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Difficulty Taking Deep Breaths? Here’s What It Might Mean

Difficulty Taking Deep Breaths? Here’s What It Might Mean


You’ve been breathing your whole life, so it should be easy to just “take a deep breath”… right? If you’ve ever seriously struggled to match the pace of structured breathwork in a yoga class or guided meditation, you know it’s not always that simple.

And if slow, deep breaths elude you on the regular, you may have wondered if it means something about your overall health and wellness. That’s really not necessarily the case, says Michael J. Stephen, MD, a pulmonologist and the author of Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs.

Experts In This Article

“Getting a deep breath can be difficult for a lot of people, but every story is different,” Dr. Stephen says. Ahead, find some possible reasons why it might be hard for you to breathe deeply and slowly—and what you can do to make breathwork feel better.

Inefficient breathing habits take over

According to Nike’s official breathwork coach Stuart Sandeman, short, dysfunctional breathing patterns are much more common than you’d expect. “These habits develop when we’re stuck in prolonged periods of stress, using poor posture, or even wearing high-waisted jeans,” he says. This might lead to a chest-dominant breath or short, shallow breaths.

To summarize some complicated biology, your brain, blood, and lungs tend to get acclimated to the particular carbon dioxide and pH levels associated with these breathing patterns. “When you then go into a yoga class and try to slow your breath down, alarm bells go off that trigger your brain into thinking you need to take extra breaths,” Sandeman explains.

Our minds get in the way

Your mental and emotional state has a very real impact on your breathwork practice, says Jasmine Marie, founder of Black Girls Breathing. “The number one thing that I see is that it’s really hard for people to tap into their bodies because they are so heavily in critical thinking throughout their days,” she explains. “We are all in an overstimulated, fight-or-flight mode from having a phone in our hand all day and living in a capitalistic society.”

And that stressful state leads to smaller breaths. “When we are stressed or anxious, we upregulate the nervous system, which triggers us to breathe shallow and short into the chest,” yoga instructor Alex Artymiak previously explained to Well+Good about why deep breathing can be so hard.

Marie points out that mental barriers to breathwork can particularly come into play for people of marginalized identities and/or those who have experienced trauma. “Absolutely, this work is heavier and harder with underrepresented groups who are not able to experience full freedom out in the world,” she says.

There could be underlying conditions

Don’t panic: According to Dr. Stephen, it’s not at all uncommon for folks with a clean bill of health to have difficulty taking long, deep breaths or to experience “air hunger” (that feeling like you need to reach for a bit more air). Still, if you’re concerned, it’s best to rule out any medical issues that might require targeted treatment.

“Certainly, we saw a lot of issues with the wildfires triggering people’s lung disease, and we’re seeing a big explosion in asthma,” he says. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), long COVID, a deviated septum, and cardiac abnormalities are other potential explanations for breathing complications. Dr. Stephen says that if you have new and unexplained symptoms for more than a month, you should consult your primary-care physician, who can refer you to a specialist if needed.

How to make deep breathing feel more manageable

1. Start small

“You don’t have to go straight into a full 30-minute session,” Sandeman says. “I think the place to start is just to understand how you’re breathing naturally. Take a moment to pause, close your eyes (only if that feels good), and place your hands on your chest and belly to see where the breath is flowing. Start your practice from that place of curiosity.”

Instead of forcing yourself to try to breathe deeply, think about breathing “softly,” suggests Artymiak. So, instead of actively trying to control your breath into the perfect cadence, relax into bigger breaths and simply focus on how they feel in the body.

2. Be patient

Remember that retraining your brain and muscular system will take time. “If you’ve ignored your diaphragm for decades, it’s going to take more than a couple of days to get it back into shape,” says Dr. Stephen. “Not unlike going to the gym, you have to approach breathwork in a gradual fashion. There will be setbacks, and you’re going to be frustrated. But if you put the effort in over several months, I believe you’ll see results.”

3. Listen to your body

Everyone’s lung capacity is different, says Marie. Ditto for breathwork needs, she says: “Your lungs could be full on two counts, and then your brain is like, ‘Why can’t I do it on four counts?!’ Focus less on the outcome and more on how it feels for you.”

Read: It’s perfectly okay to set aside the counts and just breathe until your lungs are full, before exhaling until they’re empty. It’s okay if your personal pattern doesn’t match a teacher’s—there’s no need to feel guilty or like you’re “cheating.” Let your own breath be the guide.

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