Breathing a funny thing. Most of the time, it’s completely unconscious. Even when you are knocked out, you can count on your body to continue breathing steadily. We can summon our authority and cause our bodies to stop breathing. Yet, in other situations, our body will assert its authority over us and cause our breath to completely stop. What’s the deal here? Have you ever asked yourself “why do I hold my breath”?
Holding one’s breath happens in a variety of situations:
- Intentionally. These can be moments when you are holding your breath underwater or holding your breath to prevent a bad smell from invading your nose.
- Anxiety. You’re feeling anxious, and as a result, your body adopts shallow breathing or interrupts your breathing as a response to stress.
- High stress. When faced with a danger, the body falls into a flight, fight or freeze response. Think of a rabbit suddenly stopping it its tracks when it encounters you on a sidewalk. Your brain will take a moment to assess the situation, and momentarily interrupt breathing so that information intake is optimized. Then, it will decide that the situation is either not a risk, and return to normal breathing, or go into flight or fight mode, which usually heightens breathing.
A lot of our blog has to do with breathing in and out. In this article, we’ll be looking at the scientific reasons why human beings unconsciously hold their breath. The answer is complex, but the simplest culprit is usually anxiety.
Anxiety and Breathing
Anxiety is a state of physical, emotional, or mental stress. It can be associated with real and very serious situations, such as the receipt of bad news. In normal life, anxiety often appears as a response to banal occurrences. Things like work deadlines, conflict-ridden relationships with coworkers, existential crises are all examples of everyday events and thoughts that might trigger anxiety. Anxiety presents itself as a variety of natural responses, which include things like muscle tensing, sweating, pain in the chest and chest area. Internally, your pulse will increase and various stress hormones are released.
Specific to this post is anxiety’s effects on breathing patterns. Anxiety works to quicken breathing and stimulate shallow breathing. The increase in your heart rate during periods of anxiety causes your body to want to increase its breathing rate. However, because we are generally not in a state of high physical exertion when this happens, breaths are not deep and recuperative — instead, they are shallow and fast. This kind of breathing increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the body since you are no longer pushing out air as effectively. As a result, you might feel start to feel lightheaded or even dizzy, which reduces your awareness of your breath, increasing the likelihood you may unconsciously hold it.
During anxious times, your body may not bother with shallow breathing, and instead skip right to “holding” your breath. It’s important to understand that your body rarely every stops breathing or holds your breath for a significant amount of time. You are likely just falling into the awareness of your breath when it has “stopped”. What is really happening is that your muscles controlling your breath, your thoracic diaphragm and abdominal muscles, are so tense that they momentarily cut your breath off.
During proper breathing, your muscles are almost completed relaxed during inhales. But when you are anxious, your muscles may stay tense after the exhale, preventing the inhale. In this situation, the muscles in your chest area remain tense. During the inhale, the muscles are unable to loosen in order to expand you abdominal-walls. As a result, you get the sensation of breath holding.
Just like shallow-breathing, breath holding can be harmful on the short-term as it can affect the carbon dioxide levels in your body. You’re to unlikely face dire consequences as a result, except for a bit of light-headedness or at worse dizziness. However, if you do find yourself holding your breath, you should be more concerned with how your anxious thoughts are affecting your physical state. Long-terms of effects of unaddressed anxiety includes developing panic attacks, blood pressure issues, trouble sleeping and even heart disease. If you find that you’ve developed a bad habit of holding your breath, it’s time to address the underlying anxiety issue.
How to Address Breath Holding
The only way to fix breath holding is to address the anxiety issue which is causing your chest muscles to tense so severely that it cuts off your breath. A place to start is through deep breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing. This type of breath teaches you to start your breath in your lower abdomen and slowly work up to your chest, letting a deep breath out in a slow and controlled way. This is an exercise you can do anywhere, any time which will immediately relieve your sensations of anxiety. Done consistently, deep breathing exercises can help reduce the overall levels of stress you experience.
There are longer-term changes to your life which are highly effective at controlling anxiety. This includes getting enough exercise, incorporating a regular stress-reduction activity into your life such as yoga, and of course, meditation.
You can also consider incorporating a device like Spire, which monitors your breath continuously and sends you a signal when you breathing patterns are indicating that you are falling into stress. A lot of the time, we get anxious and stressed without even realizing it. Spire can help you know when it’s time to pause the situation, get some mental room, and take a few deep breaths to calm you down.
We hold our breaths because we are not mindful of our bodily sensations and tribulations. Anxiety works to muddle our thinking and detach us from awareness of bodily processes. Anxiety-reduction is all about reconnecting the mind to the body so that it can observe these processes more closely.
On what other occasions have you caught yourself altering your breathing?