Breath Work in Trauma Recovery


Continued suffering from a past trauma does not indicate weakness, illness or being at fault for what happened. It’s important to understand that. Especially because those feelings can be barriers to getting help. And if left untreated, trauma’s effects can linger and show up in various ways. Trauma victims are more likely to isolate themselves, abuse loved ones, destroy relationships or act out in other damaging ways. They are also more likely to experience a relapse if they have struggled with addiction.1


Yes, with the relapse rate exceeding 40 percent for substance use disorder patients in general, people in recovery with trauma baggage are even more at risk. To help lower those numbers, more addiction specialists and individuals in recovery are turning to supplemental therapies in addition to the traditional 12-Step programs. Many of these adjunct therapies involve breath work.2


Why the Focus on Breath Work?

In terms of bodily needs, breath – the need for oxygen – is at the top of the list. People can live with no food for weeks. People can live without water for days. But being deprived of breath for even three minutes can cause all sorts of problems.


The way in which people breathe directly affects their emotional state and vice versa. When people feel anxious, worried, angry or stressed, their breath becomes shallow. Shallow breathing sends a signal to the nervous system that a core need is not being met. This lack creates tension and stress. For individuals with a substance use disorder in particular, this is dangerous. It keeps them stuck in a somatic pattern that reinforces the illusion that they are somehow incomplete.




However, these conditions are preventable.


Many people do not breathe well; they have not developed the capacity to breathe deeply, working their diaphragm and lungs. They also have not developed their core musculature, which is necessary for proper posture, to support the heart and to allow the rib cage to expand and contract when breathing deeply. In fact, some people have been breathing poorly for so long that their rib cage has become somewhat brittle. They live in what yogis refer to as “thoracic incarceration” and could not take a truly deep breath even if they wanted to. Fortunately, this is a condition that can be worked out with diligent practice.


By simply taking some long, deep breaths, which almost anyone can do, a different message is sent to the nervous system. It subtly communicates that all is well. That core need is indeed being met. This allows the body-mind system to relax. It also helps move toward healing, recovery and wholeness. For those in recovery from addiction, breathing well counters the sense of lack that often plagues them. It can serve as a prelude to a healthier life beyond.2


Traumatic Events Need to Be Addressed for a Successful Recovery

One of the most powerful breakthroughs in addiction treatment is an increased understanding of trauma. An event is considered traumatic when a person:


  • Experiences or witnesses a death, serious injury or physical threat, and
  • Responds with intense fear, helplessness or horror1


Those who struggle with addiction can carry a deep sense of lack. Something seems to be missing. An itch needs to be scratched. This is true for everyone with a substance use disorder – those in recovery as well as those still actively using – until they work out the complex roots of trauma that drive their behavior. Addiction counters even the body’s main directive to survive. The mind must be cleansed and reformatted in order to bring us back to our authentic self.2


How Does Alcoholism or Drug Addiction Arise Out of Trauma?

Addiction has its roots in trauma, which can include any event that leaves undigested or unprocessed negative emotional energy stuck in the mind-body system. These stuck energies have to be processed out of the system or they fester and manifest themselves in a variety of harmful ways over time. As time goes on, biography becomes biology. This is verified by looking at people who have endured a lot of trauma and carry its residue. The evidence of it is written into their bones, skin, posture and the way they breathe and move.


Addiction is a state of mind and body. It makes people feel distant from ease. Ask anyone who struggles with addiction if they feel at ease when they are not using their drug or addictive behavior of choice. They will confirm it. It is precisely this lack of ease, or dis-ease, that compels people with a substance use disorder to reach for something to try to feel better. They just want to feel at ease.


It makes sense, then, that any practice offering a return to body-mind ease is instrumental in achieving recovery from addiction. It is a move to productive over destructive.


Breath practices – such as those which are part of yoga exercises – serve to both calm the mind and detoxify the body. These practices improve circulation and lung capacity. They stretch and strengthen muscles. They help to promote the proper functioning of organs and digestion. And they regulate the nervous and endocrine systems. Altogether, such holistic strategies can be beneficial to everyone.2


Expert Help Is Available to Guide You to Inner Healing and Support Your Recovery

Breath work can be a key aspect of healing and recovery from addiction for many people. The lungs are the link between the circulatory and nervous systems. They provide detoxification, energy and a built-in relaxation response, which establishes a highly conducive environment for inner healing.3


By Tom Tjornehoj, a writer for Skywood Recovery.

Skywood is not just another rehab. Your loved one may have seen the inside and outside of a handful of treatment centers already. You feel like you’ve had enough of the whole “rehab” thing, but the person you love still needs help.  Phone call after phone call has left you convinced that shopping for treatment is a hassle, and no one can guarantee that they are any better than the rest. What could possibly be different about Skywood? Many programs sound the same, hoping to inspire you with clinical terms like “Dialectical Behavior Therapy,” “EMDR,” “medication-assisted treatment,” and more.



1How Trauma Informs Men’s Identity, Addiction and Recovery.” The Good Men Project, June 10, 2011.

2Yoga and Addiction Recovery.” Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, January 1, 2015.

313 Valuable Alternative Treatments for Addiction.” The Fix, September 8, 2014.