‘But it didn’t work for me doctor’
We may hear this surprisingly often when we start to talk about using the breath. For many of my patients, ‘breathing’ has joined their long list of things that ‘didn’t work for me’. It is almost always the case that they learned about it without enough support and attention to ensure it was actually working well enough to help. Two to three minutes of slow diaphragmatic breathing will calm you beautifully if you are mildly stressed and your amygdala isn’t carrying the imprint of multiple traumas. If you are close to panic or profoundly conditioned to respond to the world as threatening, it just won’t do the trick. You’re likely to need about the same length of time it takes a diazepam to activate the self-same GABAergic brain centres: 20 minutes or so.
And there are other obstacles. For instance embodied trauma can manifest as ingrained tension and constrictions in abdominal, chest and shoulder muscles. Letting go of these defensive postures and finding confidence to let down the guard around the belly may call for physical and psychological therapies. These things need insight, time and skillful support.
It may be that our associations with the context we learned about the calming breath aren’t positive. ‘My yoga teacher raped me’ was one patient’s barrier. Or that we felt the practitioner wasn’t quite getting us or our problems, when they briefly touched on box breathing – that it seemed completely disconnected from our problems and suffering at the time.
Creating a meaningful ‘bridge’ between the very wide range of difficulties in which vagal respiratory stimulation can help (anxiety, depression, anger, addiction, pain, unrefreshing sleep, fatigue, burnout, symptoms typical of hyperventilation), and the technique itself is crucial. This usually involves ‘working with’ or extending the patient’s current model of reality. Without a connecting map and believable context, whether of mind–body connectedness or nuts and bolts body-function, the idea that better breathing could be a solution to a chronic predicament just isn’t going to be credible.
Having understood the why, the how can follow once a person is prepared to change. Even for (especially for?) someone who desperately needs self-regulation skills, regular practise may seem impossible. Setting aside enough time for practise, makes a vast difference, but for anyone who is poor at forming routines, too distractible and or busy, remembering to engage in breath-work as a regular practice will be a challenge. Yet without it they won’t access this powerful tool in the stressful situations when it’s most needed.
We tend to stick with things we enjoy. We might stick with things that help, but put them aside once we feel ‘fixed’, or when they just aren’t fun enough anymore. The way I have integrated breathwork into my own life may be relevant, and illustrative. In Taijiquan and Qigong there is a particular sequence of moves that take just 15 minutes. In the morning this engages my otherwise jiggedy mind and brings me completely into my breath and body. At night 10 to 15 minutes of Qigong and Dao Yin exercises before bed sets me up for a better night’s sleep. That’s what works best for me. But for someone else it could be singing, chanting, regular mindfulness practice, counting the breath, yoga, an app or an audio method labelling itself as coherent, mindful, meditative, relaxing or any mix of these.
Whatever your way, practise, practise, then, because ultimately nobody else can do this for you. We all have to find our way in, but we also have a duty of care is to help one another find the doorway that works best. We need each other, not just to learn how to use our breath, but to be there to keep reminding ourselves of this apparently very simple thing. We can’t always self-care on our own. Self-care is a social undertaking.
Andrew Morrice’s current set of resources to support breathwork can be found at www.joineduphealth.net/relax#allresources
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