The idea that “breaking on through to the other side” (that of psychedelia) can help heal trauma is not new. One 2013 study undertaken at the University of Florida, for instance, showed that psilocybin (a psychedelic compound found in some mushroom species) stimulates neurogenesis—the regrowth of nerve cells in the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotion.
In their lab studies, low doses of this psychedelic substance eliminated condition fear in mice. Their findings support the idea that entering psychedelic realms can help break the traumatic cycle that occurs in persons with PTSD and other trauma-related conditions.
Realms of the Human Unconscious
In his book, Realms of the Human Unconscious, Stanislav Grof claimed that psychedelics, when used under caution, could essentially revolutionize modern psychiatry.
In the late 60s and early 70s, Grof (who was a John Hopkins Professor of Psychology) and scientists at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center oversaw hundreds of patients who underwent LSD-assisted psychotherapy. However, when Grof published his book, psychotropics were illegal. Therefore, he and his wife, Christina, developed a type of breathing technique they said could resemble a psychedelic ‘trip’.
This technique, which involved rapid, heavy breathing, is called holotropic breathwork. It takes its name from the Greek words holos (‘whole’) and trepein (‘moving toward’). When utilized alongside therapy, Grof stated, holotropic breathwork could help patients heal from trauma.
Breathwork in Holistic Activities
Breathwork is, indeed, a key pillar of the healing, de-stressing effects of many healing activities such as yoga and meditation. In 2018, for instance, researchers at Trinity College Dublin found that there is a powerful connection between breath-focused practices such as pranayama and brain health. Breathing has also been found to improve anxiety and fight major depression. As such, many people across the globe are embracing the power of breathwork training by studying useful techniques and becoming breathwork facilitators or practitioners.
Breathwork and PTSD
In holotropic breathwork, participants are usually paired up, with one breathing as hard and quickly as possible and the other sitting close to offer water or to simply accompany the person breathing. Once the breather enters into an altered state of consciousness, they are encouraged to continue, with a trained facilitator monitoring the person’s state to ensure the process is safe.
John Hopkins researchers are currently conducting new studies, led by Professor of Psychiatry, Matthew Johnson. This team will be observing the effect that holotropic breathing can have on the symptoms of PTSD.
Currently, around two-thirds of people with PTSD do not respond to traditional treatments such as exposure therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy. One recent trial has shown, however, that psychotherapy using MDMA (‘ecstasy’) helped two-thirds of participants with PTSD, who no longer qualified for a diagnosis after this therapist-led treatment. Specifically, participants who received the MDMA treatments stated that they felt safer and more empathetic.
Brain scans showed that this substance suppressed the amygdala (the part of the brain involved in processing fear and panic), enabling participants to assimilate their trauma more peacefully. The John Hopkins scientists are hoping that holotropic breathing has similar results.
Studies have shown that substances that alter the conscious state can, when taken as part of a therapist-led treatment, have positive effects on trauma and stress. Some scientists have found that holotropic breathing can instill a sense of wholeness by enabling participants to enter into an altered state of consciousness.
A team at John Hopkins University is currently testing the effects of holotropic breathing, hoping to achieve similar results to those offered by substances like MDMA or psilocybin.