I find I’m controlling my breathing

flower and stonesI recently received an email from a visitor to Wildmind. Ken asked:

When practicing breathing, I find that I can not seem to not control it to some
extent.

How can I feel more comfortable with the breath and prevent myself from
controlling it?

Should I just be aware of the fact that I am doing this and continue on?

This is a very common experience. We get so used to being in control, or thinking that we’re in control, or simply thinking that we ought to be in control, that the conscious mind starts to interfere with the act of breathing — something that’s normally handled unconsciously by the autonomic nervous system.

For most animals the breath is controlled entirely by unconscious parts of the brain. Dogs and cats don’t think about their breathing as far as we know. In a few creatures — such as whales and dolphins — breathing is entirely under conscious control and they have to take each breath as a deliberate action. These animals have a clever way of sleeping with only one half of the brain at a time so that they don’t drown. In humans breathing mostly takes place unconsciously (we don’t stop breathing when we fall asleep) but we can also take conscious control of our breathing when we need to. This is a handy talent — it means for example that we can hold the breath when we’re submerging ourselves in water or walking past an obnoxious odor, and that we can consciously take deep breaths when necessary.

In mindfulness meditation we don’t generally aim to control the breath consciously. Certainly there are times when we may wish to do this for short periods — for example taking a few deep breaths at the start of the practice in order to settle the mind, or slowing the breath when we realize that we’ve become excited — but the words to emphasize here are “short periods.” We only control the breath for a specific purpose and for few breaths, and then we let the breathing return to autonomic control.

Ideally we’re simply letting the breath flow in and out of the body at its own pace, and the job of the conscious mind is to observe the sensations of the breath. Ideally. This doesn’t always work out as we’ve planned, and sometimes beginners to meditation find that they’re controlling the breath. In its mildest forms there may be a slight sense of stiffness or awkwardness about the breathing, but in more extreme cases the muscles involved in the breathing, such as the intercostals (the muscles between the ribs) may become very sore indeed. People sometimes hyperventilate and feel dizzy. None of this is usually dangerous, but it certainly doesn’t help our meditation practice.

So what can we do if we find that we develop a habit of controlling the breath?

As Ken suggested in his email, we can just be aware of the fact that we are controlling the breath and simply carry on with the practice. Eventually if we do this we’re likely to find that we’ve forgotten to control the breath consciously. But this can take a long time and this isn’t a very effective approach.

One time, when I was very new to meditation, I found that I was controlling my breathing. The more I noticed that I was controlling the movements of my ribcage and abdomen, the harder it was to let go and simply breathe. My chest muscles were working against each other and as a result they became very sore. The more sore they became the harder it was to just let go and breathe. I was caught in a vicious cycle.

Luckily I had a creative realization that I didn’t need to focus on my chest at all, and I started to pay more attention to the breath in the nostrils, and particularly to the sensation of the breath as it passed over the rims of the nostrils. It occurs to me now that it’s possibly to be aware of the breath in the nostrils but not to control it there. Anyway, I noticed that the more I directed my attention to the nostrils, the less I noticed the pain in my chest. From time to time my focus would slip down to my aching ribcage and I’d sense the discomfort there, and this experience became an incentive to notice the nostrils even more keenly. Eventually I became very concentrated indeed and my chest muscles began to relax and return to unconscious control.

Another approach that can be very useful is to lighten up by bringing more of a sense of playfulness into our experience. One way to do this is to imagine that you’re floating on warm, buoyant water that’s rising and falling in time with the breath. You can really enjoy the rhythm of the waves as they rise and fall.

A similar approach is to imagine that you’re sitting on a swing that’s moving in time with the breathing. You can call to mind the sense of enjoyment that you may have got from this activity when you were a child, and get a sense of pleasure from the rise and fall.

One thing that’s going on here is that we’re bringing a sense of enjoyment and playfulness into the practice. This can be very helpful if we tend to take a dry, dutiful, and willful approach to meditation. Another thing that’s happening is that the driving force for the breath is being imaginatively located outside of ourselves, in the waves or in the motion of the swing, and so we’re learning that we don’t have to have conscious control of the breath. Just as the motion of the water or swing is outside ourselves, so the control of the breathing is outside of the conscious mind.

So these are a couple of approaches to dealing with the difficulty of simply observing the breath without consciously controlling it. There are no doubt other approaches but these are ones that my students have found to be most useful.

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108 Comments. Leave new

now i don’t unintentionally stop my breathing anymore
however, i do still do this when i try to do meditation
you know deep breathing in and out
i am looking into loving kindness meditation
I’ve read about it and think it would be helpful
for some time i had quit meditation for a while
but now i think loving kindness will help
thanks

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Do you think its possible to reset the body’s amygdala by sleeping for extended periods of time to induce large portions of uninterrupted uncontrolled breathing?

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I’m guessing, of course, because if this has been researched then I haven’t heard of it, but I’d imagine that getting sufficient sleep would help in regulating the amygdala. I certainly find that a lack of sleep leaves me feeling raw and exposed, and makes it hard for me to regulate my emotions. But I don’t think you’re going to be able to “reset” the amygdala just by sleeping. I think it takes ongoing emotional reassurance in daily life to help quiet down the activity of the amygdala, so that in the long term it becomes less active.

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Hi, I am doing meditation from last 2 weeks on breaths. I need a small help in understanding the deep meditation. In deep meditation, if you are observing your breath and any sensations,sounds then how it can be thoughtless or deep stage? Can you please guide me?

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In very deep meditation, thought can indeed cease. But the things you talk about — observing the breathing and other sensations — are not thoughts. Thoughts are where we have internal speech about our past, present, or future experience, often accompanied by images. That’s what stops. Sensations aren’t thoughts.

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Please please help me D: I’ve become aware of my breathing and can’t stop its been going on for the whole day and now my chest really hurts as do my lungs. I feel like I’m going to die and im really scared. Please help me I tryed the exercise and helps but as soon as I forget about It I remember it and can’t find any peace please please please help me, I’m suffering

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I’m sorry to hear about this, Marshall. You certainly won’t die! Even if you passed out, your breathing would return to a normal pattern. Nothing bad can happen — just discomfort.

Hopefully you’ll start “forgetting” to control your breathing in this way. In the meantime, I wonder what would happen if you tried holding your breath for as long as you can? I’m wondering if by the time the air hunger forces you to start breathing again, your normal physiological breathing would kick in and override the rather silly desire to control the breathing consciously…

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I am confused in doing mindfulness of breathing when I realized to remove my un concious feelings using mindfulness of unconscious feelings.Can u plz tell me how to handle them separately?

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I’m afraid I don’t really understand your question, Vishal. Could you say more?

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Hi, I would like to know your opinion about what is the relationship between the natural breathing, where you simply observe your breath, and techniques related to the martial arts, according to which we must above all use the power of the Tanden (or hara). How does one practice both natural an abdominal breathing ? Thanks You

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Hi, Nicola.

I’m not familiar with the martial arts, so I’m not really in a position to comment about them. But since the aims of the martial arts are different from the aims of Buddhist meditation, you’d expect them to use different methods. With regards to abdominal breathing, I recommend nothing more than taking awareness to the belly. There’s no need to actually change the pattern of our breathing consciously; just pay attention and your unconscious will take the hint so that your breathing changes naturally and automatically.

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Could it be that it’s an issue of overall control? Feeling less like I was suffocating seemed to come with reducing my need for control in other areas of my life. When I realized I was chronically trying to force unnatural emotions and behaviours to please others, and started to stop forcing just those, I automatically stopped having as many problems with my breathing. Has anyone else noticed anything similar?

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That would be my guess too, Jessie, that we control our breathing because of a general need to feel in control.

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Try this: to release your respiration, say ´´bud´´ after expiration 1, ´´ddho´´ after expiration 2, ´´bud´´ after expiration 3, etc.

It helped me a lot – dont know why, but, for me, this is easier than do the couting the breath; maybe because its a sacred word or whatever.

This can help too:

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/thai/phut/sao.html

Happy new year for everyone.

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Hi
In my 9th month of pregnancy I started noticing my breathing pattern. I started taking breaths consciously. Earlier it was only during night but now its been 2 months, I have been back into shape but now I notice my breathing every second. Its getting tough for me day by day as it is interfering in my routine work for my baby and husband. I m studying also. When I don’t notice it I feel something is missing and I start breathing again. It is very tiring n frustrating. I want to have fun vd my baby but this thing is pushing me nowhere. I seriously want to be back to my older life. I consulted psychiatrist but he was of no help. I m very worried. Please help me.

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I can only imagine how distressing that would be, Shweta. Unfortunately I don’t have any suggestions beyond what’s on this page, and even that is more aimed at people who experience this during meditation. Perhaps a good hypnotherapist would be able to help you to “forget” to pay attention to your breathing?

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thank you, i really appreciate this article and have learned some helpful tips. i too experience difficulty with consious control of my breathing for several reasons, and it feels great to know that I’m not alone and there are several solutions.

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I too have a problem of conscious breathing.When i am standing its worse.I feel my ribcage is not expanding and i am forcing my abdomen to expand.This is worrying me so much for the past 3 months.Will this be fine if i try to allow my body to breath even though i experience throat and chest tightness at such
situations.Will i be able to come over this?

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Hi, Jennifer. This is outside my area of expertise, I’m afraid. I’m not an expert on the physiology and psychology of breathing — just a meditation teacher. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help beyond offering the meditation suggestions above.

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I am following what u have told above.The suggestions are helping me.I just wanted to know whether it will get alright by practice.I am following your first instruction ie to observe our breathing amd dats improving..i want to know whether it shud get alright soon or will it take somr time.

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Hi, Jennifer.

I’m afraid I’ve no way of knowing how quickly your habit will fade away. One other thing you might try is to repeat a phrase like, “My breath rises and falls like waves on the ocean.” It’s kind of “self-hypnosis lite.” Why not give it a go and see how it works out?

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Hey,

Ive been to the doctor several time and they always say im just fine and my lungs are good. I smoke ive been smoking since i was 15 and im 25 im going to quit now but I feel like i cant breath i have no trouble breathing but i feel like im not taking in oxygen like there is a brick siting in the center of my chest i feels better when i burp but several hours later of being conscious about my breathing any suggestion on what my be the cause of this or how to stop it

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I’d definitely suggest that you stop smoking, Rachel. This is probably your body’s way of telling you you’re killing yourself.

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2 things that worked somewhat for me so far:

1. Holding my breath for 20 seconds (sometimes we’re actually getting too much oxygen when it feels like not enough). Or working at learning to breathe out more than in.
2. Pretending to sleep. Pretend there’s someone in the room you want to avoid. Pretend you are sleeping and try to be convincing. The act distracts you while your breathing naturalizes itself.

I find as soon as these start to balance out the suffocating feeling, breathing becomes less of an issue and I can forget it more easily. Sometimes I alternate when one becomes less effective.

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thanks for ur great article!! it also happen with me during meditation.. I think that only I feel this kinds of experience but many more are there.. it all starts with meditation then afraid to practice more and focus on daily routine stuffs..
YOUR above suggestions helps me a lot and feeling very effective and practical.. but small bit experience like controling breathe happens when I try to remain in present moment or when I am talking with other people
I m this much aware of the breathing sensation that it intrupt my focus on daily basic stuffs and I just feel that sensation all the time and feeling joyful and relaxing enough that not know what to talk or reply to other person.. it feels good but it like cut my connection with the outer world.. please reply me what sensation is this and is it normal to feel like during meditation ? your comment is very valuable for me.. thanks again for this great article and please reply me I m waiting for ur suggestion…

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Hi, Sooraj.

This might sound like a small thing, but when you “try to remain in present moment” you’re probably making too much effort and not actually being with your present moment experience very deeply. All you have to do is let go of the mental activities and behaviors that prevent you from being in the present moment. Being present isn’t, in the end, something we can get to by trying. Perhaps you could think more about “resting in the present moment.”

It’s certainly not desirable that you’re becoming unable to communicate with other people. I’d suggest that you start doing lovingkindness practice at least every other day, alternating it with whatever other form of meditation practice you’re already doing.

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Lately I have been controlling my breathing and its so bad it’s actually depressing. I don’t know if that is ridiculous or if I’m over exaggerating but I don’t want to deal with it. It’s especially hard in loud places or bumpy car rides where I feel like I can’t concentrate on it and I feel as if when I don’t it won’t happen at all and I’ll die. They also cause me to have severe panic attacks that make me feel as if I am certainly about to die. This comes back in flares. I have suffered with it for a while but especially when Im stressed out. I’m pregnant now and worry about it in a whole new way. I. Need. Help. Please!

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I’d be interested to hear what a hypnotherapist could do, Anonymous. What you really need is to help the part of your brain that’s become obsessed with “controlling” your breathing to develop amnesia, and to let the brainstem do what it does very well. Hypnotherapy is very good at bypassing conscious mental functioning, so I suspect it would be a good place to start. I’m assuming you haven’t actually tried any of the suggestions you’ve read here, since you don’t mention them.

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