Breathwork is a practice that has roots in various ancient cultures. The modern application of breathwork branches across fields to enhance mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being.
Breathwork refers to different breathing exercises, techniques, and programs focusing on conscious awareness of your inhales and exhales. Breathwork exercises use deep, focused breathing that lasts a certain amount of time. There are several different types of breathwork practices, which include:1
As you inhale as a response, space is created in the thoracic cavity, and the heart enlarges, blood flow decreases, and the heart rate increases. Conversely, when you exhale, the space in the thoracic cavity is compacted, blood flow increases, and heart rate drops.
When we feel threatened, we unconsciously change how we breathe. If our nervous system kicks into fight or flight mode, we typically experience rapid upper chest breathing. In “freeze” mode, breathing typically becomes shallow or held.
Much of this is automatic, i.e., below conscious awareness, and if these reactions to stress and trauma go on for long periods, it can cause real issues for our bodies and minds. It’s theorized that changes in breath are not just a nervous system response but also a way to suppress difficult emotions:2
Diaphragmatic breathing - sometimes known as deep, relaxed, or abdominal breathing - optimizes the use of the diaphragm, resulting in slower, deeper breathing. In contrast to shallow breathing, diaphragmatic breathing is marked by lung expansion of the abdomen rather than the chest.3
Diaphragmatic breathing is known to improve heart rate variability (HRV), a measure of the variation in time between each heartbeat. It’s controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which contains two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, i.e., the fight or flight mechanism.4
Slow, deep breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system's vagus nerve, which helps ease anxiety, re-focus the mind, and ground the body. Conversely, fast, shallow breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system and can create activation of the stress response.5
People with low HRV can easily experience acute stress, which can cause the fight-or-flight response to shift into overdrive. The higher our HRV, the more adaptable we are and the better how hearts can adapt to environmental changes. Therefore, the higher our HRV, the larger our window of tolerance when it comes to activating the stress response.5
Intense breathing patterns help to disrupt rigid neural networks in the brain and are thought to stimulate the release of these patterns, which can help with:
Furthermore, breathwork can trigger a state of transient hypofrontality, which occurs when there is decreased cerebral blood flow in the brain's prefrontal cortex. In the simplest terms, this means the thinking part of the brain gets a rest, allowing us to get out of our heads and into the moment, which allows deeper emotional processing to occur.6
There is an increasing body of evidence that shows breathwork can prove beneficial in the treatment of PTSD:
Creative expression can be a beneficial form of therapy, particularly for those needing help with their trauma. Talking openly about trauma can be difficult, but art therapy allows people to express their thoughts and feelings without words.7
Through art therapy, a therapist helps the client address emotional issues using a creative outlet—such as drawing or painting—and a talent for the creative arts is not necessary. The goals of art therapy are not to create aesthetically pleasing artworks. Instead, they include:
There are several benefits of art therapy for the client, which include:7
As every trauma survivor copes differently, traditional talk therapies could be challenging for some who have difficulties opening up. For example, some people with multiple traumatic experiences have trouble with their verbal memory around their trauma and simply don’t want to recount the experience.7
A recent study published in the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation found that patients undergoing trauma-focused art therapy reported several beneficial effects, including improved relaxation, a decrease in PTSD symptoms, less intrusive thoughts of traumatic experiences, externalization of memories and emotions into artwork, and more confidence in the future.8
Furthermore, a 2021 review of studies into the effect of art therapy on trauma patients found evidence that art therapy or art psychotherapy can benefit children who have experienced trauma or have PTSD symptoms.9
The virtual art room is crucial in creating a safe space for clients. Art therapists must adapt to virtual art therapy to help clients feel safe in the home but feel like they are in an art room. For example, Within Health sends art boxes to clients to ensure they have the materials they need.