We have all experienced the automatic changes in our breath when we are stressed or frightened. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system causes our breath to become more rapid, more shallow, and higher in the torso. Once the perceived threat is gone, the breath is supposed to be governed by the parasympathetic branch and return to a deeper, slower rhythm.
However, sometimes parts are frozen in the time and place of the stress or trauma and continue to believe they are in danger. The individual’s nervous system becomes locked into the fight-or-flight mode and can’t return to the rest-and-relaxation phase of the parasympathetic branch. Somatic IFS’s tool of Conscious Breathing can help with these and many other burdens in the internal system.
Breathing is both a voluntary and involuntary process. It is controlled automatically from the brainstem but can also be controlled voluntarily from the motor cortex. As an involuntary process, conscious breathing can access parts that are otherwise unavailable to our awareness. As a voluntary process, various breathing techniques can assist with unblending and bringing Self energy to the part. These techniques are also effective with clinical issues such as trauma and addictions, depression and anxiety, working with chronic illness, and improving one’s general health and well-being.
I describe some breathing techniques below that are examples of working with the voluntary muscles of breathing to shift the emotional states of their parts. Most of the techniques focus on the exhale since more muscles are involved in exhalation than inhalation, and therefore the exhale is more subject to our voluntary control.
When protector parts are blocking the expression of the exiles, the Release Breath can be used. The Pause Breath and Grounding Breath are useful in the opposite case—when exiles’ emotions flood the system and when asking the exile to not overwhelm isn’t sufficient to contain the emotions.
Release Breath: I used this technique with Roger, who wanted help getting in touch with his sadness. Having been abandoned by his mother as a young boy, he came to me because his wife was leaving him. He had high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. He easily accessed his anger, but he couldn’t feel his sadness, which he sensed was just below the anger. His manager parts had been afraid he would be humiliated if he cried. They realized the situation was safer now to feel his sadness, but the tears remained elusive.
I considered that the shift in the managers was only in his cognition and not yet in his body. Knowing that the breath is a favorite body process that managers control in order to contain an exile’s emotions, I observed Roger’s breathing pattern as he talked. His breathing was typically fast and shallow, and only his upper chest moved.
“Roger, just pay attention to your breath for a few breaths, particularly the exhale.” I took a few breaths along with him and then gave him another suggestion:
“Now open your mouth and your throat with the exhale. Don’t force the air out, but just let the exhale be as full and as long as it wants to be.” I didn’t want to engage a striving or pleasing manager who might polarize with the one controlling his breathing.
I noticed Roger’s shoulders tensing and asked him if he could let that tension go.
“Breathing out is the body’s way of letting go of what it no longer needs. The body lets go of 70 percent of its toxins through breathing. Blood pressure decreases on the exhale. You just let go of some extra tension in your body. Now see if you can make a sound that expresses the relief of all that letting go.”
I breathed with him and let out an “Aaaahhhhh” on the exhale. He began to make the sound as well, at first with some hesitation but then with more expression. After several audible sighs, the next inhale was followed by some sobs. After crying for several minutes, he reported feeling relief, more relaxation in his body, and less anger. The manager part was reassured that Roger had not been shamed for his crying. His breath continued to be slower and deeper. He was able in the next weeks to be more vulnerable with his wife.
Pause Breath: At the beginning of a session, Diane was activated by a panicking part and was hyperventilating as she tried to talk about what was upsetting her. I directed her to shift her awareness to her exhale and guided her through the following process.
“Purse your lips, breathe out, and wait one second before you take in a new breath.”
As she was able to do that, I directed her to pause for two seconds, and then three, before she inhaled. After about a minute of this Pause Breathing, Diane had more Self energy to bring to her panicked parts.
I have also used this technique of Pause Breathing with Amy, who struggled with various of issues around letting go. She was a hoarder. She struggled with overeating and couldn’t find the courage to leave her dead-end job. I noticed she took several fast inbreaths, but it was hard to notice her exhales.
After a few minutes, Amy said, “I feel very uncomfortable with the pause. I have to make myself wait even a second before I inhale. But I notice after the pause that I can take a longer and deeper inhale, and that feels good.”
“Good. Just notice what feels good about the deeper inhale, and notice the discomfort in the pause before you breathe in again. Maybe you will find a part involved in that reluctance.”
Amy found parts that feared not being enough, and not getting enough, that were being expressed in the overemphasis on the inhale. In the discomfort of the pause, she found a part that was afraid of losing control. As we explored that part more deeply, its fears of dying were revealed. The Pause Breathing allowed us to access her core parts’ beliefs that we had not found before. Amy began to incorporate this technique several times a day and found her life beginning to change for the better. We had greater access to these parts and to her Self energy as her breathing became more normal. She let go of some of the clutter in her home and in general felt a lessening of the anxiety and tension in her body.
Grounding Breath: In the middle of one of our sessions, Jasmine’s fearful exile blended with her, and Jasmine wasn’t responding to my words.
“Let’s just leave the story and the feelings aside for now and just breathe together for several breaths.”
Jasmine’s breathing slowed and deepened slightly.
“Now focus just on the movements in your lower belly as you breathe in and out. Let your belly move out on the inhale and move in on the exhale. On every exhale, bring your navel closer toward your spine.”
As she was able to do that, I added one more voluntary movement.
“On the next exhale, as you pull your navel toward your spine, also pull up on the muscles of your pelvic floor.”
Dropping the story line relaxed the firefighters who were blocking her from our interaction. Focusing on her breath gave her mind an alternative focus to the upsetting narrative. Activating the muscles of the lower belly and pelvic floor brought Jasmine’s awareness to some earlier places of grounding from before her trauma. The navel is the infant’s source of grounding and connection, and the infant expands that grounding to include the pelvic floor and sitz bones as it learns to sit.
Now that she had regained her grounding and her access to her Self energy, we were able to continue to witness her exile’s narrative story.
Conscious Breathing assists the therapeutic relationship: These three techniques of Conscious Breathing can be effective with many clinical issues with every step of the model. As with all the tools, whether or not they are appropriate for your clients, you will find them useful for you in the role of therapist to unblend from burdened parts and to increase your access to your Self energy.
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There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted. Then there’s another way: a breath of love that takes you all the way to infinity. —Rumi
Happy and aligned with the One are those who find their home in the breathing. —the translation of the original Aramaic of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, usually translated as “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”