Use of Breathing Techniques – Do a Polyvagal Test First
The polyvagal theory (S.Porges) and polyvagal functions are complex, highly important, evolutional processes with powerful influences on human survival, overall physical health, and emotion regulation. The tenth cranial nerve (from scull base to anus) functions in various ways, the most important of which deal with primitive survival-based immobilization behaviors and more complex processes of stress response, social communications, and emotional self-soothing practices. In clinical populations, polyvagal knowledge and skills may impact stress vulnerability, arousal, heart-respiratory rate, emotional patterns, and cortisol level. Vagal implications involve everything from complex cardiac functions (life or death) to more discrete aspects of attention, motivation, feeding, communication, emotion, vocalization, and the entire muscle array of the human face, head, throat and neck. Since human primary emotions are directly related to various autonomic functions, right brain activity, and brain stem medullary structures, the vagal nerve system can be used positively in well-informed psychotherapy for improving various emotion-regulation conditions leading to suffering. One primary link in the polyvagal interactions deals with breathing via satisfaction of oxygen demands of the human living system. Since it is now common in more advanced body-mind therapies to include breathing retraining, the more a competent therapists knows about using polyvagal skills the better.
I have one caution: Be sure to do a basic polyvagal test before initiating breathing retraining, especially deep, slow, abdominal breathing practices. I have created this test to safeguard client welfare in various forms of breathing retraining as part of their therapy process. If the client’s improvement in emotional regulation requires breathing retraining, you want your client to experience only positive outcomes from the experiences. Negative emotional outcomes will dampen motivation to continue.
The Breathing Retraining Polyvagal Test (A. R. Quintiliani, 4-4-2016)
- Ask: “Have you ever experienced serious negative outcomes when doing deep, slow abdominal breathing? If the answer is “no” simply continue your breathing retraining process, but observe mindfully if any negative emotional reactions occur in the process. If so, discuss these reactions in detail and safely proceed.
- If the answer is “yes” follow the steps below to ensure improved skill and protection for your client.
- Gently negotiate for a very brief deep, slow, abdominal breathing event – that is “one-breath” ONLY. Use a SUDs score of 0 to 100 for the experienced level of discomfort in the client during this “ONE breath” activity. NEVER force a clint to do breathing practices! Discuss the SUDs score and the client’s subjective experience in the “ONE breath” practice. If the SUDs score is in the 40’s of below, continue the breathing retraining with caution. If the SUDs score is in the high 50’s or more, STOP the breathing retraining for now and use shorter, far more indirect and intermittent breathing methods as part of your on-going therapy.
- If both you and your client are successful in phased-in breathing retraining, continue the process by slowly extending the time duration in breath retraining for abdominal breathing (as a first breath skill). For example move to two, then three or more breaths per training experience. Eventually, expand the depth and time in the abdominal breathing experiences. Over time deeper and slower is the goal. Continue to use SUDs scores for any negative outcomes, and begin to use SUPs scores (by A. R. Quintiliani, 1-1-2000) for positive outcomes. SUPs scores are also 0 to 100 but this time it measures subjective units of pleasure in the client’s experience.
- Continue the breathing retraining program, slowly moving to more complex and more powerful breathing techniques. Always check with your client regarding comfort and effects. Use SUDs and SUPs scores. Go slow! Keep it positive!
- Note that this informal “test” is based solely on common sense knowledge about the realities of breathing retraining and not on reliability and validity studies.
For more information on breathing retraining practices refer to Angelo, J. (2010). Self-Healing with Breathwork…Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, pp.28-30; Graf Durkheim, K. (2004 edn.). Hara: The Vital Center of Man. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, pp. 122,178; Johnson, W. (2012). Breathing Through the Whole Body… Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, pp. 238-29; and, Rosen, R. (2006). Pranayama: Beyond the Fundamentals. Boston: Shambhala, pp. 62-68.
By Anthony R. Quintiliani, PhD., LADC
From the Eleanor R. Liebman Center for Secular Meditation in Monkton, Vermont
Author of Mindful Happiness
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