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Breathwork: The secret to emotional regulation

August 19, 2021 - 11 min read

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What is breathwork?

Top health benefits of breathwork

What you should know before starting breathwork

Different types of breathwork

If you’ve ever taken a deep breath to steady your nerves, you’re familiar with breathwork. One deep breath can change your focus, your mood, and even the rest of your day. This article covers what breathwork is, why it’s so effective, and how to harness different types of breathing exercises to feel like your best self.

What is breathwork?

Breathwork is the awareness and control of the breath to change one’s physical, mental, and emotional state. Although it’s having a moment in the sun right now, breathwork has been practiced across various cultures and healing modalities for thousands of years. Often associated with yoga and mindfulness, breathwork techniques are also a key part of many types of therapy and fitness practices.

By learning to manipulate the breath, practitioners learn to work with the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the part that’s responsible for involuntary functions. When under stress, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, increasing our heart rate and breathing pace. Once the need for increased cortisol, oxygen, and glucose has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, bringing the whole body back into rest mode. 

However, this system doesn’t always work quite as designed. For those of us who consistently have to balance multiple stressors, we walk around with the sympathetic nervous system a little bit active all the time. That doesn’t put our bodies in the optimal state for rest or restoration. The resulting chronic stress contributes to any number of mental, physical, and emotional conditions.

Just as speeding up your breath makes you feel more anxious and alert, though, slowing it down can make you feel calmer and more focused on the present moment. And the more you practice, the more the self-healing benefits compound over time.

The top 5 health benefits of breathwork

  1. Reduces stress
    Because of the connection that breath has to the autonomic nervous system, breathing practices are a powerful way method of stress relief. As a physical modality, it’s more effective in high-stress situations than simply trying to “think” your way out. Stress impairs the functioning of the prefrontal cortex (associated with logical thinking). Tap into the breath first, and you make it easier to get back to problem-solving mode.
  2. Helps to manage difficult emotions
    There’s a reason why people tell you to “Take a deep breath” when you’re angry or upset. Taking control of your breath helps you to interrupt and redirect the flow of your emotions. The increased self-awareness associated with the practice of breathwork also helps to release tension and trauma stored in the body.
  3. Improves immune system
    Practicing deep breathing techniques regularly can actually help boost your immune system. This is largely credited to the effect that breathwork has on the parasympathetic nervous system, but it’s more than just being less stressed. Learning to breathe effectively improves your oxygen intake, lung capacity, and even your body’s ability to regulate its core temperature.
  4. Relieves and helps manage pain
    When we experience or anticipate the experience of pain, we often become tense. Breathing deeply, whether anticipating an injection or on the ride to the emergency room, helps to release tension and calm feelings of stress. It’s why mindful, focused breathing is a hallmark of every wellness and childbirth class (hey, any port in a storm).
  5. Increases self-compassion
    Turning your intention — and attention — inward can make you feel more connected to yourself. Breathing through difficult emotions makes you feel more capable of handling them. That makes it a great way to develop your trust and appreciation for yourself.

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What you should know before starting breathwork

Breathwork boasts some amazing health benefits, but that doesn’t mean it’s without its risks. As we mentioned, the breath is a powerful tool for altering your physical, mental, and emotional state. Unfortunately, some of these shifts can be disorienting or even dangerous.

One common risk of breathwork is “over-breathing,” also known as hyperventilation. By taking in excessive amounts of air, you can disrupt the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream. Symptoms of over-breathing include dizziness, tingling, and difficulty concentrating.

The breath retention practiced in many kinds of breathwork is contraindicated for people with high blood pressure and those who are pregnant. This is because (as with over-breathing) it can mess with the ratios of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your system. Breath retention can raise blood pressure, trigger nausea, or result in dizziness. If you’re pregnant, have high blood pressure, or are prone to fainting, you should be cautious when practicing breathwork. 

You’ll also want to be cautious to breathe through your nose when practicing breathwork. Even though we default to breathing through our mouths when we’re exerting a lot of effort, breathing through our nostrils is much safer for our bodies. Tiny hairs along the nostrils and nasal mucus trap foreign particles from making their way into our bodies. The narrow nasal passage also warms and humidifies the air before it enters your lungs, preventing your respiratory system from drying out. This has important implications for the immune system. 

Finally, you should know that practicing breathing exercises is kind of like drinking alcohol. While you can build a tolerance over time, your experience will be different almost every time based on a number of physiological factors. The amount of water you drink, what you ate, how much you exercise, and even other substances in your system will affect how you experience breathwork that day. Take it slow and don’t push yourself if you’re feeling a bit off. There’s no harm in switching to a gentler practice for a day or two.

Different types of breathwork

Diaphragmatic breathing

In diaphragmatic, or “belly breathing,” you inhale fully, expanding the belly as much as you can and then compressing it to release the breath. As the diaphragm expands, so does the belly. This type of breathing is excellent for beginners and helps promote mind-body connection. It’s also beneficial for those who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as these individuals often have a weakened diaphragm.

Try it: Sit or lie down with your hand on your stomach. Place the other hand at your side or on your chest. As you breathe in, notice your stomach expand with your inhale. As you exhale, the belly will contract and grow smaller. The hand on your belly should move more than the hand on your chest will.

Holotropic breathing

Developed and practiced as an alternative to mood-altering drugs, holotropic breathing promises to bring you into an altered state. This is often achieved through even breathing patterns, repetitive movements, and aided by a facilitator. The altered state, said by many to be a state of heightened consciousness, is meant to help you break through blocks and trauma that would be difficult to overcome otherwise.

Try it: Holotropic breathwork sessions can only be conducted by a trained and certified breathwork practitioner. You can look for an official Grof Foundation certified instructor here

Pranayama

A sister science to yoga and Ayurveda, pranayama is the practice of breath control and regulation. The term is derived from the Sanskrit words prana, meaning “life force,” and ayama, meaning “to extend.” The practice of pranayama is literally said to extend one’s life. Pranayama is usually practiced during yoga and meditation classes to help deepen postures and control one’s energy.

Try it: There’s no one pranayama breath. Techniques can be fast or slow depending on the intended outcome. The most commonly taught pranayama technique is ujjayi breathing, or the “ocean sounding” breath, which calms the mind and improves focus.

To perform it, sit or lie down (sitting is preferred) and take a few normal breaths. On the exhale, try making a “haaaaahhhhh” sound. Extend the exhale as long as you comfortably can. To deepen the effects of the breathing technique, try closing your mouth and forcing the sound through your nostrils instead.

Rebirthing 

Rebirthing is a conscious energy breathing technique designed to connect you to your subconscious. Created by Leonard D. Orr, the practice asserts that you can learn to breathe energy as well as air. Since Orr’s death, the practice has been carried forward by a dedicated community of “rebirthers.” The practice teaches that the accumulation of past trauma that people have carried since birth can be released and healed through breathwork meditation.

Try it: Unfortunately, this style of practice gained notoriety for the death of Candace Newmaker, a ten-year old adoptee. Newmaker was being treated for reactive attachment disorder. Usually treated in psychotherapy, Newmaker’s disorder was being addressed with rebirthing breathwork. For that reason, if you’re interested, we’d recommend trying this type of therapy only with the alignment of your medical doctor.

Breath is one of the most fundamental functions of your body, and learning to master it can be a powerful thing. Practicing breathwork safely and effectively is a road to learning to manage pain, difficult emotions, and stress more effectively. The mental and physical benefits are compelling, but remember to take it slow and listen to your body. If anything feels off, be sure to reach out to your doctor before you continue your breathwork practice.

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Published August 19, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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