Trauma is a complex and sensitive area and it is a huge topic.
I wanted to write this blog as I see and hear about too many inexperienced breathwork and facilitators, who haven’t had solid training that includes trauma-informed facilitation (or sometimes they haven’t done any training at all).
They are out in the world and unfortunately too often, things are going pear shaped. Untrained facilitators have participants that are actively triggered in the sessions, and they as facilitator do not have the skills to support them. In many cases, these situations could have been avoided in the first place with trauma-informed practices.
You also hear of people doing methods like Wim Hof at home with no experience and no support, having things like panic attacks and other reactions to the practices that aren’t ideal – physically and emotionally. People assume that these popular techniques are good for everyone, all of the time. They simply aren’t!!
Doing breathwork and ice baths creates a very real risk of ‘triggering’ trauma.
Doing breathwork and ice baths also can be incredibly empowering and help people who have experienced trauma to transform and grow.
It is a double edge sword.
If you are a facilitator or looking to become a facilitator of either (or both) modalities – you really need to have a solid foundation, and a good working knowledge of:
- what trauma is
- how to work in a trauma aware way to reduce risk in this space
- how to pick up on ‘trigger responses’ of participants
- plus have some tools what to do if a participant is in trouble – to support them to down regulate their nervous system
It is your duty of care as a facilitator to know and practice this stuff! I have learned over the years from experience how important this is and it is embedded into Breathing Cold’s Facilitator Training.
Firstly, a bit of background on what we are talking about here.
On The Subject of Trauma
Trauma results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting negative effects on the person’s functioning and wellbeing after the fact.
As renowned trauma psychologist Gabor Maté says: “trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you”.
Bessel Van der Kolk talks about trauma as something stored in the body – ‘the body keeps score’. Another way of saying this is that there are ‘issues in the tissues’ – this commonly used phrase speaks more broadly to emotions in the body as well as trauma.
Stephen Porges introduced the polyvagal theory to the world, which is based on an evolutionary, neuropsychological understanding of the vagus nerve’s role in emotion regulation, social connection, and fear response. Since then, the theory has brought a new understanding of trauma and recovery.
So many amazing people working in the field of trauma and so much information coming out every day. If this is all new to you, you might check out my reading list here to get started.
Stress – An Evolutionary Thing
We are wired to keep safe
Our nervous system has evolved to keep safe. The nervous system is divided into the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems that work together in a complimentary way, regulating and changing responses depending on bodily requirements.
It is system that is all about safety.
The sympathetic nervous system’s general job is to mobilise the body into action when it detects danger (fight or flight response). We see a bear in the woods. Our whole body gears up to fight it or flight – to run away. The freeze part is a system shut down which is often a last resort.
The actions of the sympathetic nervous system occur in concert with a whole lot of other physiological responses. It invokes changes in different parts of the body simultaneously such as:
- increased the heart rate
- widen bronchial passages for more breath
- helping to bring more blood to arms and legs
- hormonal responses like the release of cortisol
- constricted blood vessels
- pupil dilation
- sweating and
- blood pressure
Digestion and elimination processes shut down as does the energy towards sexual organs. Our body perceives the situation from a safety perceptive – these other things – eating, going to the loo and making love, are just not high on the priority list!
Stress and Trauma
Trauma occurs when the body-mind system isn’t able to process the stressful experience fully. Peter Levine notes that trauma can happen to someone when they perceive a situation as a threat and are unable to complete a satisfactory fight/flight or freeze response. They weren’t able to complete the cycle adequately and it gets frozen in time in the psyche and in the body. In his well known book, Waking the Tiger, Levine speaks about the need for un-freezing from a traumatic state after an incident through somatic (body) movement like shaking – as he proposes would happen in nature.
Our body uses past experiences as a point of reference to try to protect us from being in the same situation again. When someone has experienced trauma – they can be consciously or unconsciously hypervigilant – that is, constantly on the lookout for things that may be dangerous – reminiscent of previous dangers.
The reaction to the stimulus (the current moment situation) is commonly called being ‘triggered’ and the situation is also sometimes called ‘the trigger’. It may seem to the person or those around them like an irrational or disproportionate response. But it is just the system trying to protect itself.
You have probably heard of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which is a diagnosed condition with a specific set of symptoms. According to the DSM IV (the commonly used American Psychiatric Association’s manual for psychology in the western world) the symptoms for PTSD include unwanted upsetting memories, nightmares, flashbacks, emotional distress and physical reactivity after exposure to traumatic reminders.
You don’t have to have PTSD to have unresolved trauma; all people have experienced trauma to some degree – it is a spectrum with PTSD at the extreme end.
Some people refer to ‘trauma with a capital T’ to distinguish between the day-to-day trauma of being human and significant Trauma that resulted from life changing events.
We delve into this and much more about trauma in Breathing Cold’s Facilitator Training.
In Relation to our Work as Breathwork and Ice Bath Facilitators…
Given that everybody has trauma, with some people seriously impacted, as a facilitator you often will not be aware of this beforehand.
People do not wear a label with trauma on it; they might mention it to you (especially if you have trauma or PTSD listed on your contraindications or a question on your intake form), but even then, we do not know what is happening for participants at a deep level and what might be a trigger. Often, they will not know either.
Strong breathwork practices can activate the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight response), by mimicking the breathing naturally done in this state.
Entering an ice bath can also activate the nervous system – the body assumes that there’s some emergency, like we’ve just fallen into an icy mountain river!
Think about it – essentially you are potentially recreating or simulating a similar physiological state that previously happened in reaction to a traumatic event.
This can throw people back into the unresolved loop of their trauma – the incomplete internal cycle that Peter Levine talks about.
In addition to the natural physiological response to strong breathwork and ice baths, other things you do in the facilitator space could be a trigger for someone for example…
- Talking about feelings in a circle or listening to others share could be activating
- Being ‘told’ to close their eyes in a room full of people might be a trigger
- Experiencing touch during a breath session or ice bath could invoke past memories
- Being invited to scan the body or to welcome emotion could bring up stuff that is overwhelming for some
- Maybe you or someone else in the group reminds them of their abuser
- Even the type of music, a specific song, use of incense or other smells could do this
Pretty much anything can be a trigger for someone. You can’t remove the triggers – nor would you necessarily want to, but you can do something to reduce the risk and learn to look out for early warning signs that someone is not
The Fine Line
And yet, all this being said, there is so much healing possible in these kinds of spaces. Breathwork and ice baths can be extraordinary!! I myself have had so much transformation with these practices and have witnessed it countless times.
For some people, in the right context, breathwork and ice baths can be instrumental in the healing process with trauma. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water (see what I did there?!).
Participants are activated yes – but they can be mindfully activated in a safe way, where they have agency – that is, the ability to choose. For example, to stay in the ice bath or leave, to slow the breath down or to take a breath during a hold.
One important trauma-informed practice is using language that is ‘invitational’ – participants are not pushed through facilitator’s language – they are ‘invited’ into each step of their journey. They can opt out at any point and are encouraged to listen to their own needs in each moment.
Empowerment and choice can support someone to move towards closing a cycle – an unresolved trauma loop in the psyche.
Another trauma-informed tool is where participants are supported and encouraged to create what is sometimes called an ‘Inner Resource’ during practices. Having an Inner Resource can provide an anchor point for internally being able to self-resource when things feel shaky in a session.
There are many more approaches, strategies and techniques that really reduce the risk of re-traumatising participants during breathwork and ice baths. Ten years ago, even five years ago, this was not discussed in the same way it is now.
Still, there are some schools of thought encourage people to re-live and re-experience their trauma as part of their healing. Perhaps if you are an experienced mental health professional trained in a particular technique like de-sensitisation therapy and working 1:1 with someone in the right setting with a well resourced person. Then that might be ok.
Many breathwork and ice bath facilitators including myself, don’t have this kind of training. There are a lot of what I would call ‘cowboy’ facilitators out there, actively encouraging catharsis. It can be very damaging for people. The last thing you want is to be trying to support a participant who is distressed, out of control and screaming the house down in your group breathwork session.
As a friend of mine Suntara says: “you don’t heal trauma with trauma”.
Our breathwork and ice bath facilitator training and online course has a comprehensive module on trauma and how to work with people. We work with concepts like titration and pendulation and look into Polyvagal theory and other trauma related concepts. Our facilitators-in-training learn all about what trauma is, how to recognise a trauma response, how to mitigate the risk of triggering someone and get guidance on ‘managing a moment’ – how to provide support if a participant needs it.
If you are interested, read more about ice baths and breathwork and the nervous system.
Keen to learn to trauma informed facilitation? Get in touch !