How can a psychologist/psychotherapist use breathwork?
It is said that humans are born and die alone. But that is not correct. They are born with the inhale and leave the body with the exhale. The breath is the companion of our soul. Breathing is more than expanding and contracting lungs. Breathing is an action that is important and precious – without it, for most people, in a few minutes, there would be no more life.
For centuries, proper, controlled breathing has been a powerful instrument in the East for calming body and mind, as well as controlling emotions. We all intuitively know that breathing can regulate events in our minds and emotional states. How many times have we heard or said to ourselves that we just need to take a deep breath when something goes wrong. We now have a scientific explanation for that.
Until recently, it was thought that only thoughts are the cause of the feeling, that is, that only the way we think about a certain situation determines how we will feel. Recently, a real revolution has taken place in scientific circles, because it has been shown that the pattern of breathing can also be a direct precursor to emotion. Every feeling has its own breathing pattern: people with anxiety and in panic breathe short, fast, and shallow (“I'm suffocating”). Anger is characterised by long, forced breaths (roars of anger). Long, rhythmic exhalations lead to calmness. When it comes to pleasure, both exhalations and inhalations are long. But, even when we are not anxious or angry, and we apply breathing pattern characteristics of those feelings, we can produce that feeling, without the influence of the mind or thoughts.
Breathing is the only bodily function that can be both voluntary and involuntary. We can breathe without controlling it, but also consciously accelerating and slowing down the rhythm until it completely stops. This is not possible with the functions of any other organ (heart, kidneys, intestines) where all processes take place regardless of our will.
Lately, psychologists as well as psychiatrists, have used breathwork in treating various psychological conditions such as panic attacks and anxiety.
Suppressing inner experiences plays a significant role in the development of anxiety and depression. Research also shows that avoiding or controlling concerning accepting inner experiences is a risk factor in developing a generalised anxiety disorder. The Breathwork model aims to achieve well-being by suppressing the client's tendency to suppress internal experiences and encourage them to accept and integrate its internal experiences. This can be achieved by teaching the clients a non-defensive, unrestrained breathing style and openness to experiences.
Another area in which psychologists/psychotherapists can play a role is in treating chronic tension. Chronic tension is sometimes temporarily masked with the help of medication, while with the help of breathwork it is possible to act on the client's limiting beliefs and habitual behaviors that lie behind the chronic tension.
Psychologists/psychotherapists can teach clients different breathing techniques to approach either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system, with the ultimate goal of healing. Examples of such techniques are diaphragmatic belly-oriented and costal heart-centered breathing. Deep and slow breathing is one of the simplest relaxation methods designed to reduce muscle tension and anxiety. For example, clients may be instructed to inhale exactly the specified number of times in a specific time interval (e.g. 6 times per minute). Slower breathing frequency has been shown effective in reducing anxiety. Abdominal breathing is applied rather than lung breathing, for the purpose of relaxation. Breathing in which the client is focused on the breathing process itself is easily mastered.
Teaching clients to establish a proper way of breathing also has an impact on:
- Improving circulation
- Better sleep quality
- Better working ability
- Less susceptibility to fatigue.
A growing number of researchers show that breathing-based meditation may represent a new nonpharmacological approach to improving specific aspects of attention, and some researchers believe that relaxation caused by calm breathing helps children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These results led to the development of the breath-controlled biofeedback game 'ChillFish' which improves the attention and relaxation ability of children with ADHD.
Psychologists and psychotherapists could also use breathwork when working with clients with insomnia problems because research shows a positive effect. One study at the University of Taiwan found that 20 minutes of practicing slow breathing (six respiration cycles per minute) before going to bed significantly improved sleep. The researchers attributed such effects to relaxing through the parasympathetic system and the relaxing effect of focused breathing.
It's mandatory to be careful when using breathwork techniques and interventions. For example, for people who often hyperventilate and faint or have high blood pressure, some breathwork techniques may not be recommended because anxiety can increase. Also, it is important that mental health professionals do not recommend the practice of breathwork to clients who are not informed about the possible negative consequences of breathwork and to clients who are ambivalent or uncomfortable with interventions. Breathwork integration works best for clients who are interested and committed to practicing breathwork regularly.
Want to incorporate breathwork in your psychology/psychotherapy practice? Join our Our Breathwork Teacher Training, which is designed to give you a fundamental understanding of how breathing works, and how you can practically use this knowledge to heal your clients.