re trying to fight off here:

  • Migraines & Headaches
  • Muscle tension & Pain
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Heart Disease
  • Sleep Problems (which cause another host of side effects, including a shorter life expectancy)
  • Over and under eating
  • Decreased Sex Drive
  • Social Withdrawal
  • Anxiety

Troubleshooting Breathing

I have a lot of friends who have spent a lot of time arguing on the internet with, honestly, total assholes who suggest that the cause of mental illness and personality disorders is improper breathing techniques, and that learning proper breathing techniques will cure you of symptoms and just generally turn you into a new, bright person with zero problems.

That is obviously not true.

But if breathing as a band-aid has not worked at all for you in the past, you may be surprised to learn that there are different ways to breathe–two, specifically that matter here. One way will cause you anxiety, and the other will send all the right be-calm cues to your brain, and signal to the rest of your body that there is no need for panic or anxiety.

The anxiety way is through your chest–and the shocking thing is that chest-breathing is likely your norm. If someone hasn’t taught you to breathe deeply and from the diaphragm/stomach, chances are that you don’t. At least not often. We’re taught since we’re children to breathe through the stomach, mostly via exaggerated cartoons and a lack of training to do otherwise.

But if you’ve had any theater or choir training, you may already know that the proper way to breathe is from your diaphragm. In fact, when breathing properly, your chest should not move much or at all.

You can find out more about breathing properly on Wikihow. I don’t often send people to Wikihow, but the pictures of where to breathe from are especially helpful in this scenario.

Breathing Exercises

There are many apps and websites that will teach you how to breathe. I’m enjoying the Breathe app on my Apple Watch, but before that I used the Calm app often. If you have access to apps, I highly recommend finding one that works for you. If you don’t, or you’re on a tech detox, try breathing deeply from your diaphragm, focusing intently on the exhale (which is the action that triggers your PNS and calms you down). When you can, try inhaling for four seconds, holding for four seconds, and then exhaling for four seconds. This is called the box breathing method, and you can pretty much practice it eternally–but I try to aim for five minutes a day. It is excellent for both daily practice and in the midst of a meltdown. I don’t always do those five minutes in a row, but that’s the goal. Try it–let me know how it works out for you in the comments or on my Instagram.

When Breathing Doesn’t Work

At the suggestion of a very good therapist, when I started working through my trauma, one of the first things I did was make a list of things that triggered me, emotions I felt, and coping mechanisms that might help me counteract the ensuing panic attacks and reexperiencing of traumatic events. I highly suggest everyone dealing with trauma take some time to sit down and write out a list of known coping mechanisms, and then put in the work to build that list so that your coping skills are wide and varied. You may be thinking, “But Virginia, I already know my coping mechanisms. They haven’t changed since I was 13.” And if you are thinking something like that, you may not know one of the most important things about trauma: in the midst of reexperiencing, flashbacks, panic attacks, and other tricky trauma moments, the part of our brain that can name and communicate what we’re going through becomes largely ineffectual and inactive. This means that in the midst of a flashback, you may not understand that you’re sad and not angry. In the midst of reexperiencing, you may not even realize it is happening. Being able to look at a preplanned map of how you may feel and what you can do could literally save your life. To make your own counteraction list, just write down some of your troublesome states of being, and then write down a list of activities that counteract those feelings and states of being. You can see my example below, and you may notice breathing shows up on a lot of my mind map destinations.

This is one of my original coping skills mind maps.

As always, let me know in the comments if this article has helped you, or if you have any additional resources on the subject that I’m unaware of. I’m always happy to learn more.

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