How To Stop Thinking About Breathing: Break The Cycle

By Jared Levenson - Reviewed on July 16, 2023
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Have you ever found yourself in a quiet moment, only to realize that your mind is obsessively fixated on the rhythm of your breath? You’re not alone.

Breathing is a fundamental part of life, an automatic process that we rarely pay conscious attention to. However, for some individuals, the mind latches onto this natural rhythm and refuses to let go, leading to heightened awareness and, often, unnecessary worry. This hyper-awareness of one’s breathing is frequently experienced by individuals suffering from anxiety or panic disorders, with studies suggesting that up to 64% of people with panic disorders share it.

Whether you’ve stumbled upon this issue through meditation practices or during moments of stillness, our article will provide practical solutions and techniques to help you regain control over unwanted thoughts in your mind and stop the cycle of obsession.

Our Online Mental Health Review Team, composed of mental health professionals and individuals who have navigated similar experiences, is uniquely positioned to offer advice on this subject. Leveraging our expertise in mental health and wellness, we’ll guide you through understanding why this happens and how to manage it effectively.

Stay with us as we dive deep into this topic, offering insights and tools to help combat this fixation and reclaim your peace of mind.

Brief Overview of Deep and Shallow Breathing In Relationship to Mental Health

Difficulty Breathing – Anxiety and Panic Symptoms Explained!

Breathing is a critical biological function that allows oxygen intake necessary for cellular processes and plays a significant role in our emotional states and mental well-being. Various scientific studies have shown that controlled breathing exercises and yoga can help reduce stress, increase alertness, and boost your immune system.

Research suggests that slow, deep breathing can help stimulate the vagus nerve, part of the parasympathetic nervous system associated with a restful state. As a result, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, helping to induce a state of calm and relaxation.

On the other hand, rapid, shallow breathing (common when stressed or anxious) can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response. This type of breathing can increase heart rate and blood pressure, contributing to feelings of panic attacks, anxiety, and stress.

In Freudian theory, psychological fixation is a method of defense where an individual continues to focus on an earlier stage of psychosexual development rather than progressing to a higher level. This can occur due to excessive gratification or frustration at that stage. In cognitive psychology, fixation refers to the inability to adopt a new perspective on a problem. It’s often caused by becoming overly used to things as they are.

What Is Manually Breathing?

  • Manually breathing refers to the conscious control of your breath.
  • Typically, our respiratory system operates automatically, regulated by our autonomic nervous system, without needing our conscious input.
  • However, there are times when we take over this process and control our breathing consciously, such as during meditation, when singing, or sometimes when we become overly aware or feel anxious about our breathing.
  • This shift from automatic to voluntary control is what’s referred to as manual or conscious breathing.

What To Do When Breath Awareness Becomes an Obsession

Breath awareness becoming an obsession is often associated with anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and a subtype of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) known as Somatic or Sensorimotor OCD. In these instances, individuals become hyperaware of automatic bodily processes like breathing, leading to distress and fixation.

This heightened awareness can cause a shift from automatic to manual control of breathing, causing individuals to feel like they have to control each breath consciously. This constant attention to the breath can lead to a cycle of anxiety and worry, further exacerbating the issue.

If breath awareness has become an obsession for you, here are some steps to help manage this issue:

  1. Mindfulness and Meditation: Mindfulness teaches us to observe our thoughts and sensations without judgment. Techniques such as body scan meditation can help us refocus our attention away from the breath and onto other bodily sensations.
  2. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can effectively treat sensorimotor obsessions. It involves techniques such as cognitive restructuring (changing the way you think about your breath) and exposure and response prevention (gradually exposing yourself to the sensation of breathing without responding with anxiety).
  3. Relaxation Techniques: Techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery can help reduce overall anxiety levels and may lessen the intensity of breath awareness.
  4. Professional Help: If your obsession with breath awareness is causing significant distress or impacting your quality of life, it may be helpful to seek professional help. A therapist specializing in OCD or anxiety disorders will be able to provide tailored treatment strategies.

Remember, approaching this issue with patience and self-compassion is the most important thing. Changing thought patterns and reactions can take time and practice.

You want to read this excellent article by Dr. Keuler, “When Automatic Bodily Processes Become Conscious: How to Disengage from Sensorimotor Obsessions”.

Why Anxiety Changes the Way You Breathe

Anxiety can significantly alter the way you breathe, according to Healthline, and here’s why:

  1. When you experience anxiety, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. This primal response to perceived danger prepares your brain and body to confront or flee a threat. During this process, your adrenaline levels rise, heart rate increases, and your breathing pattern changes to ensure your muscles get enough oxygen for action.
  2. Typically, an anxious person takes small, shallow breaths, using their shoulders rather than their diaphragm to move air in and out of their lungs. This style of breathing, thoracic or chest breathing, can upset your body’s balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Too much oxygen can make you lightheaded, dizzy, or confused, while too little carbon dioxide can lead to hyperventilation or over-breathing.
  3. Moreover, focusing on rapid, shallow breathing can cause us to hyperventilate even without physical exertion. Hyperventilation can lead to feelings of breathlessness, further increasing anxiety and creating a vicious cycle.
  4. Breathing exercises, mindfulness, and other relaxation techniques can help break this cycle by encouraging deeper, more controlled breathing, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, and promoting a calm state.

Reasons Why You May Need To Stop Manually Breathing

Manually controlling your breathing, or conscious breathing, can have a few negative impacts that make it important to revert to natural, automatic breathing.

Often, someone will try to control their breathing to deepen their breathing. But the very process of trying to control their breathing or noticing the sensations of breathing may cause negative effects, such as:

  1. Increased Anxiety: Manual Breathing can improve feelings of anxiety. Being constantly aware of and controlling your breath can create a feedback loop where the Stress causes manual breathing, heightening tension.
  2. Physical Discomfort: Manual Breathing often involves shallow, rapid breaths, which can lead to physical discomfort, including chest tightness and fatigue.
  3. Impaired Concentration: The mental energy spent on controlling your breath can distract you from other tasks, impairing your focus and concentration.
  4. Disrupted Natural Rhythm: Your body has a natural rhythm for breathing that balances oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Manual breathing can disturb this balance, leading to symptoms like dizziness or lightheadedness.
  5. Sleep Disruption: If you manually breathe at night, it could disrupt your sleep, leading to fatigue and other associated issues.

Remember, don’t be afraid to stop if you’re struggling with manual breathing!

Please also know that seeking help is vital. Techniques such as mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with a trained professional, and certain relaxation techniques can help you regain automatic control of your breathing.

Hyperventilation is Triggered by Too Much Oxygen

Hyperventilation refers to a condition where you start to breathe very quickly. This rapid breathing disrupts the balance between the intake of oxygen and the expulsion of carbon dioxide (CO2), resulting in rapid heart rate and low levels of CO2 in your blood.

  • Under normal circumstances, we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Oxygen is used by our cells for various metabolic processes, one of which produces carbon dioxide as a by-product. This carbon dioxide is then expelled from our bodies when we exhale. This process maintains a delicate balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, crucial for maintaining our body’s pH level.
  • However, when we hyperventilate, we exhale more than we inhale, causing a rapid decrease in the level of carbon dioxide in our blood. This leads to a state known as respiratory alkalosis, where the blood becomes too alkaline. Symptoms can include lightheadedness, tingling in the hands or feet, and faintness; severe cases can lead to loss of consciousness.
  • Interestingly, according to Johns Hopkins, hyperventilation is not usually caused by having too much oxygen but rather by the rapid expulsion of carbon dioxide due to rapid breathing. However, breathing in pure oxygen at high concentrations for extended periods can lead to oxygen toxicity. This condition can damage the heart attack, central nervous system, and other bodily functions.

In summary, hyperventilation triggered by “too much oxygen” is somewhat of a misnomer. It’s more accurately described as a state caused by low carbon dioxide levels in the blood due to rapid breathing.

Mindfulness is Key in Overcoming Breathing OCD

Breathing OCD, also known as sensorimotor or somatic OCD, is a subtype of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder where individuals become excessively aware of automatic bodily processes, such as breathing. This hyperawareness can lead to distress and an obsessive need to control their breathing more, exacerbating anxiety manually.

Mindfulness, a practice rooted in focusing on the present moment without judgment, effectively manages and can overcome OCD breathing issues (however, medication for OCD may be needed).

Here are some steps to utilize mindfulness for overcoming breathing OCD:

  • Step 1: Understand Your Condition. Recognize that OCD is a recognized condition; you are not alone, and there are OCD doctors near you (most likely). Understanding the nature of your situation can help you approach it with the right mindset and tools.
  • Step 2: Practice Mindful Breathing. Start with simple mindful breathing exercises. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and naturally focus on your breath without trying to control it. Notice the sensation of the air entering and leaving your nostrils, the rise and fall of your chest or abdomen. If your mind wanders to your obsessions, gently bring it back to your breath.
  • Step 3: Body Scan Meditation. Body scan meditation involves paying attention to different body parts, starting from your toes and working up to your head. This can help divert your focus away from your breathing and onto other physical sensations.
  • Step 4: Mindful Observation. Choose and observe an object in detail for a few minutes. This can help train your mind to focus on something other than your breath.
  • Step 5: Seek Professional Help. If your breathing-related OCD struggles significantly impact other life functions, consider seeking help from a mental health professional. Therapies such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can be particularly effective.

Remember, overcoming breathing OCD takes time and patience. Be gentle with yourself throughout the process.

Trigger a Relaxation Response by Breathing Through Your Nose

Breathing through your nose can indeed trigger a relaxation response in your body. This is because nose breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to slow your heart rate and promotes relaxation. Here are some steps to trigger a relaxation response through nose breathing:

  • Step 1: Find a Quiet Place. Find a quiet, comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit or lie down in a relaxed position and relax.
  • Step 2: Close Your Eyes. Close your eyes to help focus on breathing and block out external distractions.
  • Step 3: Breathe In Slowly Through Your Nose. Breathe slowly and deeply through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Try to count to four as you inhale.
  • Step 4: Hold Your Breath. Hold your breath momentarily, aiming for a count of seven.
  • Step 5: Exhale Slowly Through Your Mouth. Exhale slowly through your mouth, aiming for a count of eight. As you exhale, try to release any tension in your body.
  • Step 6: Repeat this process for a few minutes or until you feel more relaxed.

This technique, known as the “4-7-8” breathing method, is a simple yet powerful relaxation method that can help reduce anxiety and promote better sleep.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The more you practice these techniques, the more effective they will induce relaxation.

Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, can have numerous health benefits, according to Harvard Health, including reduced anxiety, lower blood pressure, and improved lung function. Here’s how to practice it:

  • Step 1: Find a Comfortable Position. You can do this exercise while sitting or lying down. To start, relax your shoulders and place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
  • Step 2: Inhale Deeply Through Your Nose. Breathe slowly and deeply through your nose, letting the air fill your lungs. Try to keep the hand on your chest still while the hand on your abdomen rises.
  • Step 3: Exhale Slowly Through Your Mouth. Exhale slowly through your mouth. As you exhale, tighten your abdominal muscles. The hand on your abdomen should move inward while the hand on your chest remains still.
  • Step 4: Repeat this pattern for several minutes, focusing on keeping your upper body relaxed and using your diaphragm to breathe.
  • Step 5: Practice Regularly. Aim to practice diaphragmatic breathing for a few minutes each day. You can gradually increase the length of your sessions over time.

Remember, it may take some time to get used to diaphragmatic breathing. If you feel lightheaded, stop the exercise and return to your normal breathing pattern.

Consciously Slow Down Your Breathing

Consciously slowing down your breathing can effectively manage stress and other anxiety symptoms and promote relaxation. Here’s how to practice it:

  • Step 1: Find a Comfortable Position: This could be sitting comfortably in a chair, lying on a bed, or in any position where your body is at ease.
  • Step 2: Closing your eyes can help block out external distractions and focus more on your breath.
  • Step 3: Inhale Slowly. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose, counting to four in your head. Feel the air fill your lungs and your belly rise.
  • Step 4: Hold Your Breath. Hold your breath for a count of four.
  • Step 5: Exhale Slowly. Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of eight. As you exhale, envision the tension and stress leaving your body with your breath.
  • Step 6: Repeat this cycle for a few minutes or until you feel more relaxed.

This method, often called the “4-7-8” technique, can help activate your body’s natural relaxation response. It’s a simple yet powerful tool that can help manage stress, reduce anxiety, and promote better sleep.

Remember to practice regularly for optimal results and consult a healthcare professional if you have any health concerns.

Breathe Through Your Nose

Breathing through the nose is a natural and optimal way to inhale and exhale. It offers numerous benefits over mouth breathing, such as filtering toxins, humidifying nasal passages, enhancing blood circulation, protecting oral health, and allowing for more efficient oxygen absorption.

Here are some simple tips on how you can practice and improve your nose breathing:

  • Step 1: Awareness The first step is to become aware of your breath. Notice if you tend to breathe through your mouth or nose during various parts of the day, particularly during physical activities or sleeping.
  • Step 2: Practice Nose Breathing Once you’re aware of your breathing patterns, consciously try to breathe through your nose. Close your mouth and take slow, deep breaths in and out of your nose.
  • Step 3: Use the Right Technique When breathing through your nose, ensure you use your diaphragm (the muscle below your lungs). Your abdomen should expand with each inhale and contract with each exhale. This is known as diaphragmatic or belly breathing.
  • Step 4: Mindful Breathing Exercises Practicing mindful breathing exercises can help reinforce nose breathing. One simple exercise is to breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold for a count of seven, and exhale through your nose for a count of eight.
  • Step 5: Consistency Make nose breathing a habit. It may feel strange or uncomfortable initially, but it will become natural with consistency.
  • Step 6: Seek Professional Help if Needed If you struggle with nose breathing due to a medical condition like allergies, sinus issues, or a deviated septum, seek advice from a healthcare or medical professional.

Implementing these steps into your daily routine can significantly improve your health and well-being.

How To Stop Thinking About Breathing Conclusion

In conclusion, overcoming breath fixation is a journey that requires patience, practice, and persistence. The strategies we’ve discussed—mindfulness exercises, cognitive behavioral techniques, eye movement exercises, and deep breathing practices—are the tools to help you navigate this journey successfully. Remember, the key to stopping the cycle of breath fixation is to gradually train your mind not to notice every breath you take.

We’ve learned about the importance of mindfulness in breaking this cycle. Focusing your attention on the present moment can prevent your mind from becoming overly fixated on your breathing. Techniques such as counting your breaths, observing the sensations of your breath, or visualizing your breath can be powerful tools for achieving this state of mindfulness.

Cognitive behavioral techniques can also be instrumental in changing your thought patterns around breathing. Challenge negative or irrational thoughts about your breathing, and replace them with more positive and rational ones.

Deep breathing exercises can also provide an evidence-based way to control your breathing and reduce any anxiety or stress you may be feeling. Practice these exercises regularly to ensure their effectiveness.

Consistency is key. Make these techniques a part of your daily routine, and over time, you will notice a significant improvement in your ability to control your breath fixation.

Finally, if you’re looking for further guidance or resources, consider seeking advice from a meditation expert or a mental health professional. Websites like Headspace or apps like Calm offer a wealth of information on meditation and breathing techniques that can help you on this journey. You can also consider joining online forums or support groups to connect with others facing similar challenges.

Overcoming breath fixation might seem challenging, but remember, every step you take toward achieving this goal is a step toward greater peace and tranquility. So, start today; before you know it, you’ll be breathing easily and effortlessly without a second thought.

Many ‘stop thinking’ techniques are similar across multiple problems as well! For example, the same basic strategies also work if you can’t stop thinking about death before bed, an affair partner, lost money, past hurts, negative thoughts, breathing, and ultimately transforming your mind.

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Don’t wait for an online therapy session in an emergency or crisis. If you or someone else is in immediate danger, dial 911. If you’re considering self-harm, contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, available 24/7. For those struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, you can contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357) any time of day, all year round, for free and private assistance.

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