Breathing OCD is a type of sensorimotor OCD where your mind becomes hyper aware and conscious of the breath. Many people don´t even realise that this is OCD as it doesn’t fall under the more typical themes. It most defintitely is OCD though and not only that, it can be particularly infuriating as breathing is obviously (and thankfully) something that we are doing all day, every day. So what is breathing OCD and how can we overcome it?
I wish I could stop thinking about it
Breathing OCD is when someone becomes completely obsessed about their breathing. Previously they may have always been breathing subconsciously and not given it too much thought, but for some reason their breathing has become conscious. The problem occurs because they don´t want their breathing to be conscious, they want it to go back to being a subconcious thing, but when we try to force things like this it often back fires.
Generally what tends to happen is that the more you try not to think about something, the more you end up thinking about it (don´t think of a pink elephant). So as the person tries everything they can to not be aware of their breath, what often happens is the opposite. They become more and more aware of it and this can cause a lot of anxiety and discomfort. I´m fully aware of this myself as I´ve struggled with breathing OCD in the past and I know exactly how frustrating it can be.
The main problem is the fact that we don´t want to be conscious of the breath. This type of thinking though just perpetuates the problem, so what can we do?
Mindfulness is key in overcoming breathing OCD
Mindfulness is an overused word and I often don´t like the term, however the skills that it gives us are invaluable when it comes to sensorimotor OCD. The trick to overcoming this problem is to start doing the opposite of what the OCD is telling you to do. So when it tells you to stop thinking about the breath, you are going to tell yourself that you want to think about the breath. So how does this work in practice?
Focus in on the Breath
It helps to do this at home the first few times that you try it and make sure you don´t do it whilst doing something potentially dangerous, like driving a car. You are going to sit somewhere quiet and purposefully bring your attention to your breath. I want you to really try and notice the whole process of the breath from start to finish. Try to notice the sensations of the breath in the nostrils, the mouth or in the chest and belly. Keep focusing in on it and if you mind wanders, just bring your attention back to the breath.
You may feel some anxiety when you do this, that’s fine, just try to allow that to be there and keep bringing your attention back to the breath for 5 to 10 minutes. The next step then is to keep practicing this throughout your day. If you have a spare few minutes here and there you can practice tuning into your breath.
To challenge yourself even more, whilst you´re tuning into the breath, you can purposefully try to make yourself feel anxious about it. You can tell yourself really negative thoughts about your breathing and your inability to change focus. If you do this, then you will probably start to feel anxious. But again, this is good, you can just sit there and try to observe that anxiety, without doing anything to try and get rid of it.
The idea is that we want you to invite these difficult feelings in on purpose. What you´ve been doing up until this point is trying to push it all away, but as we know, this doesn’t work. Instead, by inviting the thoughts and the feelings in, we learn that they are not as bad as we thought and that we can allow them to be there. We can consciously tune into our breathing and just as easily tune out from it again if we want, just as long as we don´t try to force this.
By allowing and accepting the conscious breathing, we change our relationship with it. We can come to learn that we can tune in or tune out of the breath as we choose, so long as we don´t force.
The Wim Hof Breathing Method
Something that I do every day is the Wim Hof breathing method. I find it incredibly helpful for anxiety, but I also think it can be a great tool for breathing OCD. The method involves breathing very deeply into the belly 30 – 40 times and then holding the breath. It leaves you feeling very relaxed and overtime you can build confidence in your own breathing. Again this is a very conscious breathing method and it exposes you to your fear, but in a healthy way.
Whatever you choose to try to deal with this problem, the most important thing to remember is that the breath is not the enemy here. The problem is that you´ve learnt to fear it. To change this you need to start befriending the breath and the best way to do that is to pay it as much attention as possible (at least for now). Practice tuning into the breath and you will start to see that not only can you overcome this, but that the breath is your ally. If you would like help with breathing OCD then do please get in touch, I offer the initial consultation for free in order to see if we are a good match for working together.
To find out more about the Wim Hof Method, I recommend that you check out his app and follow his instructions or you can get in touch with me and ask, as i´m in training to be a Wim Hof Instructor.