I Never Realized How Often I Hold My Breath

a photograph of a white heart-shaped stone that has the word "breathe" on it
Image by Shawn Rossi / CC BY

I never would have noticed on my own, but I hold my breath a lot. The only reason I know this is because my partner has been pointing out to me when I hold my breath.

He’ll typically do this by saying something like “breathe” or “stop holding your breath.”

And apparently it’s a lot. A lot more than I would have suspected. When he started doing this, I felt immediately defensive. Who was he to judge how I breathed — or didn’t? What kind of person criticizes another person’s respiration?

He said he was doing it to be caring. I wondered how that could be caring. Because why did it matter?

And then I looked it up. The side effects of habitual breath holding. And none of them are good. In medical research, chronic breath holding has been linked with a myriad of negative health conditions. Cardiac problems. Respiratory issues. Because while these are minor apneic events, breath holders have an awful lot of them.

Which puts you at risk for lots of bad stuff.

Well, crud.

True, I was able to find a few random new age bloggers who insist that breath holding is the key to wellness. But these are the same people who say if you start drinking your pee, you’ll live forever.

I’m more inclined to side with the medical researchers on this one.

I swallowed my pride and read more about chronic breath holding. What caused it? I wondered.

Essentially there were two major triggers:

  1. Falling into a state of deep concentration. Reading, thinking, writing, creating art, problem-solving — any activity that might send you into a state of deep psychological flow.
  2. Anxiety.

Uh oh. Anxiety and deep concentration. Welp, there’s my life.

The tendency to hold your breath is supposedly something you learn from entrainment with your parents’ breath when you’re young. You listen to them breathe and imitate those breathing patterns.

My parents are both anxious perfectionists. They’re both a little more mellow now that they’re retirees, but when I was a young child, their lives were also anxiety and deep concentration. Crud.

Trying to Change the Way I Breathe

“I don’t know why you point it out,” I said to my partner. “It’s not like I’m doing it on purpose.”

“Well, if you notice, you might be able to affect it more,” he said. “To change it.”

But breathing is such an automatic process. And changing it seems like it would take a lot of concentration — and could easily lead to anxiety — both of which are breath-holding triggers.

Crud.

*

Still, I’m doing what I can. Trying to be more mindful. Make sure I do some deep breathing exercises regularly. Check in with my breath, even when I’m working on difficult projects (or fretting about some thing, as I inevitably am).

I’m not convinced it’s possible to change the way I breathe. To reroute the reflexes I’ve formed and reinforced for decades of life.

But now that I’m past my initial defensiveness, I think it’s worth trying.

Besides, life has consistently rewarded me every time I stop telling myself, “That’s just the way it is. I can’t change.” Every time I took the energy I was using to argue why I couldn’t do something into actually just trying to do it.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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