WAITING TO INHALE: WHY IT HURTS TO HOLD YOUR BREATH

By | March 28, 2012 | archive, textbook

Quick! Take a breath and try to hold it.  If you reach 11 minutes and 35 seconds, congratulations! You are now tied for the world record. For most of us the ability to hold our breath lasts 30 seconds, maybe even 1 or 2 minutes. Much longer than that and the sensation that your lungs are bursting becomes too painful to endure.

Breathing of course is a reflex action; we do it more than 19,000 times a day automatically and without thinking. And while we can intentionally control the pace, rhythm and depth of our breath, the overall voluntary ability to override our own respiration is very limited. The air we inhale at sea level is 21 percent oxygen (02), 78 percent nitrogen (N) and .04 percent carbon dioxide (CO2). Technically, breathing and its purpose is the exchange of two of those gases, oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Our inhalations bring oxygen into the lungs, which gets absorbed into the blood and carried throughout the body. The oxygen is used or made into the energy we need to break down food, maintain bodily functions and do all physical activity. What then remains becomes carbon dioxide or CO2, a waste product. This residual CO2 is carried back into your lungs by your circulating blood and released when you exhale. This process of course will continue for as long as you keep breathing but when you hold your breath, the carbon dioxide accumulates inside you with nowhere to go.

When I was 22 years old I got caught in a riptide. I can vaguely remember spinning around in a salty washing machine of surf but vividly remember my feelings of panic, the dark cold of the water, and the claustrophobic tightening in my lungs. Over and again I slipped beneath the water holding my breath, surfacing momentarily to gasp. What I was afraid of was not getting more air but what I needed, at least initially, was to exhale excess carbon dioxide.

When you hold your breath the ongoing accumulation of carbon dioxide in your cells, in your blood and lungs will eventually irritate and trigger impulses from the respiratory center part of your brain. Rising levels of carbon dioxide signal the body to breathe and ensure our unconscious and autonomous respiration. The body has the ability to detect these C02 levels with great accuracy and relies on them to regulate our respiration, so that we don’t have to.

Beyond the burning in your lungs, the signals your body gets from your brain when your C02 levels are too high, include strong, painful, and involuntary contractions or spasms of the diaphragm and the muscles in between your ribs.  At some point the spasms become so frequent and unbearable that you can no longer hold your breath.

In an April 2008 episode of the “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” magician David Blaine attempted to break the Guinness Book of World Records for breath holding subsequent to inhaling pure oxygen. After inhaling pure oxygen for more than 20 minutes he submerged himself inside a bulbous tank, resembling a life-size snow globe filled with 1,800 gallons of water. He was able to hold his breath for seventeen minutes and 4 seconds and successfully broke the prior record by 32 seconds. “I thought I wasn’t going to make it” he said right afterwards.  “At minute 12, I felt the pain coming, and by minute 14 it was overwhelming. This was a whole other level of pain. I still feel as if somebody hit me in the stomach with the hardest punch they could.”

The point of which the amount of CO2 that has accumulated in the body causes you pain is sometimes called the critical line and that line is different in all of us. The line however can be pushed back. Hyperventilation where you breathe in and out abnormally fast, can artificially rid the body of carbon dioxide and delay the critical line. While this may appear to be a good idea if you want to hold your breath longer it can also be dangerous. Some divers who on a single breath, and without any breathing apparatus go to depths from 30 to more than 200 feet, have been known to use hyperventilation to delay the urge to breathe which allows them to stay underwater for longer periods of time.

Without a strong bodily sensation to breathe- without the lungs feeling like they will burst or the diaphragm spasming, a diver may stay under too long and then have to make it back to the surface without sufficient air. As one diver explains it, when you hyperventilate, “You override your brain’s message telling you when to breathe. You’re running on your reserve tank and there’s no warning before you hit empty.”  Empty of course means out of air and as a result of their body and brain being starved of oxygen, these divers sometimes lose consciousness.  Called a shallow water blackout, losing consciousness can happen underwater but due to changes in pressure almost always occurs right as a diver reaches the surface. If they don’t immediately regain consciousness and aren’t rescued, they will inhale and then drown. Many of these divers are incorrectly assumed to have died at depth, but most often after inhaling water at or near the surface, they drift slowly down and are found not floating, but at the bottom.

I often remind myself to take long and deep breaths, and obsess at times about getting cleaner, fresher air or just enough of it.  It’s important however to remember that our inhalations of oxygen are only as good as our exhalations of carbon dioxide. A teacher of breathing Carla Melucci Ardito said “Learn how to exhale and the inhale will take care of itself.” Fran Lebowitz the famous, Jewish American commentator once said, “The opposite of talking isn’t listening, it’s waiting.” As it turns out the opposite of holding your breath isn’t inhaling, it’s letting go.

About Aizita Magaña

Aizita Magaña is currently writing a book titled 'Just Breathe’ – a history of cultural and scientific interpretations of breathing. Aizita lives and breathes in Los Angeles, California. You can follow her on Twitter @Bbirdsfly.