There is a very interesting connection between how we breathe and how we experience trauma and unpleasant, unprocessed emotions. Expressions such as butterflies in my stomach and stress stomach indicate that the painful feelings are often situated in our stomach-area. The reason why many of us have a shallow chest breathing is simply to avoid getting in touch with grief, fear, anger and so on. Moving up our breath into the chest is an attempt to “run away” from the unpleasant feelings often situated in our abdominal area.
When we are afraid and tensed up, another common breathing pattern is to breathe in and hold our breath. It is a natural reflex as our body prepares to meet a perceived danger. The expression “The danger is over, so now we can exhale” and we sigh in relief, reflects this breathing pattern well.
In the short term, it is a survival strategy as we are unable to deal with the painful emotions that seem overwhelming. In the long run, it is, however, not a particularly wise strategy.
Impaired breathing cements and
reinforces trauma, stress and fears
If we do not process the painful emotions, we will only bury them deeper and deeper within us. And if the impaired breathing continues, a negative cycle is created where the breathing is cemented and, over time, even can intensify trauma, stress and fear.
Since chest breathing is ineffective, we are forced to breathe faster in order to compensate. The fast and shallow breathing takes us to the fight/flight-state, while holding our breath takes us to the freeze-state. In other words, with our breathing we engage the sympathetic part of our nervous system, which is also called fight, flight or freeze. This often means that we, thus, will drive around in turbo mode even though we do not need it.
As our society is handicapped both in respiratory terms and emotionally, where we have neither good role models to mimic nor been taught what characterizes impaired breathing or how to deal with these painful emotions, the risk is that the initial survival strategy will become permanent.
However, holding back emotions is not free. There is a price to pay to try to be one step ahead in order to avoid people and situations that may trigger fear, worry etc. And all the junk food, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and so on that we consume to deafen what is fretting inside us also has a price tag. We lose a great deal of energy when we hold on to anger, anxiety, fear, traumas and dwell on old conflicts. The more powerful they are, the more energy they will consume. Here, you can read about how I conquered my fear of public speaking.
In an interesting study, the participants were divided into two groups, where one group was instructed to hold back their emotions while the other group was encouraged to stay in touch with their emotions. Then, they got to see the same movie.
After the movie, they were asked to squeeze a hand strengthener as many times as they could. It turned out that those who held back their emotions were significantly weaker than those who had stayed in touch with them. In other words, we are leaking energy when we are holding back what we really believe, think and feel.
Many people in our society are controlled by fear, which is not a surprise as it has ensured our survival through evolution. Sympathetic activity (fight, flight or freeze) has been important for our survival throughout human evolution. If we look at life today, we find that we rarely end up in situations that require us to react with our innate fight or flight response.
When the adrenaline pumps around our body it alters our breathing pattern to prepare us to run away from danger or defend ourselves. This stone-age reaction doesn’t serve us well when we sit on an office chair, and the stress consists of dealing with demanding emails or customers barking at us over the phone. We will neither fight nor flee; instead, we just sit still in our office and think evil thoughts or sigh in resignation.
Mental or emotional stress that isn’t accompanied by physical activity or abdominal and rhythmic breathing accumulates in our body and will eventually cause a lot of damage.
To release mental or emotional stress we can do something physical, such as laughing, crying, singing, hitting a sand bag to get rid of anger, or go for a run to reduce anxiety. Another way to release stress is to turn to your breath, which is also something physical, since our breathing muscles are active on inhalation, and make sure that our breathing is relaxed and rhythmical. This will make it easier for the unpleasant feelings to disappear.
Let your breath
While we have fears for a reason – they are there to help us avoid dangers – they can often be drastically reduced so that they are in line with the actual danger.
By letting your breathing assist you, you may experience the safety needed to have the courage to face your fears, sorrows and traumas instead of fleeing from them. When you reduce your fear of saying, “I’m sorry,” speaking in public, or standing up for what is important to you, you will also grow as a human being.
When you are stressed out and scared and breathe shallowly and chaotically, you’ll take the elevator straight up into your head, which will make it harder to navigate in life and increase your stress even more. A conscious breathing that is low and slow is synchronizing, via the vagus nerve, the mind-brain, heart-brain and stomach-brain. It gives us access to map and compass and a broader perspective which makes it easier to analyze and think logically as well as include our feelings and intuition on the basis of our decisions and, thus, make wise decisions.
By improving the way we breathe, we will automatically reduce the fears we carry around. It is not uncommon to wake up one morning, after practicing breathing retraining for a while, and realize that things you were previously afraid of no longer have any grip on you. It is a wonderful feeling of freedom to discover that you are becoming increasingly fearless.
Exercise part I: What
are you afraid of?
Set aside 5-10 minutes and write down a list of the situations or people who are or have made you scared, upset, pissed off, annoyed or stressed, big or small. Ask yourself questions like: “What scares me the very most today? What scared me the most when I was little? Was there anyone physically or emotionally abusive in the past that made my upbringing difficult?”
Do not be afraid to go back in time and dig deep, as we, namely, have the ability to repress what has happened to us that we perceived as tough.
Exercise part II: Breathe
through your fears
The exercise will help you to dare to face your fears and make them diminish or cease altogether. The exercise will also make you feel safer and braver whenever you move outside of your comfort zone.
By maintaining a rhythmic, slow and low breath, you will have the courage needed to remain in your fears for a longer period of time.
- Set aside 5-10 minutes.
- Select one or a few situations and/or people from the list you wrote above. Make them as alive as possible by fantasizing vividly with adding colors, sounds, moving images and other people. Feel the places in your body where there is tension and dis-ease. Allow your emotions to become increasingly clearer.
- Notice how you are breathing while experiencing these difficult things. If your breathing is stressed and tense, it is completely natural. If you have difficulty getting in touch with your fears, you can be helped by your breath by breathing fast and shallow high up in your chest, or holding your breath altogether.
- Now, make your breathing rhythmic, low and slow by prolonging your exhalation. Your friend, the breath, is with you all the time and allows you to feel calm and safe in the midst of all the hard things. It would be beneficial to use the Relaxator now.
Exercise part III:
Reflect on your fears
Finish the exercise by reflecting on your fears for 5-10 minutes. Be curious about where the fears come from. In what way do they want to protect you? What benefits do they provide? What can you learn from them? What insights can they give you? The fears you experience have a purpose. It may be to protect you, but it may also be to help you gain new insights.
Perhaps the reflection will raise questions like, “How do I REALLY want to live my life? What does my body need to heal? and What decisions do I need to make in order to get inner peace?”
By starting to unravel your fears, you may discover what lies behind them. Your answers to these questions may be something like, “I must get a divorce.” “I need to speak to my father.” or “I must start painting again.”
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