Sometimes I literally forget to breathe. I’ll be sitting on the couch watching TV and realize, with a sharp intake of air, that I’m not sure how long it’s been since I last took a breath. My body subconsciously preserves itself better than my brain can. It won’t let me stop breathing. But sometimes my psyche tries to anyway.

Anxiety-inducing ladder

It’s an anxiety-inducing thing, really, to realize you haven’t been breathing. And yet at the root it stems from anxiety, and so it’s a vicious circle.

The year we lived in Huntsville I remember going to the doctor and explaining that I’d been feeling short of breath. I expected him to listen to my chest with a stethescope, to peer down my throat, to look in my ears. Perhaps I had developed asthma. Perhaps it was bronchitis. Instead he said, “It sounds like you have anxiety.”

No I don’t, I thought. I’m having trouble breathing. I don’t have anxiety.

And yet. The trouble with breathing has been a sometimes companion since then. I recognize it now. Oh, hi, anxiety, I tell it, as I force my chest to expand, my lungs to fill.

Lying in bed at night it feels like a lot of responsibility, to have to remember to breathe. How can I fall asleep when my lungs need me to fill them with air? How can I for one second take my mind off the pulling in of oxygen to fall asleep?

It catches in my throat, the big breath I try to take to appease the feeling that I can’t get enough air. It travels frantically down my windpipe. My brain tracks it, wonders why it isn’t helping, wonders why it has to wonder about it at all.

Most people associate fast, shallow breaths with a panic attack and think that’s what it means to hyperventilate. But according to Calm Clinic, the feeling that you’re not getting a full breath can actually be caused by getting too much oxygen, and you make it worse when you anxiously try to take deeper breaths. The feeling I experience is an anxious breathing sympton known as conscious breathing:

Normal breathing is subconscious – your body takes in exactly as much air as it needs to function, because it knows exactly how much it needs. Conscious breathing is when you think about your breathing and control how deep your breaths are. Often you think you need to take deeper breaths than you really do, and this brings in more oxygen than you need. It’s not uncommon to respond by yawning or trying to take even deeper breaths only to make the situation worse.

The urge to yawn, to try and consciously regulate my breathing, can come upon me when I least expect it. When I’m getting ready to go out with friends. When I’m contemplating a blog post to write. And even when I’m calmly watching TV. Something inside me is not so calm. Something inside me is anxious, and it thinks I can’t breathe.

When I first read about these symptoms I was amazingly relieved that I wasn’t alone, that my body wasn’t completely betraying me, that there was a name for what I was feeling, that it had a root cause. There’s power in naming what ails you, especially if what ails you is anxiety. When you name it, it has less power over you. You’re anxiety, you can tell it, and you don’t control me.

Laura Lindeman

Laura Lindeman