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When deep breathing doesn’t calm you

Black and white image of swimmer coming up for air

Breathing exercises can be triggering for a lot of people. But because the science behind the practice is so irrefutable, a lot of people end up pushing through the discomfort and end up entrenching the trigger further... until they abandon the practice altogether.


This doesn’t happen for everyone, of course. But I speak from experience when I say that there is a lot of shame caught up in having repeated negative reactions to breathwork, pranayama, deep breathing, etc. In fact, even now that I know exactly how to regulate by nervous system, there are frequent occasions on which I experience direct disconnects between my respiratory experience and my cognitive state: It’s as if my breath is living in a chaotic world of its own.


What’s happening is my breathing reacts to instructions from the back parts of my brain, and the back parts of my brain stand as a blockade between my cognitive state and my breathing. I can go through all the right motions – breathe deep into the belly, emphasize the exhale over the inhale, slow it all down, etc. – but when my brainstem is signaling danger, it will not allow my breathing to regulate.


Again, this is not true for most people. In fact, just about every somatic practice in the world will tell you it can’t happen. Somatic practices are founded on the idea that the body influences the mind, and nothing in the body is as directly controllable as the breath. This tenet explains the deep shame we experience if breathing exercises fail us: If not even the breath will bring down the anxiety, what hope is there?


If you’ve had similar frustrations with modalities that emphasize the breath – yoga, mindfulness, breathwork itself – know that you aren’t alone. There’s nothing wrong with you and there is no need to be ashamed or embarrassed that you’re too “broken” to be fixed. In truth, there are actually a few simple ways to work around your breathing and still get back control of your anxious or triggered state.


What it feels like


For me, doing 4x4 box breathing, any practice that encourages holding the breath (like swimming), alternative-nostril breathing and just about every pranayama practice feels like trying to put a housefly into a tiny plastic egg – the kind we put out for Easter. When I try to sit and breathe, I feel my panic rise to the point that I need to run. My chest gets really tight. My eyes dart around, even if they are closed. And I don’t feel like I can exhale very much air. I try to sit with that panic and calm it, but I turn irritable. Then angry. Then demoralized and ashamed.


Here's what’s happening: For reasons I haven’t yet figured out, breath control is a terrifying experience for me. It triggers somatic flashbacks (bodily flashbacks with no cognitive memories attached), and the flight/fight response roars up to save me. My brainstem directs my breath to be shallow and rapid, no matter how much I try to breathe deeply and slowly. While my survival brain is saying We gotta get outta here, my cognitive brain is saying, Shut up. And my survival brain doesn’t take orders from my higher mind. That’s a law of nature.


So while I am supposed to be experiencing all this calm and relaxation, I’m actually staging an internal war against the hard-wired instincts that have kept vertebrates alive since we first emerged from the evolutionary pool of life. That’s why survival brains always win in a battle of wits against the higher mind.


Well, no wonder I hated breathwork so much.


When I found applied neurology and started training my nervous system, I had a lot of trepidation around the breathing drills based on so much negative prior experience. But neuro is different because one of its primary principles is to avoid pushing into a “threat” state; to prioritize a felt sense of safety first and foremost.


This opened up a few options for me, when it came to respiratory rehabilitation:


  1. Because I learned to assess the safety of my nervous system in real time, I could shelve any breathing drill that pushed me into threat, and I could stop a drill the instant I noticed a threat response show up. No 10-minute breathwork sessions for me. Thirty seconds was plenty.

  2. I also learned to do a consistently positive non-respiratory drill at the same time as I’m doing a respiratory drill. This “tricks” my brain stem into feeling safe enough to allow me to practice my breathing.


I struggled hard against respiratory work for months before I felt any real benefits. But once the benefits started to show up, I could see what all the hype is about: Learning to control your breath probably is the most empowering thing you can do. But you might need a different baseline level of “safety” to make it work.


What most breathwork techniques miss


The fundamental problem with a lot of breathing techniques is that they inadvertently over-emphasize the inhalation. When someone says, “Breathe”, the automatic instinct is almost always to inhale. In fact, to start a good breathwork session, you’d be better off exhaling first.


Most everyone lives in a state of hyperventilation, and this is especially true for people with high anxiety or a history of trauma. We live a lot of our lives in a full or partial threat response – flight, fight or freeze – and each is an automatic (unconscious) recipe for shallow, rapid breathing. As a result, our lung capacity atrophies. The diaphragmatic musculature that supports deep breaths atrophies. And we lose our tolerance for carbon dioxide (CO2) in the bloodstream.


In fact, respiring organisms need CO2 in order to absorb oxygen. But when your CO2 levels start to rise, if you’ve lost tolerance for it, your unconscious brain is triggered by it as if it was a threat. It sends out the signal, Give me more oxygen! But you’ve lost your ability to absorb it well because you don’t have enough CO2 in your system. It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle: the brain demanding more oxygen, the inhale bringing in more oxygen without giving enough time for CO2 to buildup and offload with a big exhale. And there you have it: chronic hyperventilation as the norm.


How about that nice 4x4 box breathing pattern? There’s no way you’re solving hyperventilation that way. Even a 4x8 pattern probably isn’t enough. Try a 2x8 pattern and you’ll start making a dent in the imbalance. But a 2x8 pattern will feel impossible at first. It will send you spiraling into more threat, unless you have non-respiratory methods for calming that same brainstem that’s clamoring for more fuel.


Neuro drills offer a wide range of very simple tools you can use before and during your breathwork so that the immense benefits of breath control can be possible without fighting through panic. In fact, they are a great way to not just rescue yourself when panic arises, but also to grow your tolerance for that discomfort.


In this way, you learn to trust that unconscious, autonomic part of yourself, and it in turn learns to trust you too. And isn't self-trust the ultimate goal of all healing?

Want to make your breathing work for you? Book a call to find tools that make it possible to breathe freely and with full neural control.

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