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A young woman sits at home on her floor. She is practicing somatic breathwork to help her chill out.

How Somatic Breathwork Can Help You Chill Out

6 min.

Somatic breathwork is a holistic practice that uses the interconnectedness of our mind and body, especially our breath, to help improve emotional and mental well-being. Learn more about somatic breathwork here.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

November 10, 2023

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Table of Contents

Take a moment to tune into your breath right now. Are your breaths shallow or deep? Are you breathing quickly or slowly? Now, ask yourself what you’re feeling at this very moment. Are you experiencing anxiety or calmness, worry or contentment, safety or fear? Next, take a deep, cleansing breath in, and slowly release. Whether or not you were aware of it, you just engaged in somatic breathwork!

Somatic breathwork is a therapeutic modality dedicated to illuminating the profound influence of our breath on our emotions and our emotions on our breath. It’s a mind-body practice (grounded in non-Western traditions), emphasizing the connection between our physical sensations and emotional and mental states. 

The various elements of somatic breathwork are rooted in the conviction that by bringing awareness to our breath and engaging in different breathing exercises, self-improvement, stress reduction, and emotional healing (especially in the context of past trauma) are possible. Keep reading to learn more about the benefits of somatic breathwork and how it actually works. 

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What is somatic breathwork?

As mentioned, somatic breathwork is a mind-body therapy that combines intentional breathing techniques and exercises with the understanding that our emotions, memories, thoughts, and physical sensations are all interconnected. The term “somatic” originates from the Greek word “soma,” which translates to “body.” Therefore, “somatic” essentially means “of the body” or “pertaining to the body.” 

Somatic breathwork is a therapeutic practice centered on intentional control and awareness of the breath to enhance overall well-being. When doing somatic breathwork, conscious breathing becomes a tool for connecting the body and mind. The practice can include various breathing techniques, ranging from deep and rhythmic breaths to specific patterns, to promote physical, emotional, and mental health. Somatic breathwork specifically uses the breath as a tool for relaxation to foster a sense of calm. Depending on the provider, some somatic breathwork practices may include spiritual elements, encouraging a connection to a larger aspect of self.

Somatic breathwork vs. psychotherapy

In somatic therapeutic practices, the focus shifts to physical sensations and their connection to emotions through various mind-body exercises (including somatic breathing exercises). The approach differs from traditional talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychoanalysis, which primarily emphasizes the exploration of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as opposed to bodily sensations. Somatic practices are often described as a “bottom-up” approach to mental health (starting with the sensory and bodily), while traditional talk therapy is described as a “top-down” approach (starting with cognitive processes). 

However, it’s important to note that these two therapeutic approaches are not mutually exclusive. Many therapists and mental health professionals are incorporating somatic practices, such as somatic breathwork, into their treatment approaches for various mental and emotional health challenges, especially for anxiety, depression, and various trauma-related disorders. Since the 1970s, when philosopher and educator Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., popularized somatics to a Western audience, somatic therapy has grown in popularity and acceptance within the Western mental health community. 

The integration of mind and body allows people to benefit from a holistic approach to mental health treatment, addressing both the cognitive and somatic aspects of their challenges. This combination can be especially valuable for those who may find it difficult to express their emotions in traditional talk therapy alone or for folks seeking a more comprehensive approach to their mental health and self-improvement journey.

How does somatic breathwork work?

Somatic breathwork aims to improve emotional and mental well-being by affecting the autonomic nervous system (ANS) through intentional breathing exercises. To better comprehend how somatic breathwork achieves this, let’s delve into the two components of the ANS: the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches.

Sympathetic nervous system (SNS)

The SNS is often referred to as the “fight or flight” system. It is responsible for preparing the body to respond to perceived threats or stressors by activating various physiological responses. Some of the key features of SNS activation include:

  • Increased heart rate and respiratory rate
  • Dilation of airways for increased oxygen intake
  • Release of stress hormones like cortisol
  • Diverting blood flow away from non-essential functions such as digestion to muscles and vital organs
  • Heightened alertness and focused attention

The SNS is essential in situations where quick reactions are necessary to deal with potential dangers. However, chronic or excessive SNS activation due to toxic stress, trauma, or anxiety can lead to various health issues, both physical and emotional. 

Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS)

The PNS, often known as the “rest and digest” system, is the body’s counterbalance to the SNS. It promotes relaxation, recovery, and energy conservation. Key aspects of PNS activation include:

  • Slowing of heart rate and respiratory rate
  • Constriction of airways to conserve energy
  • Improved digestion and absorption of nutrients
  • Promotion of a calm and restful state

The PNS helps the body recover after a stressful situation and maintains equilibrium during non-stressful times. Somatic breathwork practices attempt to engage this branch of the ANS.

A young teenager practices somatic breathing.

Proponents of somatic therapeutic practices, such as somatic breathwork, hold the belief that many of the emotional, mental, and physical problems people experience stem from the mind and body staying stuck in the “fight or flight” response for too long. In other words, for somatic practitioners, the body’s inability to complete the natural cycle of its survival instinct and return to a parasympathetic state is the root cause of various mental, emotional, and physical challenges. That’s why somatic practices, like somatic breathwork, work by engaging the ANS to return the body to a place of calm, with the greater objective of helping people process anxiety, stress, and trauma. 

Somatic memory and breathwork

As mentioned, somatic breathwork helps people regain control of their nervous system by bringing conscious awareness to aspects of their body, such as breath, that are typically regulated unconsciously. By tapping into the unconscious aspects of our nervous system, somatic practices open up avenues of exploration and healing regarding memories that often live underneath the level of consciousness. These types of memories are referred to as somatic memories

Somatic memories can be externalized subconsciously in the body through certain movements and postures or generalized physical feelings of unease and discomfort—all unique to each person. Somatic breathwork provides access to these negative somatic memories through various breathing techniques and practices which aim to activate the body’s natural ability to release trapped emotions and physical tension. 

Benefits of somatic breathwork 

Research suggests that somatic exercises such as somatic breathwork offer a wide range of physical and emotional benefits, making it a valuable tool for improving overall well-being. Somatic breathwork’s ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system contributes to lower heart rates, reduced blood pressure, and an overall sense of relaxation, which can aid in managing stress-related physical ailments.

Also, this practice promotes deep, diaphragmatic breathing, which can enhance lung capacity, oxygenate the body, and improve overall respiratory function. It can also help reduce muscle tension and can be especially effective in alleviating symptoms of stress-related conditions such as tension headaches and chronic pain

In regards to mental health and well-being, research suggests that somatic practices can help support emotional regulation and can assist people in processing and releasing pent-up emotions, including those related to past traumas. By connecting the body with emotions, people gain a heightened awareness of their feelings and learn to tap into their emotional responses more effectively. In this way, somatic breathwork can foster a greater sense of self-awareness and self-acceptance, helping people cultivate a positive relationship with their emotions. 

It is important to note that scientific evidence supporting specific somatic techniques, such as somatic breathwork, is still limited. Somatics as a therapeutic modality is still relatively new in the Western world of mental health, and as time progresses, more evidence will become available about the modality’s efficacy. That being said, the preliminary research is promising, and countless people have reported positive results from the use of somatic techniques.  

Somatic breathwork at Charlie Health 

Whether you’re looking to explore somatic breathwork, address past trauma, or simply find a safe space to navigate life’s challenges, Charlie Health is here to help. 

Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) combines group sessions, individual therapy, and family therapy for young people who need more than once weekly therapy. Our expert clinicians are trained in various holistic treatment modalities, like somatic breathwork and conscious breathing techniques, to help you address your specific mental health challenges, including trauma and anxiety.

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