“What if I forget how to breathe?”

“What if I just stop breathing?”

“I can’t get enough air in my lungs.”

“I can’t take a deep breath.”

Breath and breathing focused anxiety is quite common among people that suffer from anxiety disorders like panic disorder and agoraphobia.  In this episode I discuss the two most common forms of this anxiety.

[1:30] “I Am Afraid That I Will Forget How To Breathe”

The first is an obsession with the thought that you have to actively, manually breathe, or your body will somehow forget to breathe or you will stop breathing.  This obsessive, irrational thought may grip you during every waking moment, tricking you into thinking that you must stay involved in the process of breathing to avoid some horrible fate.

This is not a breathing or breath problem.  This is an intrusive and unwanted thought problem. The way to address it is to learn how to not respond to that obsessive thought so that you can learn through repeated experiences that if you don’t follow it and obey it, you still wind up just fine. Rather than look at this as a breath issue, learn to see it and approach is as an intrusive unwanted thought problem. This will enable you to work toward a viable solution.  I discussed intrusive and unwanted thoughts with Dr. Marty Seif in episode 83 of the podcast here.

[12:19] “It Feels Like I Can’t Breathe.  I Can’t Take a Deep Breath!”

This is the second common form of breath and breathing focused anxiety.  You may walk around all day suffering from “air hunger”, feeling like you can’t breathe or that you can’t get a deep enough breath.  You may feel like there is a tight band around your chest, which causes you to attempt to expand your ribcage and “fill” your lungs to maximum capacity to relieve that sensation.

This is all incorrect.  You are breathing just fine, and there is almost never a need to fill your lungs to a point where they feel full to you.  “Air hunger” is a descriptive term for a problem that really does not exist. Your current response – attempting to fill your lungs and engaging in the “heavy sigh” over and over – is likely causing other physical issues like lightheadedness, dizziness, visual issues, and a rapid heartbeat.

The way out of this situation is to learn to do the exact opposite of what the fear center in your brain is telling you to do.  Rather than trying to fill your chest and lungs with air, learn to stop, relax the tension in your body, and breathe slowly and gently into your belly. Expanding the diaphragm rather than the chest.  SLOW your breathing, make it steady, with the exhales being a bit longer than the inhales.  Slow and even breathing is quite sufficient for your body. Its the natural state of your breath when you’re not trying desperately to manipulate the process based on fear.

This will be difficult at first because you will still “feel” like you can’t breathe. Relax.  Be brave. Just let your body take care of itself.  You must practice belly breathing (there’s a good tutorial on YouTube here) several times each day, along with things like progressive muscle relaxation in order to get better at going into relaxed, even breathing mode in response to your “air hunger”.

The Breath Is Not Magic

Its important to understand that while the Internet is full of articles and videos that will tell you that your breath is some magical spiritual force that cleanses, energizes and connects you to the Universe, this is not helpful to you at the moment.  Your breath is just a natural process that your body is REALLY good at managing when you let it.  As a bonus, your breath can be an amazingly helpful tool for you in terms of learning selective focus and relaxation as you go about the business of recovery from an anxiety disorder.  So just for now, throw away all the new-age interpretations of what your breath might be, and respect it for what it actually is.  You may find that this change in mindset will have a greater impact on your daily life than you think.

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Podcast Intro/Outro Music: "Afterglow" by Ben Drake (With Permission)



Photo by Nine Köpfer on Unsplash


Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.