Breathwork is a term for various practices in which the conscious control of breathing is intended to influence mental, emotional and physical states. One of these forms, holotropic breathwork, is being increasingly used in the therapeutic treatment of anxiety and stress disorders.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older—18 percent of the U.S. population. Millions more deal with stress that may not be clinically diagnosed, but which nevertheless creates significant difficulty in their lives.
The Stress Problem
Stress and anxiety can be defined as the brain’s response to any demand. The demands that cause the response can be perceived or real, normal or traumatic, mild or acute. But once stress or anxiety has been triggered, the brain releases nerve chemicals and hormones to help deal with the situation.
These chemicals make the pulse quicken, breathing faster, muscles tense and more. In some cases, this is actually a good thing. In small amounts for limited periods, these chemicals have beneficial effects that assist in overcoming difficult challenges and promote survival.
However, the experience can be unpleasant, especially if it is frequent due to chronic stress or anxiety disorder symptoms. The same chemicals that are life-saving in short bursts can suppress important bodily functions and create physical and mental health risks.
Breathing and Stress
When breathing normally, people tend to do so automatically, pausing between breaths and often not breathing deeply. This is especially true—and is often heightened or intensified—when undergoing stress or when experiencing anxiety. By contrast, breathing in a conscious, connected way can have a positive effect that helps alleviate symptoms of stress.
Research has shown impressive benefits for treating anxiety and stress by means of mindfulness meditation, yoga and similar forms of relaxation-based psychotherapies. Each of these methods has a significant emphasis upon controlled breathing as it relates to maintaining a calm and centered focus.
Another experiential approach to treatment that is gaining popularity is known by its trademark name of holotropic breathwork. Holotropic means “moving toward wholeness.” It is a form of psychotherapy based on the use of a breathing technique to produce a prolonged, voluntary hyperventilation procedure.
Holotropic breathwork is a powerful, spiritually oriented approach to self-exploration and healing that integrates insights from modern consciousness research, anthropology, depth psychologies, transpersonal psychology and Eastern spiritual practices.
The approach was developed by Stanislav Grof, a psychiatrist with more than 50 years of experience researching the healing and transformative potential of non-ordinary states of consciousness.
The Basic Holotropic Breathwork Method
There are numerous approaches to the method, depending on the treatment context and facilitator, but the process uses simple means, as described by Grof Transpersonal Training.
“Combining accelerated breathing with evocative music in a special set and setting. With the eyes closed and lying on a mat, each person uses their own breath and the music in the room to enter a non-ordinary state of consciousness. This state activates the natural inner healing process of the individual’s psyche, bringing him or her a particular set of internal experiences. With the inner healing intelligence guiding the process, the quality and content brought forth is unique to each person and for that particular time and place. While recurring themes are common, no two sessions are ever alike.”
Is Holotropic Breathwork Effective?
According to its proponents, holotropic breathwork offers many opportunities that may enhance treatment. These include entering non-ordinary states of consciousness to seek healing and wisdom via a natural, non-addictive method, a direct experience of one’s higher power and induction of physical and emotional catharsis associated with stress and prior trauma.
A clinical report was conducted involving 11,000 psychiatric inpatients with a variety of diagnoses who participated in holotropic breathwork over 12 years at a community hospital. This procedure was well received and demonstrated positive results. Transpersonal (spiritual/mythopoetic) experiences were reported by 82 percent of participants. This conscious, connected breathing technique generally produced dramatic, immediate and permanent healing effects.
Additional studies have also produced findings that suggest support for the key theoretical assumptions of the holotropic breathwork method and what is called integrative breathwork therapy, indicating its possible usefulness in the treatment of anxiety and depressive disorders.