Choking yourself: Why you hold your breath, and why you need to breathe.
Are you breathing?
I know. It sounds like you’re being insulted.
You might be thinking “Yeah, smart ass.” “I’m alive, of course I’m breathing.”
Please don’t take offense. I’m asking a real question that might change your life.
I would have reacted just like that a year ago.
It’s okay if you did. The point is that you probably aren’t breathing, and I’ll show you why I know that.
I’ll also tell you why most people don’t breath, show you a few deep breathing exercises and explain why those exercises correct your breathing.
Don’t label me a rude know-it-all just yet, I promise this pays off in the end.
I was an emotional powder keg. You would’ve called me a problem child.
My disorder (high functioning Autism) meant many behavioral issues. Hellish temper tantrums were the norm.
It meant social anxiety too…
Crippling social anxiety.
There were various factors that increased my anger, depression, anxiety and general bad behavior as a kid.
Diet, environment (physical, mental, emotional etc), self-defeating thought patterns, violent/negative stimuli (bad news, violent video games etc), lack of exercise and movement all played a role.
The one that never occurred to me were my breathing patterns. You already breath just because you’re alive, right?
Not really. People either take quick shallow breaths, or they don’t breathe at all until they almost choke.
I was one of them. Any time a situation was mildly uncomfortable, unforeseen or a challenge, I tensed up.
My thinking would begin to spiral out of control, I would begin to feel a heavy feeling wash over me. My heart rate would increase. Proper Breathing techniques would have helped me.
But again, I was young and thought there was nothing you could do about feeling that way.
I assumed that was what was supposed to happen.
I thought that was some type of natural reaction to stress. I was wrong. Stress and feeling stressed is a normal, healthy feeling. I had an inefficient stress response.
After all, think about what I described above. Does that sound like a robust person ready to tackle a challenge?
Didn’t think so. That type of response decreases your ability to handle a tough situation. The central cause of this bad response?
You don’t breathe.
It’s not a conscious thought. You don’t tell yourself to stop. Instead, your autonomic nervous system (the automatic one) locks up, and you just don’t realize it.
Think of a deer in the headlights. It’s similar to that. Except that’s what your autonomic nervous system does. No wonder your thoughts spiral.
You’re literally not doing something that’s necessary to stay alive.
You’d go into a panic and scream out if someone started choking you. Strangely, that’s what you are doing to yourself.
If you were anything like me, you know how helpless you feel. It sucks because you truly believe that’s your body reacting normally. You think these symptoms are normal.
Or maybe you’re like me and began to learn. You know something’s off, but you have no clue what it is for sure. It feels like you’re destined to be cursed as someone who can’t keep their cool forever.
Extreme anxiety (in normal life situations), random attacks of depression, inexplicable fatigue, brain fog, paralysis by analysis and crippling indecisiveness are all terrible coping methods. They don’t remedy any situation when they happen. They make any problem worse.
None of those symptoms are universal or experienced equally by everyone. Admittedly, almost everyone experiences some amount of those issues at some point in their life.
But you know deep down whether you feel a necessary amount of fear, anger, or anxiety or a completely unnecessary amount.
If a burglar started to break in to your house, yes, you’d feel a type of primal anger and anxiety kick in. Adrenaline would get you ready to fight or flee.
That’s your stress response doing what it should do in an extreme situation.
But then there are the normal everyday situations where there’s no logical reason to feel on edge emotionally.
If you have a panic attack because you don’t know the people at a house party, that’s a problem.
If you constantly find your face, shoulders, neck or hips tensing up all throughout the day, that’s a problem.
If it takes a herculean effort to talk to a random stranger casually without some type of drug, that’s a problem.
Attending social events, engaging in everyday small talk, and feeling comfortable relaxing in public are all basic pleasures of life.
It’s awful when those little pleasantries of life are extremely stressful or dreadful. I’ve been there, and it’s not good.
If ANY of the above sounds familiar, then you absolutely know the awful weight of never-ending anxiety, stress and worry.
What you didn’t know was that you just need to breathe.
Put your hand on your stomach area. Is it inflating or deflating? Is it going up or down?
If it’s going out. It needs to REALLY go out. Think of a pregnant woman.
Okay, it’s actually not like that. But there should be a significant round shape to your stomach when you breath in.
Try the same exercise, but this time, put your hand on your chest. Do you notice your chest going up and down a lot?
You might. If you do, that’s not ideal, but at least you’re breathing.
If you don’t feel much of anything on either area, you literally need to tell yourself “start breathing.” Keep saying it until you begin to feel breath come in and out of your body regularly.
You may be holding your breath constantly throughout the day and not even notice it. You only take in big breaths when you’re on the edge of asphyxiation.
Ever been working hard and suddenly felt like you HAD to take a big forceful breath in?
So have I. That’s what’s going on. Your tense physical state makes you subconsciously hold your breath. The deepest level of your subconscious only steps in just before you pass out.
Again, this is why stressful work feels so “heavy,” when nothing about the process is threatening or dangerous. Your nervous system is acting like a deer in the headlights.
Unfortunately, if you are born doing this, it’s not going to stop easily. You are going to have to consciously train your nervous system to continue breathing through intense moments of work, study or thinking.
Likewise, you’re going to have to tell it that novel social situations or places are not trucks barreling down at 70 mph. 99% of the time, nothing is that serious.
Those few dangerous or tumultuous situations you encounter aren’t even helped by freezing in place and not breathing. At the end of the day, how can you think through how to handle it properly if you’re not getting oxygen to your brain.
You can’t. Your decisions will be hasty, irrational and incomplete.
Basically, your judgement will be crap. Don’t let that happen to you. Make sure you’re breathing properly.
For God sake, learn how to breath period.
Your career, sense of well-being, decisiveness, and even livelihood may depend on it.
So, after all of that. Here’s what you do.
This is that huge Dr. Seuss word you saw at the start of this article. Don’t worry, I didn’t assume you perfectly understood it.
That exercise you did tells you if you do Diaphragmatic breathing or not. If you feel your stomach expand significantly when you breath in, you do diaphragmatic breathing.
If only your chest rises, you chest breathe. You can also do some of both. I still feel some amount of both even now.
Don’t worry about how you breathe right now. No need to feel guilty. None of us were taught this stuff.
For now, focus on slowly building the habit of breathing deep into your stomach on the way in.
Think of a balloon that you are filling up with air. In fact, imagine stretching the balloon all the way out until it’s about to pop.
That seems a bit exaggerated, but when you haven’t been breathing well for years, you have to whip your body into shape.
You can also imagine eating or consuming positive energy or life force. You want as much good energy as possible, right?
Sure you do.
Experiment with different speeds for your breathes. Try rapid fast breaths in and out. Then, try slow long breaths in.
Here’s one deep breathing exercise that I do. It’s called a box breath, and it works like this:
Breath 5 seconds in.
Hold for 5 seconds.
Breath out for 5 seconds.
Hold your breath for 1-2 seconds if possible.
I know I’ve been preaching about not holding your breath. The small hold here actually conditions your nervous system to stay more regular,
and consistent with full breathing. If you can’t do five for each, do 3 or 4 and work up to 5.
You can also do more. I’ve done this exercise with counts as long as 9 or 10 seconds each.
Do that ten times or for ten minutes a day, whichever comes first. You will notice an increase in energy, calmness, and focus.
Here’s a personal example.
Long after I became able to socialize, attend meetings and be a functional adult, I still hated checkout lines.
I would get incredibly impatient no matter how long or short the wait was.
I would actually get performance anxiety when it was almost my turn to scan my items and talk to the cashier.
Going through the process of buying felt like a big deal. I would nervously try to speed through the card swipe, the answering of questions and the taking of groceries or items.
After performing the breathing that FINALLY stopped. I began to stay completely cool and collected through all the steps. That sounds silly, but it’s not.
It sucks when everyday stuff feels way harder than it should.
It’s life altering when you no longer waste energy on dumb stuff.
You have much more to give to what really matters in life.
When it comes to living life, You’ll notice a decrease in anxiety, irritability, and fatigue.
There are various other methods you can find online as well.
Alright, that’s fairly basic. Here’s something a bit more radical, even weird. It’s a bit more intense, and you SHOULD NOT do it if you have no experience with breathing exercises.
Master the above and other simple exercises found throughout the internet FIRST.
I can’t stress that enough. This next exercise requires healthy breathing habits before you attempt them. Otherwise, you risk hyperventilation.
Okay, now for some fun. It’s called Wim Hof breathing and it is only a small component of a very large program done by a true madman named Wim Hof. He’s famously called the “ice man,” because he’s trained his body to endure sub-zero temperatures through regulating his breathing.
He does such crazy things as sprints out in the snow half naked, bathes in ice baths for hours with no ill effects and other such absurdity.
It sounds too good to be true, but take a look for yourself. I know I wouldn’t believe what I’m saying right now.
I’m not telling you to start taking in rapid, frantic breaths and then go jump into a pool of 30-degree water (unless you’re feeling adventurous).
What I’m saying is that the power of breathing is Gigantic if you have a little discipline and belief.
I’ve done the most basic exercise in the Wim Hof method on and off for about six months now.
It goes like this:
Wim Hof Breathing Method:
1). Begin to take in full breaths which completely fill the abdomen up. You may struggle with this if you’ve never breathed diaphragmatically before. Be patient, and do the best you can. Imagine filling a balloon all the way up.
2). Let the air go gently when you exhale. Don’t blow the air out forcefully. Instead, breath in maximally, and then let the air go out on its own.
3). Breathe like this 30-40 times in a row. On the final breath, exhale and then hold your breath for as long as possible. When you feel you have to breath again, take in a full breath and hold it for 10-15 seconds.
Then, do the same process again. This means do two more “sets,” or rounds of 30-40 breaths done in this style. Hold your breath for as long as possible after the exhale on the final breath in the same way.
Make sure you don’t force the amount of time you hold your breath. Simply inhale as soon as holding your breath becomes uncomfortable.
Make sure to exhale gently. This means don’t exhale forcefully like you inhale. Breath in and then, let the air go. Don’t force it.
Wim Hof has an entire course based around breathing techniques. I haven’t done the full program, but I have experimented with Wim Hof like methods in other areas of life.
I use 8-15 Wim Hof breaths before I do an intense set when weight training. Before I do a set of squats or deadlifts, I inhale intensely through my mouth. After each, I let it go out of my mouth.
I do these a bit more rapidly than my normal Wim Hof sets. Doing it with enough force activates your nervous system.
You may get tingles or feel a rush of heat in your body. Those are just the effects of air rushing into your body so rapidly and forcefully.
In fact, you feel a type of “oxygen high,” that can feel semi-euphoric.
While not the main reason to do the exercises, that’s always nice.
You’ll be able to push your muscles harder than you normally would. The amount of oxygen you take in reduces lactic acid buildup. Basically, you’ll stop when your nervous system tells you to and not your muscular system.
As you can see, I’m not even fully experienced with these techniques, but even my amateur experience has been eye opening.
So many areas of your life are affected by breath. Everything from your focus, to your concentration, to your energy levels, to how hard you can push yourself in exercise depends on your breathing.
I thought, like most others do, that breathing is something that just happens without any real need to actively do it.
I was wrong. You can somewhat breath and never think about it. But, your breathing will be less than ideal, and every area of your life will suffer.
I’m still learning to breath well.
But even six months have given me unbelievable results.
I don’t know about you, but anything which improves my performance that isn’t a harmful drug is worth its weight in gold.
I like not choking.
I like the control I have over my life. You will too.
That was a long read. Thanks for taking the trip with me.
Go forth and prosper today. Until next time,
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