Breathing Retraining in PTSD: A Practical Exercise

Barbara Rothbaum, Ph.D.

This presentation is an excerpt from the online course “Prolonged Exposure for PTSD: A Comprehensive Guide for Clinicians”.

Highlights

  • Our breathing affects the way we feel.
  • When trying to relax, space out your breathing.
  • We can condition relaxation.

 

Transcript

Video 5, How to Implement Breathing Retraining. What I’m going to do in this video is talk to you like I’m talking to a patient.
I’ll give you the rationale that I give a patient and then I’ll walk through the breathing just like I do with a patient.
Most of us realize that our breathing affects the way we feel. From the time we’re little kids if we’re crying and we’re upset, someone may tell us if we’re crying, someone may tell us, “Take a deep breath and calm down.” And if we’re crying like that and we can’t catch our breath, taking a deep breath might be exactly what we need to do to calm down.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

However, most of us when we’re anxious, we don’t need to take a deep breath. Most of the time when we’re anxious, we’ve actually got too much air on board.
When we’re anxious, our bodies give us the message we need more air, take in air now. And this usually prepares us to do one of the three F’s: to fight, flee, or freeze. For an example, if our ancestors saw a lion walking out in the woods, they may hold their breath preparing to do one of the three F’s: to fight, flee, or freeze. If the lion kept walking, then they exhale. And that’s where we tell our bodies, “Relax, code green, false alarm, it’s okay.” So breathing in air is associated with getting our bodies ready to act and exhaling is where we tell our bodies it’s okay to relax. So taking in more air might be the exact wrong thing to do.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

What we want to do when we’re trying to relax is take in a little bit less air.
And one way to do that is to space out our breaths. So in a few moments—not yet—when we start going through the breathing retraining, I’m going to ask you to take a normal breath and exhale slowly, saying the word “calm” to yourself. When we’re doing it in here, I’ll say it out loud. And then basically holding your breath, pausing before you need to take in more air. And this is similar, for example, a runner before a race is going to take some deep breaths to fuel her body with oxygen to be able to run this race.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

Hyperventilating produces some of these same bodily reactions that resemble fear. So sometimes when people are scared, they’ll think, “Okay, I need to take in a deep breath. Take in a deep breath. Okay. That didn’t work. I need to take in more. Take in another deep breath.” What does that do? It leads to hyperventilating that’s going to help our bodies feel like, “Okay, now, I really need to act.” But that’s going to make us more anxious.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

So what we want to do is decrease the amount of air, slow down our breathing. In a few moments when we do this, I’m going to ask you as you’re exhaling slowly to say the word “calm” or maybe relax silently to yourself. Calm is a good word to use for a few reasons. For most people, it’s associated with comfort and support. A loved one saying, “It’s okay, calm down.” It also sounds nice if we can drag it out. We can say “calm…” And if I could sing, it would sound even better.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

So when we start going through this, I’m going to want you to try to take a normal breath. Now, I realize that as soon as we start talking about breathing that it doesn’t feel normal. It’s like blinking or swallowing. As soon as we pay too much attention to it, it throws it off. So the idea when I take you through this is to practice it. I am going to try to look at my patient’s own breathing rhythms and put this on top of it. But their breathing isn’t going to be normal. Your breathing isn’t going to be normal now. Later on, when you’re not practicing this, catch yourself taking a normal breath to remember what that feels like.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

So you’re going to take a normal breath. You’re going to exhale slowly. You don’t need to drag it out as long as you can, but you do want to drag it out a little bit saying the word “calm” silently in your head and I’ll say it out loud. And then we’re going to pause. I’m going to ask you to pause, basically holding your breath. If what happens when you’re anxious is you’re actually overfueled with oxygen, what we want to do is decrease some of that fuel. And one way to do that is to take in fewer breaths per minute. And one way to do that is to space out our breathing. So by pausing between breaths, it will help you take in less oxygen.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

Very often during this pause, people may feel the need to gulp air, to take in a deep breath. What that is, is our bodies are really smart in some ways and not so smart in other ways. What our bodies know is homeostasis, how to maintain the level that we’re at. So when we get ourselves anxious, our bodies don’t know we don’t have a lion chasing us. So if we hold our breath, our body is going to give us the message, “Uh-uh-uh, I need more air now.” And that’s that feeling that you need to gulp air. You just have to know to ignore it. Sometimes, if it gets really strong, by holding your breath and swallowing a couple of times, it helps that feeling go away. Most people tell me that after we do this for a couple of breaths it helps that feeling go away. It helps your body downregulate.
And then we’re just going to repeat the process. You don’t have to count, but I’m going to take you through about 10 to 15 breaths. Towards the end, I am going to fade away my instructions, but I want you to keep practicing, keep going on with it.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

So now, I’d like you to close your eyes and get in a comfortable position. You have things you need to think about, but you can think about them later. This is your time. You will not be hurried. And I want you to focus on slowing down your breathing.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

And when it’s comfortable to take a slow regular breath in through your nose with your mouth closed and exhale slowly, saying “Calm… and pause, 2, 3, 4.” Good. Normal breath. Calm… and pause, 2, 3, 4. Normal breath. Calm… and pause, 2, 3, 4. Calm… and pause, 2, 3, 4. Calm… and pause, 2, 3, 4. Calm… and pause. Calm… and pause. Calm… and pause. Calm… and pause. Calm… and pause. Calm… Calm… Calm… Calm…”

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

I’d like you to keep your breathing slow and regular. And open your eyes noticing the feelings of relaxation, knowing that you can become this relaxed whenever you choose.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

I’d like you to practice this relaxation at least 2 or 3 times a day. If you like using this tape, that’s fine. Just don’t become dependent on it. You might want to practice once a day with the tape, once a day without the tape, or 1 day with the tape, the next day without the tape. Popular times to practice, a lot of people like to practice this breathing before they even get out of bed in the morning and that starts the day off in a nice, relaxing way. You can practice it anytime during the day. You’re breathing all the time anyway so no one has to know that you’re doing it. You can do it in a meeting. You can do it at a red light. You can do it when you go to the bathroom. It’s also popular to practice it when you’re going to bed at night. And that’s fine. Just make sure you finish practicing before you fall asleep.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

And what I found is that just like we can condition anxiety, certain things or certain situations happen and send your anxiety right up there, we can also condition relaxation. If you have this well practiced, then in a situation that gets you anxious and you can, for example, feel your heart start to pound, you can do a few of these breaths and it’ll bring it right down. You can condition this relaxation response. But you do need to practice it.

References

Foa, E., Hembree, E. A., Rothbaum, B. O., & Rauch, S. (2019). Prolonged exposure therapy for PTSD: Emotional processing of traumatic experiences – Therapist guide (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Rothbaum, Foa, Hembree, & Rauch (2019). Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience: Client workbook, 2nd edition. New York. Oxford University Press, USA.

Our breathing affects the way we feel.
Breathing in air is associated with getting our bodies ready to act and exhaling is where we tell our bodies it’s okay to relax. What we want to do when we’re trying to relax is take in a little bit less air. And one way to do that is to space out our breathing.
Just like we can condition anxiety, we can also condition relaxation.

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