Breathwork’s Role in Trauma Release


Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens

inside you as a result of what happened to you.“

– Dr Gabor Maté

What is trauma?

To answer the question of whether breathwork can release trauma, we need to look inside our bodies. Trauma is not something that happens to us, as mentioned in the quote from Dr. Gabor Maté.

It is a reaction in our body to an external event. Stress is ubiquitous in our society and can lead to syndromes such as burnout if it becomes too great. Trauma, however, goes beyond stress. It occurs when our system is overloaded, we cannot cope with the situation, and it moves us beyond mental capacity to adapt or change as the body takes control. We are unable to process the experience clearly. The energy of the experience is not discharged from the body and remains trapped in the nervous system.

Trauma symptoms

Everyone responds to trauma in different ways, and there are many levels to this. We all respond in our own way with physical, psychological or emotional signs. More obvious major traumas such as abuse, assault, rape, war violence or serious accidents can make life unbearable. But even everyday events that happen regularly can trigger trauma, such as minor accidents, fights, natural disasters, extreme heat or cold, and so on. These traumatic experiences can be triggered in a variety of situations, causing physical and psychological reactions such as numbing, shivering, or dissociation. But other subtle effects such as distrust, fatigue, guilt, confusion, nightmares, and anxiety can also show up. Trauma can also alter one’s view of life, relationships and emotions. 

In recent years, researchers such as Bessel van der Kolk, Peter Levine, Dr. Gabor Maté, and various practitioners have studied trauma extensively and explored different therapeutic approaches. They have made remarkable breakthroughs in working with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The approaches range from traditional psychotherapy, different breathwork techniques to yoga-based approaches. There is not one method that helps everyone, but a broad spectrum can help find the right combination for everyone.



Breakthrough breathwork to release trauma

Breathwork is one approach, and the answer is yes, it can release trauma. But how? Breathwork heals and processes trauma by bypassing the consciousness and deactivating the sympathetic nervous system. It has a restorative effect and works by creating a safe space for a deep relaxation. Breathwork techniques facilitate self-healing through connecting to one’s breath. Letting whatever comes up be expressed, processed and released. Breakthrough breathwork is one technique that helps to reprogram traumatic responses by going directly to the limbic system where they are stored rather than trying to enter through the door of the prefrontal cortex, whose pathways to experience are blocked by the body’s contingency control systems. Responses to threats are usually instinctive and often overriding psychological and cognitive resources.

Animals can regulate and dissipate the high energy levels that result from defensive survival behavior. Humans have the same regulatory mechanisms, but they are often overridden or inhibited by the rational parts of our brain. We can use techniques and tools to get back in touch with our regulatory system though. Slow breathing helps to organize the chaotic responses of overwhelming life events and link them to a more understandable narrative. The memories and responses are woven into a new story. This process connects the right brain that stores strong emotional data and the left brain that tries to make sense of the experience. Fast breathing gently activates the limbic system through the sympathetic nervous system in a safe setting. It can bring unprocessed traumatic and stressful situations back to the surface. 

Practicing Breakthrough breathwork

It’s easy to just talk and write about trauma release. Putting it into practice is another step. Psychotherapy is still something many humans are afraid of and hesitant to start with. Maybe breathwork can be a door opener to speak to a broader group of humans and take away the fear to put in the work to release trauma. But to say up front somatic release which means that it’s on a body level and not in the mind can be hard work. It’s not a meditation or pranayama technique. 

Before starting a breathwork session an introduction, interview and intention setting is mostly involved. If in a group, it’s nice to share some memories of emotional events, the relationships in the family and some previous therapeutic methods. This opens the space up for inner work and creates a safe space for expression. The practice starts with a slow breathing for integration and a form of fast breathing for activation. 

This is what a breakthrough breathwork session involves

  1. Clarifying the intention for the session. Get familiar with the rhythm of the breath. It’s the activation stage where the breather discovers how to connect to the rhythm. 
  2. The second part is to stay with the rhythm as things start to surface. Movements and expressions might occur through the activation as an energetic charge builds up. Crossing over into a fully activated material and exploring an expanded state of consciousness or a simple relaxation into a deep sensation. 
  3. Released energy is grounded and activated material integrated. Profound relaxation paired with deep insight.

“I have come to the conclusion that human beings are born with an innate capacity to triumph over trauma. I believe not only that trauma is curable, but that the healing process can be a catalyst for profound awakening—a portal opening to emotional and genuine spiritual transformation.”

– Peter Levine

Breathless Journal