Updated: Aug 26
In probably a quarter of all my consultations, potential clients ask, "So what do we do? Like, breath work?"
It's a fair question! So much of popular mindfulness education focuses on, or at least includes, talking about how our breath is one of our greatest resources when it comes to self-regulating, in particular for calming anxiety. Exhales stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system (the part of your nervous system that helps you settle and rest).
Breath work is rooted in so many contemplative and embodiment lineages; it makes sense that it's so intriguing to those of us longing for something more, or something different, than what we've had. And in writing this, I want to honor that desire to get back to something that resonates with our souls.
But here's the thing: a lot of the advice to 'just breathe' when we're stressed is decontextualized. When it's come to managing stress and trauma symptoms, breath work is just not something I've always found appropriate or useful for helping my clients.
Breath work is overprescribed
Breath work is often prescribed as an antidote to stress. And yes, we can change our breath to change our experience. But, our breath is also a huge source of information about our experience. When we compulsively suggest breath work for stress and self-regulation we risk losing the curiosity we need to be with and integrate our present moment experience.
If our breath is rapid, that could be a signal to slow down and soothe ourselves, but it could also be a signal to release endorphins by laughing, dancing, shaking, or sing. Doing so can help our bodies complete the stress response cycle, rather than avoiding the activation that comes with stress so that it just stays stuck in stress purgatory.
Responding to our breath could also mean holding our partner's hand or playing with a fidget toy when we don't have a choice to escape the source of our stress. If we want to be able to grow our capacity to be in the situations that make us lose our breath, after all, we have to have resources that help us stay there.
Often clients are surprised by what else calms the pace of their breath or their heart rate with mindful awareness and more choice.
Breath work is overgeneralized
What we need to remember is that breathing practices are generally meant as intentional practices to be used in specific ways, rather than blanket modes of breathing.
Ujjayi pranayama breathing, the technique that accompanies yoga asana practice, is meant to be practiced during asana practice. Not all day, while we're walking around. Deep breathing in general, as a means to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, is not meant to be practiced all day; changing our breath is useful when we intentionally want to respond to or create an experience.
The issue with talking about breathing so much, without grounding it in a lineage or practice context, is it perpetuates this idea that deep breathing is the gold standard for your all day breath. In actuality, our breath should be relaxed most of the day and we should be breathing through our noses. There's a lot more here, if you're curious. I can't recommend Jennifer Snowdon's work enough.
Breath work can be ta-riggering
Finally, breath work can be hard for us if we struggle to feel safe in our bodies. Especially when we are activated, paying attention to our bodies can actually increase our distress. We might feel too much in those moments and our bodies can only integrate so much at a time.
Because there's such an emphasis on breath work I find people often feel like they should get a lot of relief from breath work, but they actually don't. People need other choices. In my experience, breath work has been more helpful after I've found other ways to cope with distress and discomfort. Feeling more settled in my body and more comfortable with my inner body sensations has helped me find anchors when breath work brings up funky ones.
I'm not saying that breath work isn't a valuable practice for stress management, there's a lot of ancient wisdom here and there are many breathing practices I personally love. However, when it comes to breath work as a tool in somatic healing we have to keep in mind that breathing practices are tools to be used in context, rather than something we slap on top of a panic attack.
So, the invitation here is twofold.
Firstly, the invitation is to become curious before changing your breath.
The other is to be equally curious about breath work lineage and usage before assuming what you saw on Instagram will be useful for you (or your clients, if you're a fellow therapist).
Hope this helps.