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Breath and Trauma-Healing Exercises

Breath work can be the best way of grounding during a trauma trigger.

Key points

  • A breath practice right before bed can help to manage intrusive memories and nightmares.
  • Box breathing exercises are quick breath exercises to reduce one's emotional thermometer.
  • A breath exercise during the day can be used to maintain our emotional capacity throughout the day.

Trauma has a significant impact on the body. It sensitizes the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is the area of the brain responsible for our body’s central stress response system. The cumulative impact of trauma(s) can make us quite reactive to stress. This is why trauma healing is so important.

If you have ever felt like your emotional thermometer has shot up from a 20 to a 100, or if you ever feel like you’re constantly at an 80 out of 100, then it might be time to consider how trauma has impacted your body and your mind. When our emotions are like a roller coaster and/or constantly staying at their max, it can be draining on our muscles, nerves, and mind.

How Do We Lower Our Emotional Thermometer?

Breath work is incredibly important in trauma healing to lower our emotional thermometer. Our breath can be used to intervene at times when we’re particularly emotionally heightened, but it can also be used to prevent those instances from happening as often.

When Should I Do My Breath Work?

It is recommended to have a breath practice at least twice a day with one practice being right before bed. The reason for the practice right before bed is because nightmares or difficulty falling asleep are particularly salient experiences among trauma survivors.

Oftentimes, we can busy ourselves with work and relationships so much during the day that we avoid thinking about our trauma. However, when we lay our head down on our pillows at night, all those memories and thoughts can come rushing to the surface. These memories often become the marinade for our sleep, causing stressful nightmares or increased sleep latency (i.e., the amount of time it takes to fall asleep).

Doing an additional breath exercise during the day can be used to lower or maintain our emotional capacity throughout the day to decrease the likelihood of having a trauma response to a nontraumatic event.

How Should I Practice My Breath Work?

There are many great phone apps out there that provide exercises, including Headspace, Calm, YouTube, and, our favorite, Insight Timer. However, there are also quick exercises you can do yourself that benefit trauma healing.

The first exercise we teach patients when doing a trauma-informed treatment like prolonged exposure is to practice saying "calmmmmmmmmmm." The way to do this is to take a normal inhale and take a long, extended exhale, saying a word aloud, such as “calm” or “relax.” It is the long exhale that helps lower your emotional thermometer and your overall autonomic stress response. You can repeat this exercise as many times as needed. Whether you choose to repeat this exercise for 10 minutes or find another 10-minute mindfulness exercise, both can help significantly lower one’s autonomic arousal.

The second exercise I teach is one that I recommend for when one is feeling particularly emotionally activated. It is called a Box Breath exercise. Take a five-second slow inhale, hold your breath for five seconds, take a low extended exhale for five seconds, and let your breath sit at its natural rhythm for five seconds. You can repeat this exercise as many times as necessary.

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