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Breathing Deep: The Untold Story of Our Emotional and Physical Well-being

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

Breath isn't just air filling our lungs, it is a silent narrator of our emotional and physical stories. As a therapist, I work with my clients to peel back the layers and explore the intricate relationship between their breath, emotions, and overall well-being. We avoid labelling and justifying the felt sensations and primarily focus on the raw connection between how we breathe and what we notice in the body. In this blog post, we’ll start to dig deeper into decoding the link between how we breathe and how this is connected to our emotional and physical states.

A man taking in the air at the seaside on a crisp autumn morning with blue cloudy skies. and a calm sea with gentle waves.
Breathe into life, and let life breathe you.

Deciphering Breath-Holding

Ever caught yourself unintentionally holding your breath during the chaos of everyday life? It's not a mere coincidence; it's a message from your body. This subtle act, often happening under stress or anticipation, speaks louder than words. The muscles responsible for breathing tighten, weaving a story of tension, emotion, and silent communication.

Breath-Holding: A Physical and Emotional Code

Breath-holding is more than a physiological response; it's a code written in the language of our muscles. This unspoken language reveals our emotions, shapes our personality, and silently guides the course of our health. It's an intimate conversation etched into the fabric of our daily existence.

Connect the dots between our exploration of Email Apnea and the subtle language of breath-holding. Understand how these threads intertwine, influencing our overall well-being in my article Inhale, Exhale, Excel: Breathe easy and relieve tension at work

Impact on Mind and Body Harmony

In the realm of chronic stress, effortful breathing emerges as a silent disruptor. The need to force air out not only tightens muscles but also orchestrates a symphony within our nervous, hormonal, and immune systems. Chronic breath holding casts a shadow over both our physical vitality and psychological equilibrium.

Navigating Breath for Healing

Reclaiming control over breath begins with awareness. Effective and accessible practices such as yoga, tai chi, or breathing meditation offer valuable tools to navigate this journey. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, these practices help dial down (hyper)vigilance and usher in relaxed breathing patterns, alleviating pain, anxiety, depression, positively impacting PTSD and stress tolerance, and fostering re-engagement in daily life.

The encouraging news is that you don't need to specifically train your breathing to change your breathing patterns. When you activate your body sense related to any internal sensation or emotion, you will notice that this leads to more relaxed breathing. All our different emotions are associated on a spectrum between effortful to relaxed breathing, between shallow and deep breathing, short and long breaths and high and low breath rate.

Fear and anger associate with effortful breathing patterns that are accompanied by tension in the chest and abdomen. Chronic and unresolved anger, aggression and hostility in childhood and adulthood associate with breathing disorders such as asthma and shortness of breath, as well as cardiovascular disease.

Can you allow yourself to feel, so you can heal?

The simple act of getting in touch with the body sense of pain and emotion in therapeutic and close interpersonal relationships can lead to more relaxed breathing, which is usually accompanied by sighing and feelings of relief and lightness. Perhaps you have experienced this before when opening up about your feelings to a loved one or your therapist? Find out more about body-based therapy modalities here.

By slowing down and paying attention to ourselves in the present moment— we can stimulate a full body relaxation via reduction of stress hormones and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. So when it comes to self-regulation, the message is 'Less is More'. No need for complicated breathwork techniques to get started. Paying attention to the breath is really no different from paying attention to anything in our bodies. This 'simple' practice, however, should not be underestimated. From my own experience, this idea of befriending the body, can be incredibly triggering and hard for trauma-impacted individuals - so perhaps for some of us, it can be, or it was, a journey to attune to and befriend our own body for regulation purposes and for general centeredness in life .

When you catch yourself in an unhealthy breathing pattern, try not to obsess about it too much. You may notice that the more you try to control your breathing, the more effortful it becomes. In this case 'The way out, is in'. When you notice tension rising in your breath, double-click and invite yourself to feel more deeply into your body state. This may seem like a unfamiliar approach. When we spend a lot of time in a high stress, highly vigilant state, we can become very disconnected from our body in order to 'get through it'. A qualified practitioner will be able to help you to reconnect with your body states in a way that is appropriate for your specific context, so you can identify whether the tension in your chest is related to fear or anxiety, desire or longing - or feeling like you are stuck and cant move....

In tune with You

Feeling better starts with a simple truth: when you pay attention to what your body is telling you, your breathing eases, and a sense of relaxation washes over you. This isn't some lofty concept—it's about being in tune with what you're feeling right now. That's the real deal, and it always comes with a relaxation response. This down-to-earth exploration of your body sense isn't just good for the soul; it's a game-changer for your health. Letting go in those moments—whether it's shedding a few tears, getting lost in meditation, moving or exercising with awareness, connecting with your fullest sensations of fear or joy —acts like a switch, turning on your body sense for better health. When is the last time you have felt a moment of true relief in your body? It's not a magic cure, just a real way to feel better in your own skin by activating your body sense.

Mosaic image in blue, orange and yellow hues of a woman floating in water under the warm sun.
In the waters you came to me. Your love was my release.

Not all breathwork practices are created equal…

As breathwork gains popularity as a tool to bio-hack the nervous system , it's important to acknowledge that not all breathwork fits every narrative. For example, not all types of breathwork are suitable for those holding trauma, grief or loss, those with specific health conditions such as asthma and high blood pressure, or people with physiological conditions such as a deviated septum (the wall of cartilage separating the 2 nasal chambers is shifted sideways, making one nasal passage smaller than the other).

In our exploration of the intricate relationship between breath, emotion, and health, we walk a path of self-discovery. Sometimes it can help to get guidance and support by a qualified professional that is trained to hold space for whatever may come up as self-awareness increases, and who can share appropriate practices to activate your body sense, that help unlock profound physical and emotional transformations in a way that is right for you and your unique context.

If the insights shared here resonate with you, consider delving deeper into your exploration of breath's profound influence on your life. As a therapist specialised in body-based and trauma informed practices, I assist individuals to foster a deeper connection with their breath – building a tangible link between their emotions and the air they breathe - an essential key to unlocking the untold stories within them.

Delving Deeper:

Connect, Share, and Prepare for an Exploration into Trauma's Unseen Layers

My upcoming articles will go deeper into the fascinating topic of breath, emotion, trauma and healing. I invite you to share this insightful journey with others. Your stories, experiences, and questions enrich the narrative. Don't miss out on future explorations — sign up for my blog and my newsletter to stay connected with the latest insights. My upcoming article will delve into the topic of trauma and where it is stored. Have a burning question or a personal story to share? Reach out; I'm here to listen, guide, and explore with you.

Let's continue this conversation together - and until then, take care.

Heidi Kempeneer,

Therapist and Founder of SETUKA , a platform for body-based therapies and well-being services for individuals and organisations.


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