Sam Holstein

Meditation Restored My Ability To Breathe

Have you ever paid attention to how you breathe? If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, tried five-minute meditation, sang, played breath instruments, or even just tried to take some relaxing breaths, you’ve paid attention to how you breathe at least a little bit.

I started paying attention to my breath during my junior year of college. I was in a long-term relationship that was slowly but surely going downhill and saddled with a brain that seemed intent on doing the same. My doctor had recently given me a diagnosis of panic disorder, a mental illness characterized by repeated panic attacks so serious they send you to the ER because you think you’re dying. I wasn’t panicked about my coursework, or what my parents would think of my decisions or any other classic college worries. I was panicked about eating. Which is a problem, because we need to eat to live.

Pretty much every anxiety program ever invented asks you at some point to pay attention to how you breathe. It was then I learned I breathe like I’m in a low-oxygen atmosphere; instead of using my belly to pull in deep breaths, I use tiny muscles on my ribcage to pull in little gasping breaths without moving my midsection at all. I’m capable of taking deep breaths, but only when I consciously focus on doing so. When I do, it tends to be accompanied by a feeling of soreness in my sides, the same kind of soreness you feel when you get up after sitting in the same position for hours.

Hopefully, I don’t have to explain why breathing like you’re suffocating is bad for you, but allow me to rattle off some reasons anyway:

“Shallow breathing doesn’t just make stress a response, it makes stress a habit our bodies, and therefore, our minds, are locked into,” says John Luckovich, an apprentice Integrative Breathwork facilitator in Brooklyn, New York.

Shallow Breathing, Headspace

It’s easy to tell if you breathe shallowly or deeply. Simply sit up straight in your chair and breathe. Do not try to breathe any particular way, just do so. Do you mostly move your ribcage while you breathe, or do you mostly move your belly? If you mostly move your belly, you’re breathing properly, but if you mostly move your ribcage, you’re breathing shallowly.

I wasn’t able to find any statistics on this, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say more people in the modern world breathe shallowly than not. In the modern world, we are constantly under assault from sensory stimulation of all kinds, which has always been particularly challenging for me. That alone is enough to send a human body into a state of stress. Throw in the 24/7 stream of information that sometimes connects us to our loved ones but more often connects us to a constant sense of shame for not being attractive enough, smart enough, or good enough, and it’s easy to see how people develop a habit of shallow breathing. Thanks to this, my shallow breathing probably started years before my first struggles with anxiety.

I hoped that when I treated my panic disorder my breathing would return to normal, but it did not. While my panic disorder evaporated, my painfully shallow breathing remained. Over the next few years, I took up yoga, weightlifting, and learned to handle anxiety well, yet my shallow breathing remained.

I tried several interventions to help myself breathe more deeply, but none of them worked.

  1. After I got rid of all my social media and apps, I found myself with a lot of dead time on my hands — time like waiting in line, sitting in waiting rooms, and sitting on the bus. I used that time to practice deep breathing. It was for naught; it helped me feel more relaxed in those moments but didn’t change the way I breathe throughout the rest of my day.
  2. Same for yoga. An hour of yoga gives me yoga head, that curious feeling of being relaxed and well after yoga, but yoga head wears off quickly and for me, its effects do not create lasting changes in the rest of my life.

Enter meditation

When I took up meditation, I wasn’t thinking about shallow breathing at all. I took up meditation because I have a more-or-less Buddhist worldview and because meditation is to mental strength what weightlifting is to physical strength1.

After two weeks of meditating every day, the most curious thing happened. I started to breathe deeply. For brief moments, the feeling of soreness I associated with breathing deeply disappears, and without any special effort, I start breathing as deeply as one does during a guided yoga class. I’m about four weeks into meditating now, and these moments are coming more and more often. The physical relief feels incredible like I’ve been suffocating for years and I’ve finally been given oxygen. (Probably ’cause I have been.)

While meditation has been connected to a shitload of positive outcomes which include reduced anxiety, and while anxiety and shallow breathing go hand in hand, there are no studies formally linking meditation to deep breathing. But, a lack of a formally established link is not the same thing as the lack of an actual link, and my experience with meditation would suggest there very much is a link.

If you’re a shallow breather, my recommendation is simple: download a meditation app and start meditating for five minutes every day. You may think it’s stupid. You may think you’re bad at it. I wouldn’t worry about it. Meditation is like lifting; the first few weeks you go to the gym, you are not going to be lifting a lot. That doesn’t mean you’re ‘bad’ at lifting, it just means you need to begin at the beginning.

Meditation is also like going to the gym in that how you feel during your meditation has nothing to do with whether it’s working or not. The feeling of bliss and wellness some people report after meditating is fun, but your meditation habit is working regardless of whether you feel this way or not.

Anxiety, stress, and shallow breathing are a downward spiral. Shallow breathing encourages your brain to produce cortisol, which results in anxiety, which results in shallow breathing, which results in more cortisol… you get the picture. Giving yourself the ability to breathe deeply cuts off this vicious cycle at the knees.

Breathe deeply often enough, and your cortisol drops, and your anxiety fades, and you’re able to breathe even more deeply, which drops your cortisol, beginning a virtuous cycle instead.

Maybe, for the first time in years, you will finally feel calm.

  1. Anyone who actually meditates realizes this is an imperfect metaphor, but this is the way in which I experience its benefits, so I’m sticking with it.