Why do I unconsciously hold my breath during the day?
February 3, 2010 1:20 PM   Subscribe

Why do I hold my breath (unconsciously) throughout the day?

I am a programmer and in physically moderate condition. I could run a mile if I needed to but it would be very difficult. I rock climb at the gym once or twice a week, but do very little cardiovascular exercise.

I have found myself holding my breath a lot lately. I know for sure that I have been doing it:

* at work, programming
* at home, playing video games
* at home, trying to fall asleep (not after I am sleeping)
* while lifting weights at the gym
* while driving

Usually I catch myself because I or someone else hears me exhale loudly for no apparent reason. While playing computer games I think I may have subconsiously developed this habit to increase my 'steadiness'. I can't explain it for the other occassions.

My wife says I do snore sometimes so maybe I have sleep apnea but I don't think this would have anything to do with me holding my breath during my waking hours. Anyone have any ideas?

P.S. I can hold my breath for a pretty long time. In the past I have timed it at over 3 minutes.
posted by farmersckn to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm going to be the contrarian that says "confirmation bias." You've noticed it a few times. But that's not a trend. Still, it worries you. So you notice it more often, even though it's not actually happening more often. Now you're nervous. Now you may even trying to moderate your breathing deliberately, so now you're noticing all the normal stops and starts and misconstruing them as unconscious acts.

Relax. Meditate. Breathe.

If you don't breathe, you'll pass out, but then you'll have a different problem...

while lifting weights at the gym

This is an instance where you should consciously moderate your breathing, with each repetition.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:27 PM on February 3, 2010

I catch myself holding my breath occasionally, usually during times of great concentration or stress. I think it's probably fairly normal, and nothing to worry about as long as you are in good health otherwise. But you can always ask your doctor about it during your next checkup.
posted by amyms at 1:27 PM on February 3, 2010

I do this, and in my case it's not just confirmation bias because I've caught more than one person looking at me strangely before they ask "Are you, um, breathing?"

I do notice I do it more when playing videogames or reading anything heavy (i.e.: concentrating), but not exclusively: I have slept with a few people who've poked me in the ribs to make sure I'm not a corpse. (They've been correct to date, but I suppose someone will be correct, eventually.)

I think it's just a bad habit.
posted by rokusan at 1:32 PM on February 3, 2010

I do this ALL the time. Specifically, any time I'm concentrating -- as I write, as I draw. I never noticed until I started taking art classes, and it was pointed out to me during the silent nudie sketches: "Are you in pain or something?" ugh.

As it hasn't affected me in any negative way, other than by embarrassing me, in my case at least I think it simply aids concentration. Getting in the zone. Getting so far in the zone even breathing's a distraction.
posted by changeling at 1:34 PM on February 3, 2010

i hold my breath in the shower - specifically, when i tip my head back to get it under the water, i instantly start holding my breath. i didn't notice it until a few years ago. i had gone years and years with getting blinding, near passing out headaches in the shower. it always got worse the longer my hair was. then i realized it was because i wasn't freaking breathing. i traced it back to being a kid and HATING to get water and soap on my face when my mom was washing my hair - she told me "hold your breath!" so that we could avoid the freaking out that was sure to commence if soap got in my eyes or mouth.

maybe there's a reason you hold your breath during these activities. for me, at least, knowing the reason has helped me mitigate it.
posted by nadawi at 1:39 PM on February 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have central sleep apnea, which means my brain doesn't always tell me to breathe when I'm sleeping. It sometimes happens when I'm awake, and particularly when I'm trying to go to sleep. Some people have mixed sleep apnea, where they sometimes forget to breathe and sometimes snore (obstructive sleep apnea). If you've got decent insurance you should get a sleep study, if only to rule out any such issues. It's entirely possible it's just a bad habit, but what you've said here doesn't necessarily rule out apnea.

(also, rokusan, you should probably get a sleep study for the same reason -- not breathing in your sleep is not a "bad habit" -- it's a potentially dangerous or even deadly condition.)
posted by katemonster at 1:46 PM on February 3, 2010

Hmm, can't offer much more than another data point, but I do the same thing during the day. And when exercising I have to consciously will myself to breathe. I do snore as well.

Another weird thing I've noticed is that in high-stress one-on-one encounters, like an interview, I'll completely forget to breathe and then feel too embarrassed to pull in the deep breath I need, so I'll feel like I'm practically suffocating the entire time. I've actually thought about writing an AskMe about this strange problem.
posted by threeants at 1:58 PM on February 3, 2010

I have complex (mixed) apnea. Seconding the suggestion to get a sleep study. No one situation in your description makes me think it; it's the number of situations in total where you've been noticing this. Daytime apnea is very rare, but the fact that you're having it in so many different locales and (seemingly) varying stress levels makes me wonder about it.

Also note that things like lung capacity or ability to hold one's breath don't preclude anything.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 2:10 PM on February 3, 2010

Yes, people do forget to breathe There are yoga breathing exercises which you can do to remind yourself and which I've found effective. The simplest is to breathe in deeply while expanding the muscles below the diaphram (sucks the air into the bottom of the lungs.) Hold for about half as long as it took to suck it in. Force the air out by contracting the same muscles, hold for a brief time, then repeat. The holding stages allow for exchanges between oxygen and carbon dioxide to avoid hyperventilating. Maybe not a cure all, but it does direct your attention to a neglected life support system.
posted by path at 2:17 PM on February 3, 2010

Metoo! All throughout the day, and it does seem to be something about concentrating. I also have a quirk - subconscious, I swear - of holding my breath when I open my email client. e.g. a few minutes ago I logged into a work-related Gmail account, and when it opened and there were no messages, I released a breath I hadn't realized I'd been holding.

I also notice this when I run across the word "breathe." So I had to laugh, because as my eyes scanned down the main page, I saw your post and released a huge breath I didn't realize I was holding.

To avoid startling people, I have developed a technique for quietly inhaling a large breath slowly. If it's audible, people think you're sighing loudly (as a comment). And I can usually manage to camouflage the released breath as a cough or something.
posted by ErikaB at 2:55 PM on February 3, 2010

I do it too. Whenever I manage to focus on my breath and actually breathe, I feel a lot better. Yoga is definitely good training. I also recommend The Breathing Book.
posted by callmejay at 3:24 PM on February 3, 2010

A therapist once told me that the part of the brain responsible for speech interupts breathing so that we can actually form the words.

He said that if we're thinking in a particularly verbose way, forming the words in our minds, then the same action kicks in. We may not be speaking out loud, but because we're hi-jacking that speaking process to internalise our thoughts, we're still interupting our breathing.

What's worked for me was to practice meditation and breathing so that I could get into the habit of thinking at the same time as breathing. It's worked great and has also worked to calm my thoughts and reduce the stresses that they can cause.
posted by Ultrahuman at 3:26 PM on February 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

I've found both The Breathing Book mentioned above and the Andrew Weil CD set at the bottom of this page to be helpful in day-to-day stress reduction. It also helps my energy level (when I remember to do the techniques.)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 5:12 PM on February 3, 2010

Concerning lifting weights:

Don't hold your breath. Holding your breath during exertion can cause dangerous spikes in blood pressure. Instead, breathe easily and continuously during each lift. -- Mayo Clinic web site
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:25 PM on February 3, 2010

I thought I was the only one. I don't forget to breathe, which sounds more like having exhaled and forgetting to inhale - I just find myself sucking in a breath and holding it intentionally (yet unconsciously so). As others have said, I think I notice it most when I'm concentrating, such as at work when working on a document or spreadsheet or reading something for comprehension. I've never known why. I too have apnea as well as asthma. My two theories have been that it has something to do with one of these. Asthma results in constricted airways, so I wondered if I was unconsciously trying to put pressure on those tissues from the inside to force the inflammation recede gradually. And in terms of the apnea, I wondered if I had just become so used to not breathing for longish periods while sleeping that I was unconsciously trying to replicate that while awake. That seems to make less sense, but I never did this in the pre-apnea days. I'm not sure when the apnea actually started, or quite when this started, but they seem generally to be correlated. A quick google says there are more people out there with this odd issue to.
posted by Askr at 6:26 PM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have had something similar - I tense my abdomen sometimes, leading to restricted breathing and occasionally even shortness of breath. It gets worse if I have too much caffeine, and much worse if I am too stressed out. It also happens sometimes when I am plaing a video game. I have adopted a lower-stress lifestyle and I feel a lot better. You might try identifying if there is any source of stress that might be affecting this.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 7:29 PM on February 3, 2010

I forget to breathe a lot. It causes stress. Now I try to catch myself doing it, and focus on adding a few minutes deep breathing while driving and at any downtime points throughout the day. I have a history of being on the anxious side, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that my breathing during sleep is inefficient. I've found that conscious deep breathing exercises do more than anything to reduce my anxiety - and in turn, when I am experiencing a lot of stress, I unconsciously shorten my breaths and sometimes hold my breath throughout the day. Reminding yourself to take deep breathing breaks - even if it's something as bald as setting an Outlook reminder to do so - really helps.
posted by Miko at 8:11 PM on February 3, 2010

Best answer: Since too much CO2 in the blood can cause acidosis, it occurred to me reading your question that a person with alkalosis might hold their breath a lot to make their blood more acid and thereby counteract the alkalosis.

And that very well could be the case:

Compensatory mechanism for metabolic alkalosis involve slowed breathing by the lungs to increase serum carbon dioxide, a condition leaning toward respiratory acidosis. ...

Metabolic alkalosis is usually accompanied with hypokalemia, causing e.g. muscular weakness, myalgia, and muscle cramps (owing to disturbed function of the skeletal muscles), and constipation (from disturbed function of smooth muscles).

As far as causes are concerned:

Metabolic alkalosis can be caused by prolonged vomiting, resulting in a loss of hydrochloric acid with the stomach content. Severe dehydration, and the consumption of alkali are other causes. It can also be caused by administration of diuretics and endocrine disorders such as Cushing's syndrome.

Cushing's syndrome is especially interesting in light of this thread because it's associated with sleep apnea.

Cushing's syndrome can be caused by too much ACTH, which stimulates the adrenal glands. ACTH is produced from a larger molecule called POMC, and because of a malfunctioning feedback loop, redheads tend to produce too much POMC.

You don't happen to have red hair, do you?
posted by jamjam at 11:47 PM on February 3, 2010

Response by poster: Yes, I am a redhead. Freaky. I also crave vinegar and citrus. Very interesting, and worth checking into! Thanks, jamjam!
posted by farmersckn at 9:12 AM on February 4, 2010

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