Can Breathwork Help in Addiction Recovery?

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

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Addiction is a prevalent issue globally, with over one in ten young Americans over the age of 12 reported to have an alcohol use disorder

As if that’s not bad enough, studies show that approximately 140,000 US citizens die from the effects of alcohol in any given year.

People can become addicted to substances or behaviors for many reasons – most of which are stress-related. 

Using drugs or alcohol to cope with challenging life circumstances, work stress, relationship issues, and past trauma is not uncommon but can become a significant issue when such coping mechanisms turn into a full-blown addiction. 

Fortunately, various treatments can help individuals overcome their addiction issues, allowing them to manage their symptoms and get to the root cause of what might be causing them to engage in unhealthy, destructive behaviors such as substance abuse.

Treatment programs such as inpatient rehabilitation, medical detoxification, cognitive behavioral therapy, mental health treatment, trauma-informed therapies and group therapy are some effective treatments used in addiction recovery.

However, more recent evidence shows the effectiveness of breathwork in addiction recovery, which we will explore in this article.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, you are not alone; help and support are available. 

Please speak to a friendly specialist at Tikvah Lake Recovery for further information and support about available treatment options at our center.  

What is breathwork?

You may have stumbled across the term “breathwork” – particularly on some of the popular social media channels like Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. That’s because breathwork has increased in popularity recently and for a good reason!

It can help improve our awareness, stabilize our emotions, and help us connect more deeply to our bodies – but what is breathwork and is it all just hype?

Breathwork is a term that describes any therapy involving breathing exercises and techniques to improve mental, physical and spiritual health. (Breathwork, GoodTherapy.)

Various breathwork therapies exist, each containing its own unique strategies for using the breath to promote recovery and healing.

Although some people may not have heard about breathwork, it’s not a new therapy. 

Research shows that people have been practicing breathwork for thousands of years, with the principles of breathwork firmly rooted in yoga.

How it works

The core principle of breathwork is to nurture your body and mind when you inhale and release stress and toxins from your body when you exhale. 

Studies show that breathwork can have a positive effect on our nervous system. 

That’s because when you are stressed or under pressure, your breathing patterns can change, and you may breathe faster or more shallowly than usual.

When our breathing is compromised, it can limit the amount of oxygen going into our bloodstream. This can send alert signals to the brain that we are in danger or that there is some external threat, causing our body to go into a fight or flight response.

Practicing mindful breathing helps to regulate the breath and slow our bodies down, telling the brain that we are safe and that everything is okay. 

Breathwork helps neutralize the fight or flight response, calming the nervous system and helping the body resume normal functioning.

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Studies show that regular breathwork practice can improve our physical health too, leading to:

  • A stronger immune system
  • Improved respiratory function
  • A better night’s sleep
  • Balanced blood pressure
  • A decrease in PTSD symptoms for those who have experienced trauma

In addition, researchers noted that practicing breathwork can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve mental focus, fostering faster recovery and a healthier perspective on life in general.   

However, the research also illustrates how breathwork can help aid addiction recovery for those in treatment. 

So, let’s explore why this is!

Can breathwork help in addiction recovery?

Various studies have shown how effective breathwork can be for those in addiction recovery.

Although it must not be used as a standalone treatment – breathwork is an excellent complementary therapy alongside substance use disorder treatment.

Let’s look at some ways breathwork can aid addiction recovery.

1. It can help people reconnect with their bodies

Closeup cropped shot of freedom and pleasure. Healthy mature man doing breathing exercises

Many trauma experts believe those who become addicted are, in some way, disconnected from themselves.

Among many things, breathwork helps individuals to reconnect with their bodies through specific breathing exercises, allowing for more joy and pleasure to be experienced without substances.

Addicted individuals often struggle to connect with themselves and others. They may battle constant feelings of emptiness, unworthiness and low self-esteem, causing them to dissociate from themselves and those around them.

Those who struggle with substance addiction often use drugs or alcohol to cope with painful feelings and emotions. Substances can be a way to disconnect from the self and others and help people escape, avoid or forget negative experiences. 

Breathwork helps bring people back into their bodies. It also allows for a more profound connection to the social engagement system, leading to a deeper connection to others and the self. 

Since connection is an essential component of addiction recovery – breathwork can be incredibly helpful as it allows people to reconnect to the body and unpack the root causes of unhealthy patterns such as drug and alcohol addiction.

2. It helps reduce anxiety and depression symptoms

Those with substance use disorders often suffer from co-occurring mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Controlling the symptoms of these disorders can be challenging and, when left untreated, can lead to further complications for those struggling with addiction. 

Fortunately, therapies like breathwork can help since they allow you to control your breathing, release negative emotions and help you reach a deeper, more relaxed state of mind, thus improving mental health symptoms.

Breathwork can significantly benefit those with substance addiction, PTSD, depression and anxiety. Specific breathwork techniques can release the body’s natural feel-good chemicals, helping detoxify the mind and body and elevating blood alkalinity levels. (Depression and Breathwork, Natural Therapy Pages, July 10, 2020.) 

Clinical professor of psychiatry, Dr Gerberg, suggests that voluntarily-regulated breathing exercises (VRBE) can significantly improve symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions that may lead to or worsen substance use disorders.

Since breathwork is a form of meditation, it allows us to disconnect from the mind, and reconnect with our bodies and energies, helping us enter a different state of consciousness.

This new state of awareness can help bring us closer to peace, healing, clarity and wholeness and further away from chronic stress and anxiety, which can be significantly beneficial to those in addiction recovery since many who misuse drugs and alcohol often battle with anxious thoughts due to elevated stress levels.

3. It can help people to regulate their emotions

Morning Yoga Meditation by the Beach

Research shows that addiction can significantly impact specific brain regions, including the limbic system, the part of the brain that helps control various emotional, voluntary, and endocrine responses to our environment. 

This is why you may notice specific behavioral changes in those who drink or take drugs. 

Perhaps the person is more emotional than usual, or they express their feelings more intensely. They may also appear sad or angry.

Studies show that drastic mood changes result from how specific substances (like drugs and alcohol) can affect the brain. 

Breathwork helps to moderate and balance your emotions, allowing you to process your feelings and reach a deeper state of awareness and relaxation.

Furthermore, regular breathwork practice can help silence that negative inner voice that may have been built up while under the influence and bring your positive emotions back to life. (Does Breathwork Help for Addiction and Alcoholism? Breathwork for Recovery.) 

4. It helps improve focus and self-awareness

Those suffering from addiction often live in a state of chaos and confusion. While under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it can be challenging to focus on what’s going on in your environment, and you may often feel that your judgment is impaired.

Research shows that alcohol impacts the parietal lobe, a part of the brain responsible for processing sensory information. It also stresses the cerebral cortex, a brain region that helps us process vital information in our environment. (Does Breathwork Help for Addiction and Alcoholism? Breathwork for Recovery.) 

Breathwork helps you become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and memories, leading you to develop more focus and self-awareness. 

This can be highly beneficial to those with addiction issues as the more self-aware an individual becomes, the more connected to the self they are, which is an integral component in building lasting recovery.

The different types of breathwork

Breathwork can be used in various ways and settings. Below are some of the more common types of breathwork therapy:

Breathwork exercises 

Senior woman practicing yoga at home, making Alternate Nostril Breathing exercise

If you’ve never practiced breathwork, you may feel anxious when first trying it.

However, once you begin, these feelings will dissipate, and you will start to experience some of the positive effects!

Some examples of breathwork can include the following:

  • Box breathing: consists of a period of slow inhalation for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, breathing out for four seconds, and holding your breath again for four seconds before repeating the cycle.
  • Pursed-lip breathing: involves breathing slowly and mindfully in through the nose and out through the mouth, with your lips in a pursed position. Typically, you breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in.
  • Diaphragmatic breathing: involves breathing deeply while fully engaging your diaphragm. The stomach area, rather than the chest, should move with each breath – expanding during the inhale and contracting on the exhale.
  • Alternate nostril breathing: involves covering one nostril with your fingers, as you slowly inhale and exhale through the other. Then repeat it on the other side. There are several variations but they all follow the same general pattern.

Are there any risks involved?

Much like anything, breathwork has both advantages and risks. 

You should speak to your doctor before engaging in breathwork practice, particularly if you are pregnant, breastfeeding or have a medical condition and are taking specific medications. 

People with certain conditions are advised not to practice breathwork due to the potential risks. These conditions include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Breathing issues
  • Osteoporosis
  • Severe psychiatric problems
  • Cardiovascular issues
  • Vision problems
  • Those with a history of aneurysms
  • People who have recently had surgery or a recent physical injury

Addiction treatment at Tikvah Lake Recovery 

Tikvah Lake Recovery provides personalized addiction and luxury mental health treatment to clients in Florida and surrounding regions.

Our compassionate team has a wealth of knowledge and experience in treating various mental health and substance use disorders. 

We provide effective and long-lasting treatment programs for addiction, including comprehensive aftercare and support to help you stay on track once you leave our treatment center.

Our private campus is located in stunning, tranquil surroundings and is specially designed for your well-being and recovery to ensure you get the most out of your treatment.

To learn more about our drug and alcohol treatment programs, contact a Tikvah Lake Recovery specialist today and kickstart your journey to lasting healing and wellness.

Additional resources

  1. Does Breathwork Help for Addiction and Alcoholism? Breathwork for Recovery
  2. Breathwork, GoodTherapy

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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