Why do we learn deregulated breathing behavior? Like other behaviors, based on the same
principles, overbreathing can be quickly, easily, unintentionally, and unconsciously
learned, but can like other habits be challenging to disengage, manage, modify,
or eliminate. Deregulating breathing may
be learned based on some of the following behavioral principles:
Operant (instrumental) conditioning, or learning based on reinforcement, is an underlying biological learning principle for the acquisition of many behaviors. Access to emotions, such as anger, may serve as a defensive reinforcement. “Reaching for air” may be reinforcing, offering resolution to the “survival” metaphor for “drowning.” A sense of “control” may be achieved, through intentional regulation, external manipulation. Intentional use of accessory muscles (falsely) resolves a sense of distrust of the body. “More air” introduces a (false) sense of security. Overbreathing also provides for dissociation, where one can disconnect from a threatening challenge, e.g., a demanding teacher in the school room.
Secondary gain, resulting from unexplained symptoms and deficits, may lead to learning the role of “victim.” The breathing-induced symptoms and deficits become the basis for visiting healthcare practitioners, as well as sympathy, support, and attention from family and friends. This is another example of operant learning.
Classical (Pavlovian) conditioning, also an underlying biological learning principle, may lead to the development of phobias about “getting your breath,” which may develop at an early age, or at any time, as a result of conditions such as asthma. The experience of the physical sensations of breathing itself may, through classical conditioning, trigger emotional responses. And, overbreathing itself may become a classically conditioned response to specific emotional, social, and physical experiences.
Stimulus generalization, basic to biological learning, means that although overbreathing may be learned under one set of circumstances it may “generalize” to similar but different sets of circumstances. This may be true not only perceptually but also metaphorically, where it may become embedded in seemingly unrelated comprehensive patterns of coping behavior.
Vicious circle behavior may develop, where the solution to a problem, becomes the problem. Depleting bicarbonate buffers through chronic overbreathing, in predisposed individuals, may mean that even during aerobic activities there are not adequate buffer reserves to manage lactic acidosis. Thus, even minimal effort, such a walking through a supermarket, may result in lactic acidosis. Overbreathing, a contributing cause to the problem, now also becomes its solution.
Cognitive learning involves misconceptions, misinformation, inaccurate beliefs about biological self, experiential unfamiliarity with breathing, misinterpretation of physical sensations, distrust of the body, defensive thinking, self-talk, and intentional breath manipulation all contribute to setting the stage for learning deregulated breathing behavior.
State dependent learning may be the consequence of overbreathing, where radical shifts in brain chemistry and associated states of consciousness may provide the context for learning new behaviors, as in the case of drug dependence. Alternative cognitive styles, emotional postures, and senses of self may then become dependent upon the state changes brought about by breathing behavior. The consequence may be chronic overbreathing behavior, especially in cases of emotional trauma, where dissociation may provide a gateway for disconnecting from emotional vulnerability and traumatic memory, and then set the stage for learning an alternative personality, one based on defensiveness and safety.
Avoidance learning involves both classical conditioning and operant learning. Fear of “waiting between breaths” (classically conditioned), for example, provides motivation for taking quick breaths (the operant), which is then reinforced with fear reduction. The result, however, is overbreathing, the consequential effects of which may then confirm the false belief that “I can’t get my breath.” The solution, of course, is to reach for yet more air. Vicious circle behavior may be the consequence, e.g., asthma attack. Adverse physical conditions, e.g., injury, in fact, can set the ideal stage for learning to overbreathe.
Behavioral Physiology Institute,