Click play to hear Barry explain this anxiety sensation.
It’s common for people with anxiety to mention fears about their breathing. Some feel that their breathing is very labored and shallow. These fears are almost always accompanied by a tight sensation in the chest or throat area. A frequent complaint is worry that they’re not getting enough oxygen or that they might stop breathing altogether and feel forced to take conscious control of their breathing.
The chest or throat tightness that causes uncomfortable or shallow breathing is very common. It’s actually the chest and throat muscles that are tense, and this gives the false impression that you’re not breathing right or maybe not getting enough air. This can lead to panic and light-headedness, which confirms your fears of not getting enough air. You can see how a cycle of anxiety begins as one fearful sensation feeds off the other.
Not being able to breath is a myth. The fear comes from feeling uncomfortable in that area and then having anxious thoughts about suffocating or fainting from lack of oxygen. Don’t let it worry you. Believe me, you could spend every minute of the next ten years worrying that you’ll stop breathing—and nothing would happen. What a waste of your time and energy.
Your body knows exactly what it needs, and even if you try with all your mental might to get in the way of it, your body will breathe. In fact, many people experience this muscle tension every day, but they don’t panic because they don’t have a high level of sensitization and background anxiety.
When you become overly conscious of your breathing, remind yourself that you won’t stop breathing, no matter how many thoughts go through your head that say otherwise. It’s when you get uptight about the tensions in your body that they persist and worry you even more, creating a cycle that’s difficult to break.
Send the fear a message that it’s fine for the muscle tension to be there. You’re not worried by it, and it can stay as long as it likes. It’s not a problem, because you don’t see any threat.
Say to that part of your body:
I understand you’re tense. That’s fine. The tension can stay there, and I’m going to continue to do what I’m doing.
Don’t get into a situation in which you try to get rid of the tension with your mind. Simply allow it to be present. Accept the uncomfortable sensation, and then shift your focus back to what you’re doing. If you feel that your breathing is too shallow, then allow it to be shallow. Your body always compensates as it adjusts to expel excess carbon dioxide. The point to remember here is that your breathing is an unconscious process, and your body has always—and will always—look after that for you, regardless of how much your anxiety interferes. The more you can sit with the sensation and not react with fearful thoughts, the better. So to sum up, get comfortable with the sensations, and your fear about breathing will end. When the fear ends, the muscle tension releases, leaving you feeling much more comfortable.
If you find that you simply can’t stop worrying about your breathing, then
try to push against the fear more forcefully by demonstrating to yourself that there’s no danger. You can do this by taking a deep breath and holding it for as long as possible.
Initially, you’ll feel anxious trying this, because you’re already concerned about your breathing. After holding your breath for a short while, you’ll be forced to release quickly and breathe in. As you release and gasp for air, imagine you’re also releasing your fear in the process. Allow your breathing to return to normal, and then, when comfortable, repeat the process. Each time, mentally imagine your fear leaving you as you exhale.
This exercise trains you to feel more confident in your body’s ability to breathe. It shows you that no matter how much you mentally interfere with your breathing, your body is always in charge and always looks after your breathing for you. This fear is a perfect example of how your mental activity can get in the way of a natural flow. When you learn to trust again in that natural flow of your body, you stop interfering and worrying—and a comfortable, natural rhythm returns to your body. Reestablishing this trust in your body’s natural rhythm and ability to handle stress is the foundation on which all recovery from anxiety is built