I heard Bessel van der Kolk, he of trauma treatment fame, comment that you can’t do psychotherapy with a client who is not continuously breathing. What a curious thing to say you might think, we all breath all the time, otherwise bad things happen!
It’s actually really well observed, and a critical aspect of therapeutic work. Regardless of our sameness in all taking in sufficient oxygen to survive, we do not all breathe continuously, or in the same way, patterns and habits of breathing are diverse, and they are informative.
Oftentimes, a client coming into therapy is not breathing freely. They may have shallow breathing, and not be utilising most of their lung capacity. They may be panting and breathing rapidly in view of this. They may be taking in air and then holding their breath, tense and tight. They may be gulping in air, breathless and agitated.
Our breath has a rhythm. It can be deeply calming and relaxing for our bodymind. It can also reflect viscerally what is happening in our system, giving myriad information about our inner experience and way of being in the world.
One of the early jobs of psychotherapy is to get into a rapport where the client’s system is regulated and supported by the relationship between client and therapist. A key aspect of this is breathing. In neuro-linguistic programming, my original therapeutic modality, we are taught to notice, moment to moment, changes in a client’s physiology, to track it, and to assist the client in building options about how they manage their emotional and physical state that are not reliant on our presence.
This is vital work. Online it takes a little more effort, and more conscious dialogue perhaps to work deeply with, but it is still crucial. Only when we breath deeply and freely can we have the softness and motion in our body to begin to feel safe and to explore and experiment, and this is the work of psychotherapy.
So, are you sitting comfortably? And how are you breathing?
For a holistic approach to psychotherapy that takes in both body and mind, get in touch.