PTSD – Help With Qigong and Breathing

I received this lovely recommendation today from someone I have been helping with breathing exercises and qigong practices. She wanted to share her experience so that other people suffering from PTSD would be able to know about some of the things that have been successful for her: 

I will always be thankful to the Trauma Therapist who suggested I try Qigong.  I learned fairly early on what a powerful impact it had on my nervous system when I was doing Qigong one day outside and a large rat ran past my bare feet.  I was gobsmacked to see that there was no startle response whatsoever and in its place curiosity about what the rat was up to!  I think that was when I really began to appreciate how powerful Qigong can be for someone in recovery from severe PTSD.

As a result of ongoing flashbacks, nightmares and pain; a few months ago my adrenals crashed and I was in a pretty sorry state.  The hair on my lower legs was falling out, my pupils could no longer dilate in bright light, and I had for several years been waking feeling really wired at 4am every morning in such a high state of activation that no matter what I tried I couldn’t return to sleep; indicating that my adrenals had been severely compromised for a long time before they really crashed.  The lack of sleep was making it pretty hard for my adrenals to recover and I only had enough energy to manage the absolute basics of daily living.  I did a ton of research and learnt that one of the biggest things that impacts adrenaline production is the way we breathe.  I had been aware for some time that my breathing wasn’t very deep, despite years of yoga and a year or so of qigong.  One day I came across an article on John’s website about PTSD and Qigong, and that led me to discovering that John has training in working with the breath.

When I first worked with John via skype I thought we would work on me improving my breathing during the day, but he rapidly worked out that the biggest potential difference would be helping me to wind down the activation I was waking with every morning.  I’d tried so much over the previous few years to get back to sleep after the 4am wakeups that I wasn’t convinced that anything would work.  But John explained so well to me why the meditation and other breathing methods I had tried hadn’t worked, he helped me to see that all of them were like slamming on the brakes of a fast moving truck, and that I instead needed to effectively learn to “Engine Brake” – to work with instead of against the activation to naturally bring it down.  From the very first time I tried it onwards I was able to bring down the wired state within minutes, and I soon started falling asleep afterwards, waking up later sleepy.  After years of trying so many things to no avail it really felt like a miracle.  At last my adrenals were able to start to heal, with me no longer spending an hour or so unwittingly battling the activation in my hormone and nervous system, which was essentially resulting in the opposite of what I intended in terms of adrenaline production.  The high pain levels I’d been in started to steadily reduce, and my incredibly low energy levels steadily increased.

Oddly it was another couple of rats that highlighted to me how powerful what I was learning was.  I was out walking one night when two rats ran right in front of my bare feet.  Being totally unexpected I did startle and feel my heart rate go up.  I immediately did the “Engine Braking” method that John had taught me, and moments later continued peacefully on my walk.  Simply focusing on breathing calmly into my abdomen, as other therapists had taught me, had never worked when I was in startle response.  The method John taught me, which was well supported by his taking the time to explain why and how it worked, was like a magic wand for me.  Not only could I rapidly wind down the activation I was waking with; but I could also far more quickly recover from being startled, from waking up with a nightmare, and from the incredibly destabilising effect of flashbacks.

I am so much more empowered now.  Like for so many with severe PTSD, tuning into my breathing while stressed has long been problematic for me.  Now that I know how to work with the level of activation in my nervous and hormone system and rapidly wind that activation down; I don’t feel like I’m a hostage to flashbacks, nightmares and triggers.  I can sleep on my own in the house, knowing that if something does trigger me I can rapidly signal the all clear to my brain and it in turn signals my adrenals to stop producing adrenaline.  It feels incredible to be able to go from heart pounding nightmare wake up to lying relaxed in bed within a few minutes.  And now a few weeks down the track, I’m finding that I’m waking less and less in a state of activation, and after over five years of 4am wakeups I’m getting the equivalent of about an extra night’s sleep a week with my newfound ability to return to sleep, instead of lying in bed wired trying valiantly to calm my system down.

The other way I’m more empowered is that I’m much more mindful of my breathing now.  Despite many years of meditation and yoga, I was still pretty out of touch with when I had gone into shallow breathing when I first started working with John.  Now I’m quick to notice that something is amiss, and it’s become a habit to put one hand on my chest and one on my belly to quickly check in if necessary.  I now have my own biofeedback device and the ability to rapidly reset the activation levels when I realise that I’m breathing very shallow into my upper lungs.  It’s awesome for those times where I’m triggered and I become manic, I’m noticing it faster and faster now because my normal level of activation is routinely much lower.

Many therapists have a one-sized fits all approach to breathing, thinking that something as simple as counting your breath or breathing into your belly will work in every situation.  In contrast John really understands that breathing has to be flexible and change dependent on context, and teaches his clients/students how to match the context and return to a calm state appropriately.

I wanted to share a little of my story in case it might help others with PTSD.  It’s horrible feeling like a hostage to your body, and just magic when you learn how to work with it and use it as the amazing biofeedback device it is.  I will always be very thankful to John for what he’s taught me, and am now working with him to build up my breathing muscles and allow my breathing throughout the day to function more optimally.

– Betty

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