The Feeling You Can’t Get a Satisfying Breath (and What to Do About It)

The feeling you can’t get a satisfying breath is really unpleasant. It can haunt you all day, causing anxiety, a feeling of unwellness, and the sense that you’re not quite in control.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to relieve this feeling. We’ll go through these things step by step, and by the end of this article, you’ll have practical ways to breathe freely and feel better.

This article will cover:

The first key to good breathing is understanding. You need to know what causes the feeling you can’t get a satisfying breath. It starts with this knowledge: there are two modes of breathing.

Breathing Patterns & the Two Modes of Breathing

Mode #1: Diaphragm Breathing
With the first mode of breathing, you always get a satisfying breath. This is when you use your diaphragm. When you allow your diaphragm to pull down it will effortlessly draw air into your lungs, and fill your lungs with fresh new air. As you breathe out, the diaphragm pushes out all the used, stale air.

Diaphragm breathing
How the Diaphragm Functions

This is very efficient, you feel relaxed and always have the feeling of moving enough air.

This mode of breathing is our natural birthright. All babies, toddlers, and children up to maybe five or six breathe this way. Watch any toddler asleep, and you’ll see their belly rise and fall as they breathe – a sure sign they’re using their diaphragm.

Baby sleeping
Relaxed Breathing

Mode #2: Stress Breathing
The second mode of breathing is the stress mode of breathing. This occurs when you are under stress. Way back in time, this mode of breathing was very useful if you were being chased by a big angry animal that wanted to eat you.

Under those circumstances, as you were running away, hugely stressed, you turn on this second mode of breathing. With this mode, your diaphragm is switched off, and instead you use a series of muscles in your neck and chest wall called the ancillary muscles of respiration.

In this mode, your breathing is a gasping type of breathing. It’s not efficient or relaxed. You’re doing a lot more work to shift air because the chest wall itself has to be expanded and the chest wall has an intrinsic elasticity quality.

Your muscles work incredibly hard to pull the chest wall up and open to suck some air in. Then as you breathe out the chest wall collapses back and you’ve got to do it all again for the next breath.

This use of accessory muscles is useful to give you that little bit of extra air to escape in an emergency. It’s not meant to be used for anything else.

But many people living with daily stress start to unconsciously employ this mode of breathing.

When you are living with stress, your brain can’t tell the difference between external threats and internal ones. You may be sitting at your desk at work, or stuck in traffic, and when your brain feels endangered it will turn on stress breathing to help you escape the perceived threat.

In this situation, you’re not needing the energy to run very fast. This breathing mode is completely inappropriate to your state, and it will cause a lot of physical problems, and make you feel a lot worse.

The Ancillary Muscles of Respiration

When you’re doing stress breathing, you turn on a set of small muscles around your neck. These are the ancillary muscles of respiration. The main muscles that make up this group are: pectoralis minor, the scalenes, and sternocleidomastoid.

Using these muscles to breathe takes up a lot of energy, and is inefficient. It also creates tension in your neck and chest. If you use these muscles a lot to breathe, you can exhaust them, leading to muscle tension, trigger points, neck and chest pain.

When the scalenes and pectoralis minor muscles are very tight, this can cause thoracic outlet syndrome, which leads to pain down your arms and into your fingers. Sternocleidomastoid trigger points can cause head, face and mouth pain.

More importantly, though, stress breathing creates a subtle change in the carbon dioxide levels in your blood. This has a huge knock-on effect where you feel more air hunger. It can make also make you feel shaky, light-headed, anxious, out-of-control, and unwell. So it’s a serious thing, and many people with daily stress are unaware they slip in and out of stress breathing throughout the day.

Over-Breathing and Your Acid-Blood Balance

In stress mode, your rate of breathing is higher, but you’re moving air inefficiently by taking lots of small shallow breaths. This changes the carbon dioxide levels in your body.

As your carbon dioxide level drops, the acid-balance changes in your blood, and your calcium levels change. This can make you feel spaced out, shaky, and incredibly unwell.

When this change happens, most people get an incredibly strong sensation they can’t get enough air. They breathe more because of this air hunger, and further drop CO2 levels. This becomes a cycle that feeds on itself.

If this situation gets out of control, then you get into a panic attack, or extreme hyperventilation. You keep breathing faster, using your accessory muscles more, while your carbon dioxide drops and drops. The acid-base balance causes you to feel dizzy and panicked. Changes in calcium levels can also cause muscle spasms.

You may feel tingly round your mouth and hands. In a serious panic attack, you may feel like you’re going to die. (Although this isn’t true. It just feels that way.)

One traditional treatment for this type of panic attack is to get a paper bag and breathe into it. This works because you’re rebreathing air with a lower level of oxygen in it. Over a minute or so, the carbon dioxide level in your blood increases and you start to feel better.

Now, this is an extreme example. Most people stress breathing don’t take it that far. What they experience instead is the nagging feeling they can’t get a satisfying breath, and a vague feeling of anxious unwellness, a tension and lack of ease.

The important thing to remember is that what you instinctively feel like doing, (taking more deep breaths) will make the situation worse.

The feeling of air hunger is not needing oxygen. You actually need carbon dioxide, which is a strange thing because that’s a waste product.

You Can’t Get a Satisfying Breath … So You End Up Taking Deep Breaths Every Few Minutes

When you’re in the stress breathing pattern, you start sigh or yawn every few minutes. This is your body trying to adjust to the imbalance caused by over-breathing.

When you find you’re taking deep breaths every so often, this is a sign you need to adjust your breathing mode.

Once you understand what’s happening, this can be a very useful sign you’re not breathing efficiently.

Changing Your Breathing Mode

The way to change breathing modes is simple. First, you need to recognize when you’re in stress breathing mode. Secondly, you need to learn how to engage and breathe using your diaphragm.

Once you get the hang of it, you can change from one mode to the other between one breath and the next.

The first step to changing breathing patterns is to consciously relax. Stress breathing is almost always done through your mouth, so start breathing through your nose.

Place one hand on your stomach. Take a slow breath in, and see if you can make the hand on your stomach move outwards. This is a good sign you’re using your diaphragm to breathe – not your ancillary muscles.

Breathing patterns

Let out a slow breath, and feel the hand on your belly moving inwards. It’s usually easier to try this for the first few times while you’re lying down on your back.

As you get better at this, you should be able to switch into diaphragm breathing mode at will. Make a habit of checking your breathing during times that are habitually stressful for you.

Place reminders in your car, workplace, home office – wherever you may get stressed. When you see the reminder, start to practice diaphragm breathing.

Over time, as diaphragm breathing becomes your natural mode again, the feeling you can’t take a satisfying breath should disappear.

If you want to find out whether you’re stress breathing as an unconscious habit, here’s where to take a breathing quiz and find out more: