Breathing, Freezing, and Feeling: How Conscious Stress Helps Us Grow

What I learned from using three types of breathwork to push my limits

Introduction

Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again. — Thich Nhat Hanh

At the beginning of 2021, I set a single New Year’s resolution: “I want to learn how to turn stress into growth.”

The resolution was my response to 2020 and all of the political, psychological, and social upheaval that came with it. For most of the year, I felt weighed down by collective heaviness and overwhelmed by everything out of my control. As I entered the new year, I wanted to find a new attitude and a new relationship to stress. I wanted to find out if instead of fighting so hard to avoid the discomfort of stress, I could learn to welcome it and use it for personal growth.

I decided to engage with stress using both the simplest and most powerful tool I have: my breath.

Although breathing techniques have been used for thousands of years for this purpose, they have recently experienced something of a golden age. With the rise to fame of individuals like Wim Hof and Stanislav Grof, Western scientists and authors are now beginning to acknowledge and document how simple breathing techniques can dramatically alter human health and perception. With so much research and writing available, I decided to dive in and focus on practicing three breathwork techniques with the goal of expanding myself physically and emotionally.

The three types of breathwork I chose to explore and practice regularly are:

BBTRS: Biodynamic Breath and Trauma Release System (BBTRS) combines breathing with elements like movement, sound, and touch to help breathers encounter and release patterns of emotional tension and trauma held in the body. For more information on BBTRS, see a previous post here.

Wim Hof Method: Created by the Dutch “Ice Man” Wim Hof, this method is based on the pillars of cold therapy, breathing, and commitment. Over time, the combination of cold exposure and breathing improves vascular health, reduces inflammation, and increases energy and well-being.

Voluntary Elimination of Deep Breathing (hypoventilation) Technique: Based on the research of Soviet scientist Konstantin Buteyko, hypoventilation increases the level of carbon dioxide in the body, allowing for a greater flow and release of oxygen to tissues. Over time, Buteyko claimed this method can heal a variety of chronic conditions, from arthritis to asthma.

Here are a few of the main lessons I drew from each:

  1. Wim Hof Method: You can reframe and rewire how you respond to sensations

I still remember my first cold shower after beginning the Wim Hof Method. As someone who loves hot saunas and emerging from the shower like a lobster, it took all of my willpower to reach out a hand and flip the knob from the hottest to the coldest setting. As the cold water hit my scalp and ran down my shivering body, my breath stopped. I brought all my attention back to breathing and began to count how long I could withstand the cold. Around 50 seconds of counting, a thought ran through my head and something shifted: “This is an interesting feeling…” In the moment the experience went from being absolute suffering to something I could be curious about, everything shifted.

This moment of choice between stimulus and response is what journalist and Wim Hof follower Scott Carney has called “The Wedge.” When you use the Wedge, as I did unconsciously during my cold shower, you not only feel different in the moment, but you begin to create a change in the wiring of your nervous system. As Carney puts it:

“ When the limbic librarian receives a sensation, it checks its records to see if the nerves have sent along something similar before. If there’s no record, the librarian passes the sensation along to the paralimbic cortex — the center for emotions — to figure out how to categorize the new information. The paralimbic cortex pairs the new sensation with the brain’s current emotional state… everything we sense from the world carries an old emotional value along with it (Carney, 45).”

As Carney points out, sensation and emotion aren’t inherently linked, they are learned; and therefore, they can be unlearned. Each time we pair a new emotional state with a stimulus, we overwrite information in the paralimbic cortex and choose how we want to experience it in the future. The value of the “The Wedge” goes well beyond cold showers- it’s an opportunity to find curiosity in moments of emotional pain, debilitating fear, and discomfort- and give new meaning to them.

2. BBTRS: Breath lets you shift your emotional state

About a year ago, I sat on the edge of my bed dreading a phone call I had to make. My heart was racing and my hands were shaking and the only thing that saved me was a trick I learned at work earlier that week: to get into a calm state, exhale for longer than you inhale. Within two minutes, I was calm enough to pick up the phone and carry out the conversation with a clear head.

We’ve all experienced how emotions change our breathing (if you haven’t, I invite you to bring up a terrifying memory, and see what happens to your breathing), but few of us take advantage of how breathing can change in our emotions.

On the simplest level, just by shifting the pace of our breathing and the relative length of our inhalation and exhalation, we change our internal state. What the longer exhalations before my phone call accomplished was stimulate my parasympathetic nervous system to send signals of relaxation to my body.

The ability to shift emotional state through breath is exactly what we use in BBTRS. In order to guide clients or ourselves through unprocessed emotions, we increase the rate of their breathing until their sympathetic (fight-or-flight) system is ramped up. In this state, unprocessed emotions are able to be triggered and experienced in a controlled way. As the process completes or becomes overwhelming, the breather begins to slow down their breathing and return to a state of parasympathetic relaxation where they can integrate the experience.

What BBTRS has shown me in a powerful way is that we all have the ability to control our emotional state much more than we realize. By changing our breathing, we can explore the ranges of our emotions in a conscious, controlled way, and regulate them whenever we need to.

3. Hypoventilation: Vitality exists in the space between extremes

One of the simplest but profound facts I learned when starting breathwork is that CO2 is just as important as O2, if not more. In fact, as many people pursue deeper, heavier breathing to bring in more oxygen, they do just the opposite. As James Nestor explains in his book “Breath:”

“Blood with the most carbon dioxide in it (more acidic) loosened oxygen from hemoglobin. In some ways, carbon dioxide worked as a kind of divorce lawyer, a go-between to separate oxygen from its ties so it could be free to land another mate… Carbon dioxide also had a profound dilating effect on blood vessels, opening these pathways so they could carry more oxygen-rich blood to hungry cells. Breathing less allowed animals to produce more energy, more efficiently (Nestor, 76).”

Counter-intuitively, though most of us try to take in more oxygen, we need more CO2 to release it. A higher level of carbon dioxide does not mean a lower level of oxygen; instead, it means more efficient transfer of oxygen to the cells that need it.

It’s this principle that inspired the hypoventilation training of Emil Zátopek, who claimed 18 world records and was dubbed the “greatest runner of all time.” It’s also the principle behind the hypoventilation technique created by Konstantin Buteyko, a Soviet scientist who helped heal over 80% of his patients suffering from chronic conditions as varied as arthritis, asthma, and hypertension.

In practicing hypoventilation training, I was struck by the importance of this idea: to experience greater aliveness, we need to embrace the opposite poles of experience. To gain the benefits of oxygen, we need high levels of CO2; for vascular health, we need to expose ourselves to both heat and cold; and for emotional health, we need to become comfortable with both relaxation and intense stimulation.

We are alive to the extent that we can experience various extremes and switch between them. That range reflects our vitality.

Conclusion

Lastly, apart from the higher-level insights and ideas, I want to address the practical impact that breathwork has had on me (so far).

On a physical level, hypoventilation training has improved my endurance while biking and running and the Wim Hof Method has helped me keep down inflammation in my body (judging by the effects on my skin) and has started to increase my baseline energy level. On an emotional level, BBTRS has helped me process certain experiences from my past that were still reflected in my body. It’s also allowed me to become more comfortable feeling and expressing anger and vulnerability.

But the greatest growth has been a sense of personal power. As I’ve practiced breathwork, I’ve realized that regardless of what is happening around me and creating stress- global pandemic or not- I can choose what meaning I give it, what state I want to experience it in, and how much of it I’m willing to experience in that moment. All coming from something as simple as breath.

Sources:

Carney, Scott. The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress, and the Key to Human Resilience. Foxtopus Ink, 2020.

Hof, Wim. The Wim Hof Method: Activate Your Full Human Potential. Sounds True, 2020.

Maté Gabor. When the Body Says No: the Cost of Hidden Stress. Scribe, 2019.

Nestor, James. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Riverhead Books, 2020.

Welcome! I write about aligning my life with nature, getting healthier every day, and defining the values and culture I find meaningful. Join me :)

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