Why does intense breathing cause intense feelings?
One explanation for the dramatic results that can often be achieved through intensive breathing can be found in the fear centre of our brain: the amygdale. This small organ with the size of an almond seed situated deep down in our brain is developed in the third month of pregnancy and works as an accurate storage of all events, which have caused fear and emotional overwhelm throughout our lives. It works totally unconsciously and has no reference to time. This means that the amygdale stores the memory of a barking dog, which I perceived as dangerous at the age of one without taking a note about the time. So the same fear with the same intensity as I had experienced it in early childhood is produced when meeting a barking dog in an adult age.
The task of the amygdale is to react within very short time to sensory data coming from outside, which indicate a dangerous situation. This is why the connection from the ears to the amygdale is extremely short: a signal that is coming in from the ears needs to jump over only three synapses to reach the alarm centre in the brain, and these three jumps do not need more than eight milliseconds.
After that, the amygdale is able to set off the complex stress reaction immediately by activating other brain centres, mainly the hypothalamus. Thus an overall change in the whole body including intense breathing is triggered and all the body’s resources for fight or flight are mobilized so we can face challenges in an effective way.
Intense Breathing and Fear
In a Breathwork session, we usually start with relaxing the body. It is important for the client to let go of obvious muscular tensions, so that the breath can start to flow easier and deeper as usual. Then the breathing can be intensified by will and encouragement up to a point, where the amygdale is reminded of danger in which this form of breathing had appeared spontaneously in any former time of the history of the person. So the amygdale starts the stress reaction in the body similar to a past traumatic experience. The client experiences strange body sensations, bizarre movements and intense feelings of fear, anger or sadness up to the point of cathartic release.
The amygdale also connects to the other memory storages in the upper regions of our brain, the cortex. The connection is mediated by the hippocampus, which is our unconscious organizer for conscious memories. In this way, sensual memories from the past are activated and can be experienced as images, sounds or body sensations which come along with the intense feelings created by the amygdale. Past situations of traumatizing power arise, can be faced consciously until we are ready to integrate them.
We can understand the fact that memories come up often far beyond the range of our conscious memory storage, because the memory capacity of the amygdale reaches back to the early times of pregnancy. The visual impressions that come with it may not always be accurate, as they are formed by the associative cortex under the governance of the hippocampus. Their production does not follow a strict rule and principle. Yet it can provide a lot of relevant details. Our brain does not work like a historical scientist who clearly separates facts and fiction but more like a poet who creates images with complex meanings. (This is the place where the false memory syndrome comes in.)
The memories from the fear storage are provided in a different format, which is simple and accurate. This information is far from being complete or objective. It is like a database with very few parameters and it focuses on detecting dangerous signals in the environment quickly and precisely. When I got hit by a red car years ago, the same colour in a tiny spot in my vision can trigger the original panic reaction.
Just bringing up the fearful information would not help to heal them. On the contrary, it would intensify and strengthen them in the sense of retraumatisation. But the relaxed state, in which the body receives the traumatic memories, and the safety, which is provided by the therapist, help to integrate the memory. Integration means that the fear which is stored in the amygdale is strongly linked to a time frame from the higher regions of the brain so that we are able to allocated the fear far back in the past and to experience the present as safe and trustworthy.
Here, another important centre of the brain comes into play, the prefrontal cortex (PFC). This is our agent for reality check and responsibility. It matures during adolescence. The PFC is able to quiet our fearful amygdale when we bring old memories to consciousness. It says, that old experience was very frightening for us, but now we are grown up and we are no more in danger. (This is called a top-down-control.) But the PFC needs calm circumstances, because when anxiety prevails, its reasoning is set aside by the alarm centres.
One client of mine came to a breathwork session because she felt highly disturbed after a breathing session in a group where the person who was assisting her, became unsafe during the process and could not give her the support she would have needed to integrate the emotions that came up. So she needed careful attention and relaxed breathing to work through and integrate this disturbing experience.
When the right circumstances are provided, the client experiences the intensity of the emotion and feels safe enough to face it and to cope with it. She stays consciously focussed on the breathing, so she cannot be totally overwhelmed by the emotion as in the traumatic situation of the past. The therapist is present and aware of the needs of the client, encourages the client to experience the feelings and to stay aware of the breathing. He serves as a grounding anchor and a connection bridge to present reality.
In case that daily life provides another situation, which could trigger the pattern of fear which came up in the session, it is much less likely that the fear will arise as intense as before and after some time, it will happen that the person can stay calm and does not even think of being afraid.
Limitations of Catharsis
Cathartic breathing has some limitations we should be aware of when using it as a therapeutic method. One limit is that strong emotions from past trauma can arise too quickly for the organism to integrate them. This brings the danger of overstretching and damaging a fragile ego structure and cause severe desintegration and decompensation resulting in psychosis. So persons with a fragile personality structure and a weak social background should not be guided into intense breathing sessions. They have to become acquainted with their body and their breath in the first place. When they have learned to feel grounded in their bodies and to relax with their outbreath, then they can slowly be lead to towards increasing the volume of the inhalation.
The other limitation can be found in the learning abilities of the amygdale. We know about the mechanism of extinction from classical conditioning as researched by Iwan Pawlow a hundred years ago. For a person who is exposed to frightening signals over a period of time without anything dangerous happening, the signal loses its scaring character. When we hear a car alarm going off every two minutes, we stop to listen to it.
Similarly, after some experiences with intense breathing, the amygdale stops to get anxious when the breathing rhythm intensifies and the pauses of relaxation are omitted. It has learned with the help of the prefrontal cortex, that there is no real danger in the situation. So the client has learned to integrate her fears to a certain degree and has strengthened the top-down control to tame the lower emotional centre to fire off unnecessarily all the time.
We observe that most clients who come to breathwork sessions on a regular basis, reach a level where they can breathe strongly and intensely in a connected rhythm without producing intense emotional responses or outbreaks. Their system gets adjusted to the “strange” breathing pattern. This does not mean that all their traumas are healed, but that their body including their brain has managed to cope with the intensified breathing pattern and is ready to move on from that level.
At this point, the method of cathartic breathing has reached its purpose and needs to be changed. Working with relaxing the breathing combined with a full volume can provide deeper levels of healing. Still, not all issues and causes of suffering can be eliminated by conscious breathing. We need complementary approaches to access these ailments. This can be emotional level breathing, systemic breathing, interactive breathing or any other approach in complementary breathwork, which opens the door to the different levels of our soul other than by cathartic breathing.
Some therapists and some clients become disappointed at the point when cathartic breathing fails to produce remarkable and sensational results.
As we know from wave theories, even the strongest waves cool down and disappear after some time. When the client and the therapist associate therapeutic success with high waves, they think after a smooth and quiet session, that something essential is missing. When dramatic breakthroughs are considered as the core of therapy. intensity as such is the marker for success, and the lack of intensity the sign of failure.
The therapist will transfer his concept to the client whether it is shared verbally or not. Both, therapist and client become addicted to a drama-resolution-cycle: a drama is needed to obtain freedom so dramas have to be created to gain the benefit from the feeling of resolution. This is like seeking the experience that we never feel as good as after recovering from a severe disease. But it would not be considered as normal to acquire intense illnesses for the sake of the nice feeling after recovery.
If the therapist feels stressed for delivering dramatic results, she will look for new means of producing such. There are several tools to provide a high level of excitement and dramatic tension, mainly with interventions on the physical level. Applying pressure on certain points of the body will inevitably produce strong emotional reactions.
Some breathworkers claim that more breathing is better breathing. So they motivate their clients for intense breathing and assume automatically that less intense breathing indicates psychological resistance. More breathing is equated with more life energy and this is stated like a dogma.
But those therapists do not consider that the level of energy which the body can take from our breathing metabolism does not depend on the quantity of air taken in but on the ability of the body to take in the oxygen. Simple measurements can show that strong and rapid breathing takes more energy from the body as it adds to it.
So the question is whether any further healing can happen under such manipulative and ideological circumstances. Healing cannot be measured by the quantity of dopamine in the brain, which is likely to be high at the end of a cathartic session. Becoming addicted to emotional arousal is bound to create more suffering and to deepen neurotic patterns. When therapy turns into a sportive exercise, it would be better to tell the client to do an hour of running instead of the session which would probably give him the same or even a healthier result.
Good breathing is relaxed breathing
In many cases of therapy, catharsis is useful to open up the blocks, which are in the way of gaining more relaxation. So it is an episode on the way. Learning to intensify the breathing is needed and can be used up to a certain point, which is different for each person. When this point is missed, the deepening of relaxation is blocked and the craving for tension becomes an addictive pattern.
Therapy should result in weakening and dissolving patterns of dysfunctional behaviour, in reducing underlying fears and in enlarging the areas for relaxation in daily life. A healthy life can have its intense aspects and times but they should not arise from stress, fear or craving but should be associated with joy and pleasure, as the playful side of relaxation.
A good breathing pattern is a sign of a healed body-mind-system. In my view a good breathing pattern can be measured by the amount of relaxation in the breathing muscles and not by the quantity of air flowing in and out. A relaxed breathing rhythm is flexible and can adjust to different situations, calming down to slow breathing when the circumstances are pleasant and free of challenge, and speeding up when things need to be done. It provides the minimum of breathing activity which is needed to fulfil the actual demands of reality.