What You don’t Know About Breathing Can Really Hurt You

breathingLosing My Ability to Breathe

Somewhere, between diagnosis and deliverance, I forgot how to breathe. I find myself, at odd moments, holding my breath, not in anticipation or fright, but simply because I have forgotten the rhythm of breathing.

I didn’t even know about my loss until I started experiencing horrible, unexplainable pain in the middle of my chest that isn’t a heart problem (checked that), isn’t a nerve problem (checked that too), or even a lung problem (checked the bellows out and they’re fine).

“You’re as healthy as a person half your age,” the cardiologist told me. If that’s true, why does it hurt to breathe or have my heart beat strong and deep?  Why does my left side swell up?  It hurts to lie down, or stand up?  Why does it happen over and over again?

“Your breathing function is normal,” the internist told me. “In fact, your lung capacity is superior.”  Than why does it hurt to breathe?  Why can’t I take a deep breath without agony?  Walking up stairs is a cruel form of torture.

“Have you ever considered acupuncture?” my family practitioner asked me. Really?  Alternative therapy?  I couldn’t believe a physician was suggestion alternative therapy.

“Well, I do go to a chiropractor and a massage therapist,” I admitted.

“Does it help?” she asked.

“I’m not sure.”  I shrugged. “Sometimes it helps the pain go away if I go in early, sometimes it doesn’t. My massage therapist claims that I have incredibly tight muscles on my left side. It takes her an hour to work through the knots.”

A Different Kind of Specialist

“Do you know how to breathe?” my neighbor and friend asked me. She’s a life coach, and helps people with chronic pain—she’s also a person in chronic pain. “I can teach you how to breathe.”  I reluctantly agreed to go over to her house after work one evening (after my second job–I much rather would have been in bed).

“It’s called diaphragmatic breathing,” she told me. “Put your hand right below your rib cage and try to push your hand out when you breathe.”  I felt silly, but I tried it. “When you breathe shallowly, you decrease your body’s ability handle pain.”


“Yes.”  She launched into the technical reasons why shallow breathing keeps a person from processing pain and releasing endorphins that help the body take care of pain. I thanked her and wandered out of her house, hand on stomach, practicing my breathing while thinking of breathing in general.

Over the next few weeks, while I waited for my pain to go away, I caught myself not breathing. The computer didn’t load fast enough—I clenched my teeth and my breathing ceased its regular, steady rhythm. Three family members with perfectly good hands and arms and backs failed to put their own dishes in the dishwasher—how hard can it be to bend slightly and put a dish in the dishwasher?  I got cut off on the highway—have they stopped giving driving tests?!  Ooops!  My teeth were clenched and I had been holding my breath for who-knows-how-long.

Caregiver, Beware Your Breathing

Somewhere, between diagnosis and deliverance, I had started holding my breath—in fright, in anticipation of the next piece of bad news, in mental pain and agony, in emotional stress. No one ever warned me that a side effect of all that stress would be a loss of breathing. In fact, no one warned me about any of the side effects of a cancer diagnosis. Slowly, every so slowly, I’m putting a name on them and dealing with them. For now, I’ll start with breathing lessons.


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Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a ‘recovering cancer caregiver’ who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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  • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    This is a really important post, Anita. Incorrect breathing is, as you point out, the doorway for a lot of problems.

    I’m a firm believer in alternative therapies; I was trained to use many, including leeches, when field-expedient solutions were needed.


    • I used to think leeches were so Medieval–until I watched a science program on how they are using them again for severed limbs–pretty cool stuff!

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  • Thanks for the information about corrext breathing!

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  • Mary

    I have learned the lesson of the importance of proper breathing too. It’s amazing how stress can mess up in ways we did not know were possible until it happens. I pray that we learn proper breathing in order to let go of stress but also depend on God. Thanks for the lesson.

  • Anita, I got some good pointers here that might help me. This is something that needs more attention for sure. I appreciate you sharing this!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Leslie! It’s crazy how we can forget to do something so basic!

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  • Karen Del Tatto

    I thought I was the only one that “held my breath”. For me, the clue that I was indeed holding my breath was when I’d suddenly become very dizzy. Then I would say, “I forgot to breathe”. And indeed I had! It usually happens when I am in very deep thought about something that I don’t even realize I am holding my breath.

    I never realized that other symptoms such as pain can be attributed to not breathing properly. I actually downloaded a breathing app which I really like because it shows a picture of a lung expanding and expelling air and you follow along with it. It really helps to train a person to do proper deep breathing.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Oh, that app sounds cool! What is it called?

      • Karen Del Tatto

        MyCalmBeat. 😊

  • Isn’t it interesting how we can sometimes impede our own breathing. Thanks for sharing this, Anita! I hope the lessons make a difference!

  • This doesn’t surprise me, because breathing, drinking enough water, taking time to sleep and eat well — these are all things that fall apart for me when I’m trying to carry everything myself. Thanks for sharing your insights, Anita.

    • After breathing, sleeping is the one I struggle with the most ;). So. many. good. books!

  • It’s amazing the difference something as simple as breathing can make. Since I play a wind instrument I know how to breathe properly but it’s amazing how I can forget that when life is stressful. I have found breathing exercises really helpful for calming down.

    • Playing a wind instrument will certainly train you in proper breathing! I’ve tried playing the flute before and almost passed out ;).

  • Anita,
    Such important and wise advice. Thank you!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Dolly!