While breathing is essential to our survival – not all breaths are considered equal. In times of high stress, our breathing style can contribute to increased feelings of overwhelm and anxiety or alternatively assist in providing immediate relief.
Abdominal breathing is a simple and effective way to calm the nervous system and is considered the number one, ‘go to’ technique in the trauma management toolbox.
BENEFITS OF ABDOMINAL BREATHING
Deep, slow abdominal breathing is effective for managing stress, anxiety and anger and provides quick relief from uncomfortable trauma symptoms. Breathing skills are easy to learn and can be used anytime and anywhere to calm the sympathetic nervous system and quiet the body’s fight-flight response.
Abdominal breathing has been shown to:
Release feel-good endorphins through the body. Endorphins are the body’s natural pain-killers.
Balance the autonomic nervous system; reducing the heart and breathing rate and changing the sympathetic fight-flight response to the parasympathetic calm and relaxation response.
Reduce the production of the stress hormone cortisol and increase melatonin production which control our sleep and wake cycles.
Reduce muscular tension and tightness in the body
Gently massage or move abdominal organs which aid digestion and lymphatic drainage in the body.
Contribute to good posture and core body strength.
WHAT IS ABDOMINAL BREATHING?
As the name suggests, abdominal breathing (or often called diaphragmatic breathing) is a way of breathing which focuses on the rising of the abdomen on the inhale and the falling of the abdomen on the exhale. It involves taking deep, slow, in-breaths through the nose and long slow out-breaths through the mouth.
CONNECTION BETWEEN TRAUMA AND BREATHING STYLE
People with a history of sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse often experience increased sensitivity to triggers or stressors in the environment. During times of emotional stress, the body’s fight-flight-freeze responses can be activated, triggering several physiological responses in the body. When triggered we experience increased heart rate, perspiration, muscular tension, and our breathing becomes increasingly rapid and shallow.
Engaging in shallow (or chest) breathing can perpetuate a vicious cycle; stress contributes to shallow breathing, which makes it difficult to get a sufficient intake of air. This in turn creates additional stress on the body which leads to an increasingly shallow and rapid breathing style.
In contrast, slowing down the rate of breath reduces the heart-rate, reverses the fight-flight-freeze response and assists in restoring a sense of calm to the body. This is why abdominal breathing is such an effective technique for managing trauma symptoms.
MINDFUL ABDOMINAL BREATHING TECHNIQUE
During times of high stress, it can be beneficial to engage in mindful breathing twice a day when experiencing intrusive thoughts, intense anxiety, painful memories or other trauma symptoms. Using a mindful, abdominal breathing technique at bedtime can also be helpful for promoting relaxation and distracting the mind in readiness for sleep.
There are many different mindful breathing techniques. This technique combines abdominal breathing with counting your breaths which helps to maintain a focus on your breathing and distract from intrusive thoughts.
Sit or lay down comfortably, with your eyes closed and your spine reasonably straight.
Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest.
Imagine that you have a balloon in your belly. Each time you breath in, the balloon inflates. Each time you breathe out, the balloon deflates.
Take a slow, deep inhale through your nose and a long, slow exhale through your mouth.
Notice the rising and falling on your abdomen beneath your hand with each breath.
If you are performing your abdominal breathing correctly, you will notice greater movement with the hand on your belly and less movement to the hand on your chest.
When you have a natural rhythm to your breath, start counting your breaths from one to five. An ‘in and out’ breath counts as one.
When you get to five, repeat the cycle two more times.
When you have completed a total of 15 breaths (3 cycles) – notice the feelings of relaxation.
The more you practice mindful breathing the more natural it will become. A new pattern of slow, deep and even abdominal breathing will eventually become your normal breathing style. As simple as it sounds, it is possible to change how your mind and body responds to stress, anxiety and trauma – just one breath at a time.
RELATED: Using 'Grounding' in Trauma Recovery