It is a little-known health practice in this country. Still, thanks to its successes in Europe where it is a form of psychotherapy, “breathwork therapy,” as it is known, is gaining credibility here in the U.S. (The technique is not just bubbles and rainbows, in other words.) And, based on the testimonies of people who have experienced it, breathwork therapy will continue to gather recognition.
One reason for this growing recognition is that researchers are beginning to study whether there is evidence to support the use of breathwork therapy as a complement to traditional medical practices.
Another reason is that many people who have undertaken breathwork have found relief from mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety and depression.
As a breathwork therapist, I’ve seen this healing firsthand. In some cases, I have had the privilege of witnessing clients find release and freedom from deep-seated hurts and traumas.
Integrative Breathwork Therapy (IBT) – What It Is
What, then, is breathwork therapy and what does it treat? Breathwork therapy—and more specifically Integrative Breathwork Therapy (IBT)—is a form of psychotherapy that uses a specific breathing technique to lead clients through an experiential process of unlocking their subconscious mind.
With the guidance of a certified therapist and the help of their breath, clients enter a state of deep relaxation and keen awareness and acceptance of the present moment.
IBT can be an effective complement to traditional psychotherapy when a client may have hit a roadblock in the therapeutic process. Say, for example, that a client is experiencing severe flashbacks from PTSD and they feel ready to deal with what is going on.
Through the conscious, connected breathing technique of IBT, that client can enter a very relaxed state where both their mind and body can release whatever anxiety may be contributing to the repression of certain memories.
In a state of deep relaxation and guided breathwork, they can breathe and move through a past traumatic experience and find resolution and release.
What IBT Treats
IBT can treat a range of conditions, including PTSD, addiction, anxiety, and depression, and possibly some physical conditions also. Let’s take a closer look at each of these conditions to see how IBT can address them:
PTSD – PTSD is a mental health condition triggered by a traumatic event. It may be characterized by flashbacks, severe anxiety, nightmares, intrusive memories, avoidance behaviors, negative mood changes, and changes in physical and emotional reactions, according to the Mayo Clinic. In other words, if trauma is in the mind, it is also in the body as well.
20 years ago, the reigning approach to PTSD was to encourage those who were suffering to process their trauma in talk therapy. Today we have a wider range of options for people who have experienced traumatic events, such as IBT. It is our understanding that when we face our traumas and move through them, we can find healing and resolution.
During an IBT session, when a client with PTSD enters a state of deep, conscious breathing and relaxation, they may experience a mind and body release. They may cry or laugh and not be sure why they’re crying or laughing, but it is as much a body release as it is a mind release.
For example, I was breathing with a first responder with PTSD once and noticed that while he was in a state of conscious, connected breathing, his right shoulder was causing him discomfort. As we were wrapping up the session, I asked him about it. He said it was really hurting, so I asked him if he had experienced any traumatic event or accident that may have affected his shoulder.
That is when he shared that when he was nine years old, an older brother had thrown him down a flight of stairs. His right shoulder had become dislocated, and his father in a panic had pushed it back in its socket. For years, that trauma had been repressed.
Addiction – IBT can also facilitate therapeutic breakthroughs for people who may be struggling with an addiction like alcoholism. Often a drinking problem is an effort to self-medicate unresolved pain, but just as often the person may not be able to identify the source of their pain—it’s lodged in their subconscious mind or in the periphery of their conscious mind. In breathwork, I’ve seen people experience sudden “aha” moments of self-revelation: They see what the underlying problem is and are now able to move forward in recovery.
Anxiety and Depression – A 2011 study in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy provides compelling evidence in favor of breathwork as “an additional treatment option” for anxiety and depression. For example, when a group of anxious and depressed patients received ten sessions of breathwork, they achieved “clinically significant improvements” in their symptoms. I have seen similar results with clients who may be struggling with anxiety and depression.
IBT may also help to treat physical conditions—and this would make sense, given what we now know about the mind-body connection. The integrative health model, which is the current gold standard for behavioral health treatment, understands that mental and physical health are heavily interrelated. In this sense, we have only begun to see the full healing potential of breathwork therapy as a mind-body complement to mainstream treatments.
About the author: Lisalee Loew is a certified breathwork therapist at the nationally recognized behavioral health provider FHE Health.