Breathwork for Healing Trauma: 3 Popular Techniques + Benefits

Practice
October 17, 2021

Trauma is a human experience - at some point everyone experiences it. One study shows that about 70% of people worldwide have experienced at least one type of traumatic event in their lifetime. Often categorized as either a “Big T” trauma like sexual abuse, natural disaster, and war or a “Little T” trauma like a breakup, prolonged stress, or financial trouble — all traumas have an impact on our bodies and subconscious minds. Over time, these impacts can compound and become further internalized, manifesting as physical or emotional symptoms. 

Conscious breathing and breathwork can help process and release the experiences of trauma. Just as breathwork has many positive effects on alleviating anxiety and managing stress, trauma for breathwork can help heal, release, and restore aspects of ourselves that are impacted by traumatic events. This article will explore exactly how breathwork for trauma release can help you by explaining the following:

  • What is Trauma Breathwork?
  • The connection between breathwork and trauma release
  • Breathwork for healing trauma: 3 powerful techniques that can help
  • 5 safety considerations before trying breathing exercises for trauma

Before exploring specific breathwork techniques to help you process your own trauma, let’s first look at exactly what trauma breathwork is.

What is Trauma Breathwork?

A woman breathing while lying down with her hand on her chest

Trauma breathwork is conscious and intentional breathing that releases trauma stored in the body. Intentional trauma breathwork helps with trauma processing and healing by bypassing the conscious mind, deactivating the sympathetic nervous system, and having a restorative effect on its practitioners. 

Breathwork for trauma is a therapeutic technique that brings practitioners into non-ordinary states of consciousness. It works by creating a safe space for deep relaxation, where one can feel uninhibited and free to express any emotions or physical movements that come up during a session. Ultimately, breathing techniques for trauma are designed to facilitate self-healing through connection to breath — permitting whatever comes up to be expressed, processed, and released. 

The connection between breathwork and trauma release

A woman shouting while lying down during a breathwork session

Breathwork and trauma release are deeply connected. By creating a space for expression and processing, trauma for breathwork invokes a deep relaxation and a trance-like state, allowing for suppressed thoughts and stored emotions from trauma to more easily move towards the surface and be released. 

Trauma breathwork promotes emotional catharsis and integration, processing stored memories within the subconscious. Breathwork for trauma also counters the physical effects of trauma, deactivating the flight-or-fight response which is switched on when undergoing a traumatic event. Evidence is not anecdotal either, as studies on U.S. military veterans have shown that breathing based meditation helps decrease the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”).

Breathwork for healing trauma: 3 powerful techniques that can help

Many people have discovered the incredible healing powers that breathwork to release trauma can have on past traumas and overall emotional health. Here are 3 popular and powerful breathwork for trauma techniques that can help you today.

1. Biodynamic breathwork

A man breathing while standing up with a hand on his chest and stomach

Biodynamic breathwork takes a 6-element approach for trauma release, combining breath, movement, sound, touch, emotions and meditation. This breathwork to heal trauma technique concentrates on empowering your body, releasing tension, and restructuring inner systems on a cellular level.

Trauma induces fight or flight responses. These responses are then stored within the muscles and nervous system. To help cope and process, biodynamic breathwork offers a trauma release system, which focuses on clearing these blockages. Biodynamic breathwork and trauma release combines breathing and movement in downwards and upwards motion in your spine, in an intuitive fashion.

Benefits

  • Heals trauma and depression
  • Improves focus and attention-deficit disorders
  • Helps emotional pain
  • Supports emotional integration
  • Encourages spiritual connection and aliveness  

How to do it

Part 1: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and gently bend your knees 

  • Close your eyes and tune into your body 
  • Begin breathing in and out through your mouth without pausing 
  • As you breathe move your head, face, and jaw intuitively in a patternless motion
  • After some rounds of breath, begin intuitively moving your arms and shoulders
  • Continue moving without pattern, allowing movement to radiate through you like a snake 
  • Keeping the energy moving downwards, begin moving through your pelvis and unwinding your body
  • Notice any trembling, tingling or sensations and allow them to move through you
  • Continue breathing and moving

Part 2: Sit down on a mat or comfortable floor with your legs crossed and spine erect

  • Change the direction of your movement upwards, moving from your core
  • Breathe in and out, taking as many rounds of breath as feel good

Part 3: When you're ready, lay down on your side with knees bent and your hand under your head

  • Breathe in and out
  • Imagine movement radiating through you from the inside out
  • Open your body by stretching your limbs and keep a flowing and unwinding movement as feels good
  • Lay on your back and move your pelvis 
  • Come into stillness when you feel ready 

Try it now 

To practice this breathwork technique, watch this biodynamic breathwork home practice video.


2. Holotropic breathwork

A woman breathing while lying down with her relaxed fists on her stomach

Holotropic breathwork means ‘moving toward wholeness’  coming from the Greek words holos, which means ‘whole’ and trepein, which means ‘moving towards’. This breathwork technique pairs quickened breathing with evocative music, all while laying down. Holotropic breathing guides the practitioner into a non-ordinary state of consciousness which is said to begin a natural healing process, connecting you with your inner intelligence.

Developed by psychiatrist, theoretician, and pioneer in psychedelic medicine and consciousness research, Dr. Stanislav Grof and his partner, Christina Grof, developed holotropic breathwork in the 1970’s. Holotropic breathwork has a similar effect on its practitioners to that when induced by psychedelics. It has also long peaked interest for treating PTSD and other mental conditions.

Benefits

  • Higher levels of self-awareness
  • Alleviating depression
  • Treats post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Combating addiction

How to do it

  • Holotropic breathwork is typically guided by a facilitator either online or in person, with an evocative soundtrack played in the background.
  • Lay down comfortably with your eyes closed or wearing an eye mask
  • Breathe in and out through your mouth, with full breaths and no pause between breaths
  • Keep breathing intuitively and listen to the music 
  • Allow any emotions or sensations to express themselves through sound or movement — this is you connecting to your inner intelligence
  • Be guided by the holotropic breathwork facilitator to come back to a state of relaxation

Try it now

 To learn more about holotropic breathwork watch this video.

3. Wim Hof breathwork method

A woman sitting in the grass while practicing breathwork

When coping with trauma, we are often pushed outside of our window of tolerance. The window of tolerance is a concept coined by Dr. Dan Siegel, who describes it as a zone where a person can function effectively. Flashbacks to traumatic events can push us outside of our window of tolerance, creating a hyper or hypo-arousal state.

The Wim Hof Method focuses on controlling the autonomic nervous system to prevent us from being pushed outside of our window of tolerance. It works by taking deep oxygen-rich breaths that change our heart rate variability. This breathing technique can also include intentional exposure to cold which halts our sympathetic system from activating and increases our ability to tolerate stress. The Wim Hof Method breathing technique allows us to accept the moment as it is and promotes feelings of safety and calm. 

Benefits

  • Treats post-traumatic stress disorder 
  • Relieves anxiety 
  • Stress management
  • Improving mental wellbeing
  • Increase energy levels
  • Accelerates healing processes

How to do it

  • Sit or lay down comfortably with eyes closed
  • Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth fully, expanding your belly on the inhales
  • Repeat 30-40 breaths with short and powerful bursts of air.  Any lightheadedness or tingling is a normal sensation here
  • Complete your last exhale and breathe inwards deeply for one more breath. Hold the air as long as you can
  • On your next breath take one big inhale with an expanded chest and belly. Hold for 15 seconds and let go
  • Complete this breath cycle 3-4 times without pause
  • Repeat as needed

Try it now

To practice the Wim Hof Method breathing technique, watch this guided meditation video.

5 safety considerations before trying breathing exercises for trauma

Trauma breathwork can often be an intense and deep process both emotionally and physically. Because of its powerful effect and vigorous nature, practicing these breathing for trauma exercises is not for everyone. Here are 5 contraindications to consider before practicing breathwork techniques for trauma.

  1. High blood pressure: Breathwork for healing trauma can bring about intense emotions and feelings that can be very stressful, raising blood pressure levels. That is why it is not recommended for anyone who already suffers from high blood pressure and is not controlling it via medication.

  2. History of panic attacks or psychosis: While breathwork can help with anxiousness and other mental distresses, for those with a history of panic attacks or psychosis it is strongly recommended to explore breathwork’s healing potential in a safe professional therapeutic setting or in conjunction with therapy.

  3. Cardiovascular disease: Anyone with heart irregularities or a history of heart attacks are cautioned against the breathwork exercises for trauma. Due to the quick nature of the breath, it can be too strenuous for those with compromised cardiovascular health.

  4. Epilepsy: The rigorous nature of breathwork for healing trauma techniques and the potential for hyperventilation and rapid breathing can increase abnormal brain activity, potentially triggering seizures. That is why breathing to release healing exercises are cautioned against those with epilepsy.

  5. Pregnant women: Pregnant women are also advised against stressful breathwork as it risks elevating blood pressure and creating emotional distress, which can cause disruption to the baby.  

This list is not exhaustive and it is recommended that you research or consult a physician before practicing any breathwork for trauma release technique. 

Breathing to release trauma holds enormous potential for both the mind and physical body. To read more about how breathwork can improve your wellbeing, check out this article on 15 scientifically backed breathwork benefits.


Want to enhance your emotional wellbeing with breathwork? Try our free 3-day breathwork mini-series.