PTSD and Breathing - Interview with Bethel Wagner

PTSD - A Trauma-informed Approach


In this video, we discuss how taking a trauma-informed approach benefits people suffering from PTSD and chronic anxiety. A trauma-informed approach emphasizes creating an environment of safety for the breather and empowering them with the tools of choice and sovereignty over their body and the session. We also discuss how to gradually increase a breather's "window of tolerance" so they can become more resilient and learn how to stop a panic or anxiety attack before it ever starts.

  • Sudev : Hello, Bethel. Welcome to Optimal Breathing.

  • Bethel : Hi. Glad to be here. 

  • Sudev : Happy Mother's Day. Hope you had a great time

  • Bethel : Thank you.

  • Sudev : Great. What are we talking about today?

  • Bethel : Today I thought we would talk a little bit about working with people who have maybe PTSD, anxiety, or things of that nature. 

  • Sudev :  Great. So, you're a trauma-informed breathwork facilitator, right?

  • Bethel : Yes.

  • Sudev : So, what does that mean? How does that set you apart from other facilitators?

  • Bethel : Sure. There are different schools of breathwork and different thoughts. Some of them, Wim Hof, for instance, are very much focused on building more physical resilience, building athletic endurance, and that kind of thing and that's really wonderful. 

    That's definitely something that breathwork can help with. But it doesn't necessarily take into account, the needs of people who have experienced a lot of trauma, and those would be people who have PTSD or maybe experience a lot of anxiety or maybe they have panic attacks. When we do trauma-informed breathwork, what sets us apart is that we come in with a really good understanding of what these people tend to experience. 

    We're very, very careful to create an environment of safety for them, make sure that they feel very comfortable and that they feel like they can trust us, and build a lot of rapport with them. Then there are a few other key things that we try to set up with the breather before we ever take that first step into breathwork.

    Number one is we want to make sure that they understand that they have a voice and they have choice throughout the session. So if there is something that doesn't feel good to them in their body or in their system, they know that they have the choice to just not do that, they can just continue as they are and just kind of ignore my cues if it doesn't feel right to them. 

    They also need to know that they have sovereignty over their body and they get to be in charge of the session and of the experience that they have. That really helps them to feel empowered and feel like they have some say in what's going on and they have control over the situation, which can be really really helpful for those people.

    As a facilitator, I make sure that I really track what's going on in their nervous system and what's going on with them physically and emotionally. But at the same time, I make sure that I take time even before the session to make sure that I am very grounded. That I have a very calm presence for them so that if they are having a little bit of an experience that maybe is pushing the boundaries of comfort for them, I can kind of be that centered, grounded presence in the room, helping them to get through that experience safely and gently. So those are the big things that set us apart.

    Another thing that could probably take up an entire hour of conversation is that trauma-informed breathwork is rooted in something called Polyvagal Theory. A lot of people have heard about the sympathetic nervous system and the fight-or-flight response that's bandied about quite a bit. Then we know about the rest and digest side of the nervous system, but there are actually a lot more variables and a lot more nuance to that. 

    So it's also for a trauma-informed breathwork facilitator being really aware of where they are because someone who's having a trauma reaction, they could be going into that fight response or they could have that flight response, but they could also go clear to the other end of the nervous system, and they could shut down. So they might have an experience of dissociating, or they might black out, or they might faint. 

    So our job is to be tracking them really carefully and notice any initial signs, like the very first signs that they might be having a response, and if that is happening, then we can step in and help bring them back to center and make sure that they don't have an uncomfortable experience.

  • Sudev : Great. So, who would benefit from trauma-informed breathwork? 

  • Bethel : Actually, everybody would, because everybody experiences trauma in their life. Sometimes it's Little ‘t’ trauma, sometimes it's Big ‘T’ trauma. So it's helpful really for anyone experiencing breathwork, but most especially it's helpful for those people who have a background with a lot of trauma, and those are very often the people who are diagnosed with PTSD or have chronic anxiety or panic attacks, those kinds of things. Those are the people who really really benefit from this approach.

  • Sudev : Well, so mostly like veterans or who go through a lot of stress, right?

  • Bethel : Yeah, veterans are definitely a big group of people that fit in that category. Anyone who has a history of childhood abuse or those kinds of things are definitely people who benefit. 

  • Sudev : Ok. That's awesome. What can happen to someone with PTSD or anxiety or panic attacks if they experience breathwork outside of a trauma-informed approach?

  • Bethel : Yeah. It can really kind of blow them out of the water if they were to go to, say, a holotropic breathwork event where they have you breathe for hours, and it's very very intense that could actually re-traumatize that person, and it could leave them at the end of the session feeling like, "What just happened to me? 

    I don't know what that was, that was way too much for my system to handle," and it might scare them away from participating in breathwork in the future. That's why it's really important to go slow and gentle with those people as they begin their breathwork journey. 

  • Sudev : Great. So what's it like, the window of tolerance as you call it, and how do you expand it?

  • Bethel : Right. The window of tolerance refers back to what we were just talking about. It's basically referring to how much a person can handle as they begin that breathwork journey. 

    So if someone has a lot of trauma and is very easily triggered, we need to be really careful to start with a gentle breathing pattern that is not super-activating. We need to choose something that is calming to the nervous system that helps them feel what safety is in their body. A lot of times, we just start with a short time span. 

    So instead of doing a full-hour session with somebody, I might just do 15 minutes, or I might just spend time showing them a few different breath patterns and have them try each one for 30 seconds to a minute just to see how that lands in their body and how that feels for them. They may not be able to do all of the different breath patterns at first. 

    They may only be able to do the really calming ones. But the more they begin to do breathwork, that ability will open up, so it will open that window of tolerance, and they may be able to do a more activating pattern or they may be able to breathe longer. It's just like any kind of exercise. You build up your endurance, you build up your muscles, it kind of retrains the nervous system gradually, and they're able to handle more and more.

  • Sudev : How does this trauma-informed approach help people with PTSD or anxiety? 

  • Bethel : It really helps them to find a place of safety. Sometimes people who have a lot of trauma or PTSD are always on high alert. They never really feel safe and they're always sensing danger in their environment on some level. 

    So we're basically retraining the nervous system and helping them to find what safety feels like in their body. We're also helping them learn how to regulate their nervous system and regulate their emotions. Sometimes they have really big emotions that they haven't been able to process yet. 

    They're not sure what to do with them, and sometimes they're not ready to do talk therapy or that kind of thing. Sometimes that's too painful. So sometimes breathwork is a way for them to process on a more somatic body level, kind of a bottom-up approach. That helps them to process those feelings, those emotions in a safe and gentle way without re-traumatizing them. 

    It just really helps them to recalibrate and gives them tools that they can take into their everyday life. A lot of times, it's just building their awareness, they begin to become aware of the things that trigger them. Then they also become aware of what tools they can use at the moment as they're going about their day to bring themselves back from going into a panic attack or an anxiety attack or something of that nature.

  • Sudev : That's great. So I know you do a lot of sessions. What does a session with you look like?

  • Bethel : Yeah, that's a great question. Typically we'll take a few minutes to visit with the person and find out what's going on for them that day. What is it that they need?

    What are they looking for in the session? If it's a new breather, obviously, we take some time to just kind of teach them the basic mechanics of breathing and teach them a few breathing patterns, let them know what to expect because we don't want them to have any surprises in the session that would feel uncomfortable to them. 

    We always try to come up with a focus statement or you could even think of it as a mantra of what we're focusing on in this session. So that gives their mind something to focus on as they breathe. Then as we begin to breathe, typically, I will take them through progressive relaxation just so they can get out of all of the noise and the chatter in their head. It helps them to drop into their body, helps them to relax, and get ready for the session.

    Then we transition into active breath. As I said, that can vary, we may only actively breathe for 8 or 10 minutes, or it could be a longer session just depending on where they're at and what they need. Then as the session begins to wind down, we take some time to ground them back in, make sure that they can be grounded back in their body, back in the present moment, and get grounded back into their surroundings. 

    Then we always take time at the end to allow them to kind of integrate the session. So that may mean that they tell me about their experience, what they noticed, any shifts that happened in their body or their nervous system, or it may mean that they just get out a pen and paper and they do some journaling about their experience and then walk them through all of the self-care steps they need to take over the next day or two as everything kind of settles in for them.

  • Sudev : Cool. You answered quite a few questions, Bethel, I have one final question for you.

  • Bethel : Sure

  • Sudev : Can you share how regular breathwork actually has helped some of your clients? 

  • Bethel : Yeah, absolutely. I have one client in particular who has just an incredible amount of trauma in her background and she has had a lot of experiences. She would dissociate or she would faint or different things like that would happen when she was triggered. 

    Breathwork has been really beautiful for her because now it has raised her awareness. She's able to notice much sooner when she's headed in that direction and she's able to stop it before it gets that far. She will notice it and then she knows that she can go to the tool of using her breath. 

    She also has several other tools as well, but she knows that she can use her breath and that can help her to just stop and get re-grounded and handle the situation in a healthy way rather than having that response of blacking out or just dissociating and not knowing what happened. 

    So now she just does really beautifully. It's very, very rarely now that she has those experiences. She also likes it because if she knows maybe she's gonna be going on a big trip or maybe there's something coming up that she knows is going to be a stressful situation, she comes in and we do a breathwork session to get her prepared for that. 

    So she is mentally and emotionally prepared for whatever that big event is coming up. So far, we've had really great success.

  • Sudev : That makes sense. Bethel, thank you very much for sharing those insights into the breathwork that you practice. It was really informative. What do we have for next week? Do you have any thoughts on this?

  • Bethel : Oh, yeah. There are so many directions we could go. 

  • Sudev : That's alright. I think we'll leave that for next week. Thank you again for joining us today. Once again, I wish you a Happy Mother's Day. 

  • Bethel : Thank you.

  • Sudev : It was a pleasure having you. Looking forward to our next talk show next week. Thank you.

  • Bethel : Perfect. Looking forward to it.

  • Sudev : Thank you. Have a good one. 

  • Bethel : You too.

About Bethel

Bethel first learned Integral Breathwork with Denis Ouellette. She then pursued certification as a Trauma-Informed Breathwork Facilitator through Pause Breathwork. She teaches and facilitates breathwork both one-on-one and in group settings. Bethel works with people of all ages, including children and young people who may be struggling with anxiety or learning challenges such as ADHD. She is also a Certified Biofeedback Technician and a Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach specializing in hypothyroidism, auto-immune disease, and gut health. She believes that optimal breathing and regular breathwork are integral parts of allowing the body to heal and restore itself to vibrant health.

Bethel is also co-founder of Sage Wellness Center along with fellow practitioners, Johanna Paulston and Missy Snitko. Johanna is a biofeedback technician, as well as reiki, crystal healing, and Theta healing practitioner. Missy is an herbalist and creates seasonal herbal formulas from locally harvested native plants. Together, the ladies at Sage Wellness Center help people create mind-body vitality through the integration of ancient wisdom and modern technology.

If you are interested in trying breathwork for yourself, contact Bethel at Sage Wellness Center today. One-on-one and group sessions are available in person and online. Visit, or contact Bethel by email at: Follow Bethel & Sage Wellness Center at Facebook

About Bethel

Bethel first learned Integral Breathwork with Denis Ouellette. She then pursued certification as a Trauma-Informed Breathwork Facilitator through Pause Breathwork. She teaches and facilitates breathwork both one-on-one and in group settings. Bethel works with people of all ages, including children and young people who may be struggling with anxiety or learning challenges such as ADHD.

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