The Breath of God in Trauma Recovery
This we know, from research, personal experience, and the thousands of stories we’ve worked with: trauma impacts every part of our being—body, mind, and spirit. Many approaches to mental health focus primarily on the mind, and many Christians focus primarily on the spirit, but we will never experience holistic healing and transformation until we learn to listen to our bodies as well. Here, Jenny McGrath, a Fellow with The Allender Center, writes about the physical and spiritual necessity of allowing our breath to bring light to what is happening in the body. Jenny includes a simple breathing exercise for which, if you can, we’d recommend finding a quiet place and a few extra minutes as you read.
There are 28 passages in the Bible that overtly talk about the breath/spirit of God. Our English word for breath, respiration, comes from two joint Latin words meaning “return” and “spirit.” To breathe is to “return the Spirit.” This imagery is hard to fully grasp in a culture that has long been separated from our bodies and, therefore, our breath. I believe that the more we integrate the mind-body-soul connection, the more we are able to truly understand what it means to live into the image of God and experience the fullness of being filled with the breath of God.
It was thought for a long time that the breath was the only part of our autonomic nervous system that could be controlled manually and automatically. However, it is now observable that, through our breath, we are able to indirectly regulate and calm various parts of our nervous system. We are actually able to stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system (the part of our body responsible for rest, producing new blood cells, digestion, and more) through our breath.
One way is through our vagus nerve—a cranial nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. Our vagus nerve is a two-way street that communicates vital information from our brain to our vital organs such as lungs, heart, and stomach (and vise versa). For example, when we are breathing short, shallow, fast breaths, it is communicating from our lungs and stomach to our brain that we are needing to kick into fight/flight mode. Our brain then communicates back to our vital organs that since we must be in a survival mode, they need to stop functioning at optimum level so that blood and energy can be sent to our limbs for punching, kicking, or running. This could be a correlation to why survivors of trauma often end up with many various forms of digestive, health, and autoimmune disorders. Our body-brain connection is telling us that we don’t have time to focus on immunity, digestion, or other parasympathetic functions when we are breathing short, shallow, or fast breaths.
If you ask someone who has been through stress or trauma to tell you about their breath, unless they have already done extensive work on expanding their breath, they will most likely tell you that they are hardly breathing, or breathing shallow, or breathing very fast. We have to teach ourselves how to take in the fullness of our breath. This can be very triggering and should be done with a lot of care, as some types of breath—or even being aware of our breath—may be triggering to survivors who associate different types of breath with their trauma. (Below is an invitation to bring awareness to our breath. If you know that is a triggering subject for you, please use your discernment on if or how you would like to proceed reading.)
The surgeon Richard Selzer, in his book Letters to a Young Doctor (1982), describes our bodies as “our spirit thickened.” I believe we experience God not through an absence of body that only engages our spirit, but in and through our bodies—through our very breath. I see our breath as the dance between our spirit and our body.
We experience God not through an absence of body that only engages our spirit, but in and through our bodies—through our very breath.
Our breath can be a constant teacher for us. If we allow our breath to speak, it will show us what it means to surrender and receive. The greater we are able to surrender, the more we are able to open up and receive. Without deeply surrendering (exhaling) we have no room for receiving (inhaling). The dance of our breath allows us to move with grace and tenderness through all of the difficulties and triumphs that we experience in life.
So even now, as you read this…
How are you breathing?
What do you notice about your breath?
Are you breathing fast? Are you breathing slow?
Let go of judgment and expectation about how you “should” be breathing, and simply notice.
Do you feel your breath traveling all the way down into your belly? Do you notice it stopping short in your chest? Perhaps you are only breathing into your belly and not allowing the muscles in between your ribs and above your collarbones to expand.
Are you able to begin to soften your belly and allow it to rise with your inhale? What do you notice as you begin to take a deeper, fuller breath? Maybe you notice constriction in the pants that you are wearing. Perhaps you notice a tightness or constriction within your own stomach. Can you soften? Can you do the same for the muscles in between your ribs? What do you notice as you soften them and allow your rib cage to expand? Is it possible for you to also allow your collarbones to rise on your inhale? Maybe you notice that simply softening your muscles enables your breath to expand.
Imagine the whole core of your body, from your belly all the way into the top of your chest, inflating with your inhale.
What begins to shift for you as you feel yourself expand with fresh air? How does your body begin to feel as it is now filled with fresh, oxygenated blood?
And what about your exhale…
Are you forcing your exhale? What happens if you just allow your exhale to happen naturally after the fullest extension of your inhale?
Imagine that you are receiving spaciousness, goodness, the breath of God with your inhale. What do you begin to feel and to notice as you do so? What thoughts begin to come to your mind? Are you able to let go of associations or thoughts of who God is, and simply notice the presence, spirit, and Breath of God? Again, no judgment for these thoughts. Just notice them and see if you can surrender them with your exhale. How might God be with you, in you, and through you in every inhale? Every exhale?
What if you imagine breathing out and surrendering anything that is not the Spirit of God with your exhale? Maybe a word or image or sensation that you have been holding onto. Are you able to surrender and to let it go with your exhale? If you are not ready or to let it go that is okay. Just be aware of where you are at. There is no right or wrong in this—just awareness.
What do you notice now? Do you feel any shift in your body? Do you see anything around the room that perhaps you didn’t notice before? Exercises like this help stimulate our vagus nerve so that we can be more present. We can think about the past and we can worry about the future, but we can only breathe in the present moment. Allow your breath to be an invitation for you:
Be. Here. Now.
For it is only in the present moment that we are able to experience the Presence of God. We are invited into greater healing from our trauma and abuse with each and every breath, each and every return of the Spirit of God into our being. May we be bold enough and soft enough to open ourselves ever more to receive the invitation.