I have come to attend to my trauma, why do I need to learn breathing?

Trauma is very complex and before starting to work with someone on their trauma, there are a few steps that need to be taken first. Many people who have experienced trauma often feel anxious or find it hard to calm down. While I work through the steps prior to commencing treatment, I find it helpful to teach clients breathing.

The type of breathing I often teach is 4-7-8 breathing. So, what is 4-7-8 breathing? To answer that question, I need to explain a little of how the nervous system works. It was once believed that the brain and the body were completely disconnected. However, recent research has shown that this is not so. In fact, our bodies are where we store a lot of memory and feel our emotions. Research has also shown a link between psychological experiences and the way those experiences manifest in the body. We now know that we have several levels of defence mechanism in our body. Each one is related to a different part of the brain. We share defence mechanisms with reptiles in our most primitive brain, with mammals in our slightly newer brain and so on. Each more advanced defence mechanism can override the lower defence mechanisms to a certain point. Where that point is depends on our childhood experiences. Trauma in childhood lowers the point at which our more primitive defence mechanisms kick in. It is important to know that none of those defence mechanisms is something we can consciously control.

The lower defence mechanisms are the active defence mechanisms of flight or fight and the immobilising lower defence mechanisms of freezing.

Our most advanced defence mechanism involves social behaviour. This behaviour involves what is known as face to heart connection. This means that the muscles of the face and head are linked to the nerves that regulate the heart. Social engagement can be dangerous or safe. We know it is safe by the facial gestures of other people. If the gestures are friendly, we feel safe. If the gestures are unfriendly, we feel unsafe and our defence mechanisms will be activated. How we look, listen and vocalise communicates to others that we are safe to approach. This is why people avoid you when you are angry, because your face communicates danger to them.

Our bodies experience sensations in response to other people and in response to our feelings. If you ask children to colour on a body diagram where they feel anger they will immediately colour in parts of the body. An adult may tell you they “had an uneasy feeling in their stomach” about someone they felt uncomfortable about. These are all ways our bodies experience our emotions and where we store the memory of them.

The quest for safety is the basis of a successful life. Feeling safe depends on the state of your unconscious nervous system. Cues of safety help calm that system. When we don’t feel safe we are vulnerable to physical and mental illness. When we interact positively with other people, we do what is known as co-regulate, which means we help each other regulate our emotions. Coregulating is essential for our own survival.

But what if trauma has lowered your threshold for lower defence mechanisms to kick in? How can you remain calm and start to raise that threshold? 4-7-8 breathing is an effective way to deal with this. It involves sitting comfortably upright on a chair, or lying down on your back, or standing up. You must breathe in through your nose so that your stomach comes out. This means you are breathing properly deep into your lungs, rather than taking shallow breaths into the top of your lungs. Breathe in quickly to the count of 4, then hold your breath for the count of 7 (counting at the same speed as the inbreath). After that you breathe out to the count of 8 through pursed lips. This means your out breath is twice as long as your inbreath. Practice this for 5 minutes at a time. Try to do it at least 3 times a day. It does have long term benefits and in the interim can help you to feel calmer.

In my next blog I will continue to explain the process of trauma counselling.

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