The first time I stayed in a hostel, I spiraled. Not because I was scared of being killed à la classic slasher movie “Hostel,” but because I was paranoid about the sound of my breath, which I was certain was the loudest thing in the room.
I was in a tiny dorm, made up of two dangerously close bunk beds. I could hear myself breathing, and for the life of me couldn’t calm my mind down.
Can the other girls hear me, too? Are they already asleep? Are they gonna hear me and think I’m breathing weird? Are they wondering what’s wrong with me? Am I going to have a full-blown anxiety attack? Will they know if I do?
CAN ANYONE HEAR ME BREATHING RIGHT NOW?!
Eventually the silence broke thanks to an uncommon source of relief: the sound of snoring. Knowing at least one of these girls was asleep made me feel like I was being “watched” by one less person. I felt like I could breathe more easily without trying to change the way the breath sounded or worrying about being heard. Finally I was able to sleep.
That was literally my thought cycle that night, and sometimes that’s still how it goes
Ever since my first anxiety attack at the age of 12, I’ve had a complicated relationship with my breath. It came out of absolutely nowhere in the middle of the night. Surprisingly it wasn’t triggered by my breath.
The attack subsequently resulted in many more. The shortness of breath I was constantly experiencing was traumatizing. On the cusp of 26, little has changed.
It’s so ironic. Breathing is something most people don’t even think about unless they’re purposely trying to think about it, maybe using deep-breathing techniques to reduce stress, or concentrating on the breath during activities like yoga or meditation. For many who identify with having anxiety, deep breathing is an effective way to manage anxiety or stop panic attacks in their tracks.
As for me, they usually make me feel worse.
I think about my breath so much that it becomes a trigger for my anxiety. When I hear myself or someone else breathing when it’s super quiet, I get extremely tuned into my breath. I try too hard to control my inhales and exhales. In trying to “fix” my breath so I’m “breathing normally,” I end up hyperventilating.
Growing up, nighttime was when I had the most anxiety attacks. One of my main, and scariest, symptoms was shortness of breath. I’d audibly gasp for air and oftentimes felt like I was dying. Needless to say, many nights when I lie down for bed, I don’t feel very peaceful... especially if I’m in close proximity to someone else.
Because this is such a bizarre (and sort of embarrassing) anxiety trigger to talk about, I’ve stayed silent about it until now, because it’s something that doesn’t make sense to most people, and therefore I feel like people wouldn’t even believe it. Or if they did, they’d think I’m “crazy.”
I set out to see if I’m the only one who encounters this and — surprise — I’m not.
Danielle M., 22, has experienced overwhelming, breathing-induced anxiety for a couple years now. “I can’t just sit in silence,” she says. Sometimes she has to distract herself from her breath to sleep.
“Whether it’s social media or Amazon, I find something to distract my mind long enough (30 minutes to two hours) to be able to have a ‘clearer’ mind by the time I attempt to fall back asleep,” she says. Another thing that helps her? A white noise machine.
Rachael P., 27, also confesses, “I’ll literally try to hold or silence my breath at night when my partner is trying to fall asleep next to me if I don't fall asleep first.” For her, this phenomenon began a few years ago.
“I think it started as a fear of taking up space, or trying to make myself smaller,” she says. “It became a habit, then an almost paranoid obsession of thinking that my horribly loud breathing would keep my partner awake, thus making him angry, annoyed, and resentful of me.”
I thought maybe I would grow out of this preoccupation, but alas, these anxious nights became more prominent in college. Young adulthood introduced me to a new slew of scary situations... or at least scary to me. Read: Sharing a dorm room and sleeping a few feet away from somebody. Triggered.
Even when I was best friends with my roommates, the thought of them hearing me and knowing I was anxious was something I didn’t want. And later, when I first started having sleepovers with my first serious boyfriend… forget about it. We’d cuddle and I’d almost immediately get in my head, start breathing weird, try to sync up my breath to his, and wonder if I was too loud.
Some nights when I was experiencing overall lower levels of anxiety, I’d be able to fall asleep right after him. But most nights I’d be up for hours having anxiety attacks, wondering why I couldn’t fall asleep in someone’s arms like a “normal” person.
For an expert’s take on this unusual anxiety trigger, I spoke to a clinical psychologist with an expertise in anxiety
Ellen Bluett, PhD, was quick to connect breath preoccupation to my experiences having anxiety attacks and feeling short of breath when I was younger. While many anxious people turn to their breath to calm themselves down, I’m the opposite.
“Noticing your breath becomes a trigger. You start to pay attention to the physical sensations that are occurring in your body, and you begin to experience anxious thoughts as a result. This in turn likely makes you feel more anxious.”
Basically, it’s a vicious cycle, one that people with anxiety know all too well.
Since the breathing situation for me is a lot worse when I’m near someone else, Bluett hypothesizes there’s a social anxiety component to my breathing preoccupation.
“Social anxiety is characterized by a fear of social situations where we might be observed by others. There’s an associated fear of being judged, humiliated, or scrutinized in those social situations. These situations, like being in close proximity to individuals who can hear you breathe, likely trigger this anxiety.”
She hits the nail on the head.
“With social anxiety, individuals often assume or believe that others can tell that they are anxious, but in reality, people cannot actually tell. Social anxiety is an overinterpretation of a threat that people are judging or scrutinizing us,” she explains.
A problem that arises with anxiety is avoidance of known triggers, which becomes a way of managing the condition for some people. However, when you have anxiety and don’t face your fears, they don’t really go away.
Bluett was glad to hear that I don’t avoid situations where I know I might be uncomfortable, because in the long run, it’ll make me stronger.
“Sometimes people respond [to anxiety triggers] by engaging in avoidance behavior,” she says, “like leaving the room or never being in close proximity to others. This alleviates the anxiety in the short term but actually makes it worse in the long term, as we never get the opportunity to learn that we can handle the discomfort of hearing our breath.”
Brava to Danielle and Rachael for also not hiding from this problem. For some people, facing triggers head-on acts as a form of exposure therapy, which is often a helpful component of cognitive behavioral therapy.
I don’t know how long I’ll be dealing with all of this, but I know I can’t run away from it
Hearing Bluett’s advice to keep facing my triggers was reassuring. For better or worse, it’s literally impossible to run away from your own breath, and I’m stuck with this anxious brain of mine.
It’ll take a lot of hard work and time to become more comfortable with my own breath and not freak out about it all the time. But I know I’m on the right track, learning to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, continuously putting myself in situations I know might be stressful for me.
I can’t even tell you how many nights I’ve stayed in hostels during my travels over the past two years. An overwhelming majority of those nights haven’t ended in nervous breakdowns. Yet hopefully, one day I’ll be able to breathe easy.
Ashley Laderer is a writer who aims to break the stigma surrounding mental illness and make those living with anxiety and depression feel less alone. She’s based in New York, but you can often find her traveling elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.