At the Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling, located in Manhattan, New York City, it’s not uncommon for our psychotherapists to enmesh breathwork into your sessions. Why do we do this? because the research has shown its’ effectiveness in a variety of cases (including but not limited to: stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, chronic pain and PTSD among others). We think it’s important to support our clients by giving them (free, and side-effect free) tools that are both preventative and reactionary. We at the Soho Center encourage you to incorporate breath work into your daily routine, but especially as a support to your therapeutic journey with us, and here’s why.
Breathing is essential to our existence and an especially unique process in that it is both automatic: working without conscious attention (when you are sleeping, under anesthesia, or simply when you are not thinking about it) and also controlled/altered intentionally. The impact of intentional breath work on the body can be somewhat summarized as improving immune function; regulating arousal; decreasing sinus problems; balancing hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters; stabilizing blood gases; increasing vitality; promoting digestion, circulation and proper organ function; facilitating waste metabolism, aligning posture, decreasing muscle tension; and increasing motility, mobility and movement efficiency.
More importantly, these physical effects strongly influence psychological well-being - they are intimately connected each with the potential to regulate the other. This blog will shed light on the emerging role of breath as regulator of emotion, with emphasis on its capacity to be both “a powerful agent in creating regulation AND dysregulation in the body/mind system”. When I speak of emotion regulation, I often think of this quote:
“Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.” - Aristotle
The idea behind regulation is not to eliminate unpleasant emotional states but rather learn to fine-tune them, ultimately to experience, manage and respond to the whole gamut of emotions in ways that are useful. Breathwork enables us to do so, by creating space to respond vs. react while also activating the parasympathetic system or more commonly known as rest-digest-repair mode.
How are Emotion and Breath related?
When you are angry, anxious or distressed (or experiencing another unpleasant emotion) - what is happening to your breathing, to your body? How is your breath changing, your heart rate, the tension in your muscles? What you may not notice is that stress hormones are being released, your digestive organs halted, pupils dilating etc. All of the above, and more is your body’s Sympathetic-Nervous-System being activated.
This response can be useful in situations when a quick reaction to a threat is needed (an often-used example: running away from a menacing animal) but unfortunately the SNS is elicited all day long putting the body in a chronic state of stress, or an SNS dominant state. Breathwork allows the body to return to the rest-relax-digest-repair (Parasympathetic/PNS) state and create the conditions for emotional, mental, physical (and spiritual) healing to be even more successful as a complement to therapy.
I also want to bring attention to the social impact of breath.Your breathing affects the breathing of those around you, particularly the little ones. If you are holding your children, notice how their breath will start to match yours - that is behavioral synchrony. If you are particularly stressed take a moment to slow down before you engage, or if your little ones are stressed, breathe with them. Give them this wonderful tool - they will feel empowered to know they can help themselves when they need to.
As someone interested in non-pharmacological mental health treatments and a believer in the body’s ability to heal itself, I am inclined to explore these ‘alternative’ approaches. I believe it is imperative to provide my clients with tools they can use to self-regulate when outside of sessions, as stress is unavoidable in the human experience, and increasingly characteristic of our times. I believe there needs to be a paradigm shift about the power of breath and the power of our own bodies to heal, especially with the research that has been conducted on it’s efficacy and effectiveness. The western medical system is not built on the notion that the individual is self-sufficient or that the body can heal itself – unlearning this may be a pivotal step in healing. It is also crucial that breath work not be seen as competition to psychotherapy but rather a complement to it, one that can enhance its effects. If you find yourself feeling resistance to breath work, bring it up in therapy – those resistances are important to shed light on and ultimately lift.
Now that you know a little bit about why breath work is important, here are some exercises you can try.
4-7-8 breath, the Relaxing Breath
Cardiac Coherence Breathing (the electrical rhythms of the heart, lungs and brain become synchronized.)
Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to “reduce negative subjective and physiological consequences of stress in healthy adults” – this type of breathing contracts the diaphragm, while doing deep-belly inhaling and exhaling and shows that breath work may be useful for all, not only those with mental health challenges.
Direct olfactory stimulation, has been shown to unconsciously alter the respiratory system, occurring more directly by ascending to the limbic system bypassing the thalamus. For those of you struggling to adopt breath work practices (often seen in anxiety disorders) there is the option to start with essential oils, that also have additional and specific healing properties. Simply put, pleasant smells induce deep breathing and the reverse, ill-smelling odors elicit an increase in breath rate.
There are many forms of breath work – and I encourage you to experiment with several.
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