In order to understand what our body needs in times of stress or post-trauma, we first have to understand what happens in our bodies.
Stress and post-trauma responses get more intense when our physical stress system is more out of balance, which is caused by too much adrenaline-like or too much cortisol-like chemicals. The first speed us up and give us energy, sharpness and anxiety or anger (flight-fight response), the latter cause among other reactions a slow and shut down, pain relief, calmness or depression.
It is important to know that these are normal physical reactions in a body that is designed to survive. These reactions are definitely not signs of weakness, as we use to think. On the contrary, our body is showing its survival skills, its strength.
Stress and trauma affect us on all levels, mentally, physically and spiritually, so there is also a wide range of skills and tools that can help us to strengthen our resilience on all those levels. In this series we focus on what our bodies need most.
The first 'tool' we can use to reduce the intensity of our physical reactions, is to breathe deep, deeper than we normally do. When we are under heavy stress, we breathe very shallow, filling and emptying only the upper part of the lungs. That might be precisely why we cannot think clearly and speak coherently in those moments, the brain lacks oxygen. Deep breathing, filling and emptying our whole torso, brings much needed oxygen to the brain by which we start to gain clarity. And it doesn't stop there. The deep, regular in- and exhalation causes the blood pressure to drop, the heart-rate decreases, the adrenaline and cortisol levels go down and we become calmer.
It is worth the effort to teach ourselves to breathe properly, because the quality of our breathing also determines largely whether we will stay healthy or not. Imagine, in the course of one single day about 20,000 liters of blood flows through the veins of our lungs. When not enough fresh air reaches the lungs, our blood can not be purified and keeps transporting waste throughout our body. Moreover, our body simply lacks oxygen, which weakens all its functions. All cells, of every organ, muscle, bone and tissue, and from our digestive to the nervous system, depends on blood, so impure and insufficiently oxygenated blood leads to less body strength, irritable nerves, loss of mental abilities and disease.
There are many ways to breathe better. Yoga with awareness of the breath is one of them. During the yoga exercises leads the breath the movements, not the other way round. In recovery, a closer awareness of the body and breath is very important, because it helps us to notice urges and triggers in an earlier state so that we can act upon them before they lead us astray.
The full-bodied 'yogi breath' is the one that we can use to cleanse our system thoroughly. It uses all the respiratory muscles, which are in the abdomen, the diaphragm, the midrib and chest muscles. It is invaluable to our body because it provides us with the largest amount of air and prana.
Directions Full Yogi Breath:
Besides reducing earlier described, acute stress responses, it can also prevent other reactions, like hyper-ventilation and migraine. It isn't necessary to do this full yogi-breath continuously, but 5 x 3 times a day is recommended during 6 weeks. After 6 weeks you have probably developed a better way of breathing.
Another breathing technique that we can learn from yogi masters is the 'alternate nostril breath', that balances the left and right side of the brain, which helps clearing the mind and the nervous system. If you have difficulties sleeping, this is a good one.
Directions Alternate Nostril Breathing:
All given information and exercises are meant as merely information and never aim to replace advise or therapy from a medical professional.
Trauma and Recovery – Judith Lewis Herman
The Power and Price of Survival – Pamela Woll
The Yogi-science of Breathing – Yogi Ramacharaka