Why Do We Hold Our Breath When Someone Else Does?

You’re watching the latest horror film and see the main character holding their breath as they’re creeping through the crumbling house. Next thing you realize, you’re holding your breath too, despite being in no immediate danger (unlike our main character here, who is about to find the homeowner’s proverbial skeletons in the actual closet). 

Simply put, you’re mirroring the character in a phenomenon commonly called “reflexive apnea.”  In other words, we feel the character’s emotions in this example due to our natural empathy. 

Humans are, by our very nature, social creatures. One of our greatest strengths is our ability to recognize and relate to others’ emotions and behaviors. We can see our peers reacting to something, such as holding their breath, so we reflexively do too. We do this to let them know that we know what they’re going through, and we don’t even have to do this consciously!

What Causes Reflexive Apnea and Why Does It Affect Breathing? 

To further understand reflexive apnea, let’s talk about how breathing works. The process of breathing is controlled by the respiratory center in our brainstem. Here, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in our bodies are monitored and adjusted accordingly to maintain a healthy balance. When we see someone holding their breath, the carbon dioxide levels in their body begin to rise, leading to an increase in their breathing rate when they start breathing again in order to fix this imbalance.

Fact: The urge to breathe is not solely determined by the level of oxygen in our body but also by the level of carbon dioxide. Did you know that some people who practice breathing exercises intentionally increase their carbon dioxide levels to enhance overall respiratory function? 

All this being said, our breathing patterns can also be influenced by external factors, such as observing others holding their breath with reflexive apnea.

Reflexive Apnea

Let’s get a little more technical: Mirror neurons in our brain play a significant role in reflexive apnea. These specialized cells respond when we observe someone behaving a certain way, allowing us to understand and imitate them. So when we see someone holding their breath, these mirror neurons fire in response, causing us to involuntarily hold our breath. This also works with behaviors such as laughing, crying, or yawning (you might have heard of this one before!). 

Fun fact: It’s also been observed in non-human animals such as macaques.

Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion may also cause reflexive apnea. Emotional contagion is a phenomenon in which emotions are spread from one person to another. When we see someone feeling anxious or scared, we might feel those same emotions, leading to an increase in our breathing rate and potentially causing us to hold our breath as well. 

The Power of Social Influence

Our social environment also affects our behavior and emotions. Studies have shown that we’re more likely to copy the behavior of people we perceive to be similar to ourselves or people in the same social group. For example, if you’re watching a horror movie with a group of friends, you might hold your breath when they do because you feel a sense of social connectedness with them. 

Fact: Social influence can also be a powerful tool for promoting positive behaviors, such as healthy habits or environmental conservation.

Conclusion: So Why Do We Hold Our Breath When Others Do? 

Although reflexive apnea may be a natural response, we can control it through conscious effort. If we recognize that we’re holding our breath with someone else, we can choose to take a deep breath and override this reflex in order to breathe normally again. Many people pay attention to their own breathing in mindfulness practices, and it can also help reduce stress and anxiety.

In conclusion, holding our breath when we see someone else holding theirs is a fascinating example of how our brains and bodies naturally react to social cues. The phenomenon of reflexive apnea is driven by mirror neurons (special brain cells telling us to do it), emotional contagion (feeling the emotions of people we see), or social influence (natural instinct to get along with people around us). By understanding how reflexive apnea works, we can better understand the relationship between our bodies, our minds, and the social world around us.

Written by Chelsey L. Crawford

Chelsey is a lifelong writer and creative adventurer, forever on a mission to learn something new about herself or the world. She lives in Kansas City with her dog and plenty of awkward vibes. Her favorite food is definitely not pears. It might be cheese.
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