First off, if you’re reading this and have the same questions, rest assured that yes, this is super normal. “Generally speaking, it’s more common than we may realize,” says Megwyn White, sexologist, licensed sex coach, and director of education at sexual-wellness product brand Satisfyer.
Now, as to the question of the reason you may be waiting to exhale while in the throes, there could be a lot of reasons for this according to White and the over sexologists I spoke with.
Why do people hold their breath during sex?
There are several reasons for not breathing during sex. One explanation could be if we learned as children that self-pleasure was shameful and something we needed to hide, believes sexologist Devi Ward Erickson, an Authentic Tantra® educator and founder of the Institute of Authentic Tantra Education. “This can manifest later in life as this unconscious habit of holding our breath during sex, and also not making any sounds during sex,” she explains.
Another, according to White, is because the build up to an orgasm is so, well, orgasmic, that you hold your breath to help control the feeling. “It may be a way our body prevents being overwhelmed by the intensity of orgasmic energy, and a kind of ‘anticipatory cap’ on what the body perceives it can hold inside of that moment,” she says, comparing this phenomenon to when you’re at the top of a roller coaster ride, and then screaming when it drops. “This is a way the body releases fear and embraces and heightens sensations of the moment," White adds. "Orgasmic release is somewhat similar, but more nuanced.”
If neither of these two scenarios are the reason you hold your breath during sex, Erickson suggests doing some self-reflection to find your personal source. “What I usually ask my students is ‘when you hold your breath during sex, what else are you holding onto?’ Usually there’s also some level of constriction in the body as well,” she says.
Erickson also notes that this holding pattern is a form of armoring. “Holding your breath during sex can be a subtle indication that your nervous system is reacting to something that it perceives as threatening,” she explains, adding that the perceived threat could be a thought, an emotion, or a sensation, but it’s often some type of resistance to what’s happening in the moment.
What does the breath exactly do for us during sex?
In short: A lot. On a physiological level, Erickson says that mindful breathing relaxes the autonomic nervous system, which largely governs sexual response. “The parasympathetic branch of the ANS is responsible for the engorgement of the genital erectile tissue, which is one of the primary sources of all those delicious sensations we experience during sex," she says. "Breathing during sex quite literally ensures that all of your sexual machinery can operate properly.”
Mindful breathing also helps to bridge the mind-body connection, which can help folks access more pleasure and enhance our overall sexual experience. “Sensual connection [to our breath] invites us to deepen the spaces within ourselves and helps us to be more present inside each moment,” adds White. “When we exhale, especially in a conscious way, our pelvic floor muscles contract slowly to help support the exhalation. These muscles also intersect with our genitals to support arousal build and orgasmic response.”
What to do if you catch yourself not breathing during sex
If you find that you hold your breath during your next solo or partnered sex sesh, White recommends observing any thoughts that pop up within the moment. “For instance, if you find that your mind wanders around the same time as when your breath stops, you may be experiencing something called ‘spectatoring’ [that] will disconnect you from not only your pleasure but from being able to be intimate with your partner,” she says. “Reconnecting with your breath can help you to anchor more into your sensations as well as appreciating the experience within each moment.”
According to Erickson, rewiring this unconscious response lies in recognizing when it’s happening followed by intentionally relaxing and breathing. “Instead of holding and grasping for pleasure, relax, open, and let it arise for you naturally,” she suggests.
While you can try different tips and tricks, White just to be mindful not to overly control your breathing. “It’s important to remember that there’s no right or wrong way of breathing during sex,” she says. “Keep in mind that it’s a relationship and unique to you. Allow your breath to change, but be conscious of it.” Because being more mindful about your breath during sex, whether you hold it or not, is a great first step toward creating new neural pathways and leaning into deeper, more pleasurable future sexual experiences.
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