Why ‘Take a Deep Breath’ Can Be Terrible Advice

Sometimes relaxation requires starting outside of the body

Laura Khoudari

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Photo by Eli DeFaria on Unsplash

The field of trauma treatment is rapidly growing, which means that as a trauma-informed strength coach, I spend a lot of time studying different clinical approaches. And as I do, I witness countless yoga teachers, therapists, somatic therapists, massage therapists, and physical therapists telling the stressed out to take a nice deep breath to get grounded. To this I say: STOP! Please do not insist folks take a deep breath.

On the surface, it makes a lot of sense to tell people to take a deep breath. We commonly think of deep breathing as a way to slow down time, our breath, and ultimately our autonomic nervous system. But guess what — lots of people with chronic stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder, will find this act at best, damn near impossible, and at worst, triggering.

Constriction in Our Breathing Muscles

If you live with chronic stress or trauma, there is a good chance that you experience constriction in your primary breathing muscle — the diaphragm.

The diaphragm is a muscle beneath your ribcage that contracts and flattens out to fill your lungs with air. As you exhale, it relaxes and expands upward. When we are breathing at rest in a parasympathetic state, it should handle most of the work.

Working in conjunction with the diaphragm is a whole set of secondary breathing muscles — your intercostals, scalenes, sternocleidomastoids, pecs minor, and abs.

Muscles of respiration. Source: Physiopedia/Public domain

These muscles are of your neck, chest, and belly. And theoretically when you are at rest, they are too. Even when you are working hard in a sympathetic state, they are only handling some of the load. That said, if you live with chronic stress or trauma these muscles are often overused, and your diaphragm does almost none of the work.

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Laura Khoudari

Trauma-informed personal trainer and author of Lifting Heavy Things.