Why Your Breath Is a Powerful Tool for Recovery

Your breath is a free & always available stress-buster in addiction recovery. Here’s why you should just breathe.

The first tattoo I got when I stopped drinking is a lotus flower with an Om symbol in the centre, and the word ‘Breathe’ underneath. I didn’t just get it because it’s beautiful, although it is. I got it to remind me what I need to do when life becomes overwhelming. It is on my right wrist, so always easily available to me.

Learning to breathe properly was one of the biggest factors in my recovery. It has been instrumental in helping me stay sober for over 4 years, despite many stressful experiences that might have broken my resolve.

There are many ways that learning to manage and improve your breath can help you maintain recovery. Obviously it is not enough on its own, but it can be a powerful addition to your recovery toolkit.

1. Breath calms the nervous system.

During moments of stress and anxiety, the nervous system activates the ‘flight or fight response’. This is the body’s attempt to protect life, enabling us to fight, or run away from, a threat to our wellbeing. Unfortunately, the stress response can’t tell the difference between an actual threat to life, and a very bad day at work topped off with an argument with your loved one. The physical reaction is the same.

Taking a few deep breaths at the moment you start to feel stressed calms the nervous system down, and allows the body and mind to stay calm.

In that moment of stress, the body often bypasses the logical brain as a survival measure. If you are in a life or death situation, you don’t want to have to rationalize your reaction, you want to act. This is great when faced with a real threat, not so good when trying to manage day to day problems.

In these moments of perceived stress, recovery can be at risk.

The more we feel stress, the more we are likely to start experiencing cravings, and desires for the old comfort blankets we used to turn to.

Taking a few deep breaths at the moment you start to feel stressed calms the nervous system down, and allows the body and mind to stay calm. In that place of calm, you can think rationally, and find a solution that will not lead to painful regret once you have calmed down.

2. Breath slows down a racing mind.

In recovery, it can be a shock to realize just how busy the mind is when you are not anesthetizing it on a regular basis. It can be disturbing, and difficult to manage what can feel like an onslaught of thoughts. You may notice that you are beset by negative or repetitive thinking. This can be overwhelming and harmful.

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You don’t need to sit in the lotus position, chant Om, or wear special clothes for this.

Your breath can be a powerful ally to help manage this. Simply sitting quietly and focusing your attention onto your breath, becoming aware of your breath, and connecting to it gives your mind a chance to focus on something. You don’t need to sit in the lotus position, chant Om, or wear special clothes for this. You just need to sit and breathe. There is no need to try to sit for hours on end, just a minute a day is a great start.

The act of keeping your attention focused on your breath will feel impossible at first. Your mind will resist your attempts to restrain it, and you will find your mind wandering many times. This is perfectly normal, and not a sign of failure. Every time you notice your mind is wandering, bring it back to your breath, and hold it there. You may have to do this many times. Don’t worry. Every time you do, you are training your mind to focus a little more.

3. Breath allows us to feel the feels.

One of the most difficult things about recovery is negotiating the emotions you have kept at bay for so long. Your addiction was there for a purpose, an attempt to hide from pain. In recovery, we have to process the pain we spent so long trying to escape from.

Connecting with your breath helps with this. When you learn to be more in tune with your breath, you can recognize your emotional responses in your body sometimes long before your mind recognizes them. You may notice that your breath becomes more shallow and fast, indicating that you are anxious, and can take steps to ease this before it becomes a problem.

In the space you create when you sit with your breath, it becomes easier to sit with, acknowledge, and accept the emotional pain you might feel, and let go of the pain rather than dwell on it.

4. Breath eases pain.

As well as helping with emotional pain, there is some research that indicates that Pranayama, Yogic breathing, greatly helps with experience and perception of physical pain. People who practice breath-focused Yoga have been shown to have less experience of pain. This can be a tremendous help if you are in recovery from opioid addiction.

5. Breath improves sleep.

If you are used to using drugs or alcohol to help you sleep, then learning to sleep naturally can present many challenges.  If you are unable to sleep, focusing your attention on your breath, and breathing slowly and deeply can be a great help in assisting you to sleep. This works in a number of ways.

The deep breaths calm the nervous system, allowing your whole being to relax. If your body is tense than sleep in unlikely. A tense body produces a tense mind, and vice versa. The relaxation produced by the deep breathing might be all that you need to slip into restful sleep.

By focusing your mind on your breath, you are distracting it from all the worry thoughts that might be preventing you from being able to sleep. When your mind is whirling, it is impossible to relax and sleep well.

Even if you don’t get to sleep quickly when focusing on your breath, you will be allowing your body to relax, and this in itself will help you to feel better even if you don’t get enough sleep. The sleep you do get will be much better quality, and your mind and body will feel more rested than if you spend the night tossing and turning in bed.

Take a deep breath and…..

There is great power in your breath. Taking some time to learn to breathe well won’t on its own ensure your sustainable recovery, but it will certainly give you a valuable item for your recovery tool box. Try it now for yourself, take 3 deep breaths, taking care to breathe in and out slowly, and see how you feel afterwards. Feels good doesn’t it?


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Esther Nagle is an author, blogger and stress management coach for women in recovery. You can find her work at Balance and Breathe. Esther beat her own 20 year long battle with addiction and stress in 2014 when yoga teacher training guided her to a place of resilience and coping strategies that she had not experienced before. A single mother of 3 amazing boys, Esther loves to read, write, dance and walk when she is not working.