Forgetting To Breathe: What Can Cause It?

Forgetting to breathe is, without a doubt, one of the weirdest and surprising things that can happen to you. This is because breathing is automatic and seamless for most healthy people. This means that not a lot of thought or conscious effort is put into it.

Forgetting to breathe, while seemingly ludicrous, is something that actually happens. In this article, we will be discussing how and why this happens.

Normal Breathing

normal breathing

Breathing is one of the processes controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Like the name suggests, the autonomic nervous system deals with the automatic actions in the body that do not require your conscious effort to pull off – like your heartbeat or digestion.

A person’s respiratory rate is the number of breaths they take per minute. In adults, this is usually between 12 and 20. This is higher for children depending on their age. For example, babies may breathe up to 50 times per minute!

What Causes A Person To Forget To Breathe?

The cessation of breathing lasting for 15 to 30 seconds is called apnea. This may occur after the speeding up or slowing down of breathing. It usually restarts without the need for external help or medical intervention but may lead to several complications.


1. Central Sleep Apnea


This is a phenomenon that occurs during sleep. It is a disorder characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep which may happen several times throughout the course of the sleep period. It occurs due to the loss of breathing signals from the brain to the respiratory muscles.

This means that the brain literally forgets to tell the muscles of breathing- the chest muscles and the diaphragm to work!

Central sleep apnea is caused by several factors, mainly conditions that affect the coordination of the activities of the brain stem (the part of the brain connecting the rest of the brain to the spinal cord), the spinal cord itself, and the heart. These conditions include the following: encephalitis, stroke, heart failure, spinal surgery or disease, and Parkinson disease.

The symptoms seen in central sleep apnea are usually associated with the cause of the apnea. For example, if central sleep apnea is caused by Parkinson’s disease, a person may have difficulty in swallowing food too. Commonly, people with central sleep apnea often have shallow breathing spells before slipping into breathing cessation.

Shallow breathing ensures that the person only takes in sips of air, effectively increasing the carbon dioxide levels in your body due to inefficient breathing. They are then roused from sleep due to the lack of oxygen during the night. This may happen several times during the period of sleep.

When a doctor is seen, he or she will ask questions about sleep. The person will then be examined. A diagnosis of central sleep apnea is made after a Polysomnography test is done. It is a sleep study used to diagnose sleep apnea.

Treatment is tailored to the specific cause of central sleep apnea. Medications for heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, and other diseases are prescribed to curtail the incidence of central sleep apnea. Sometimes, oxygen supplementation using different oxygen delivery systems (e.g. CPAP) is embarked on to provide a continuous supply of oxygen during your sleep.

Untreated and prolonged central sleep apnea may cause complications in virtually every system of the body. These complications, such as hypertension, increased stress levels, low back pain, chronic fatigue, and a weakened immune system, set in at varying periods.

2. Drugs


Some medications are powerful enough to reduce the signals coming out of the respiratory center. Medications such as opioid drugs (like cocaine, morphine, and oxycodone) cause irregular breathing and sometimes, apnea. Anesthetic agents are also guilty of causing breathing problems, such as slowing down the respiratory rate and apnea.

A healthcare professional should be consulted to review medications and make necessary adjustments.


3. Anxiety


One of the processes affected during an anxiety attack is breathing. This seemingly basic process becomes tedious as the person struggles and literally forgets how to breathe during an attack. They begin to hyperventilate, then regress to shallow breathing which may leave them feeling dizzy due to the inefficient oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange.

This leads to a variety of systemic problems including respiratory distress, chest pain, weakness, tingling as well as a rapid heartbeat.

Anxiety is difficult to deal with alone but it is very responsive to treatment. Breathing difficulties during panic attacks can be handled by breathing exercises and conscious breathing.

4. Central Hypoventilation Syndrome

central system

More correctly referred to as Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome, this is a rare life-long and life-threatening condition that affects the central and autonomic nervous system. Many of the body’s processes are defective, including breathing. This results in the stoppage of respiration at night causing the build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood.

It is a very rare disease caused by a genetic mutation which affects the development of some parts of the brain. It may also occur in an erstwhile normal adult brain following trauma to the brain following automobile accidents or as a complication of brain surgery.

Diagnosis is made with polysomnography and it is usually fatal if left untreated.  Treatment is often via oxygen therapy and medicines, as well as tracheostomy and mechanical ventilation. Central Hypoventilation Syndrome is also known as Ondine’s Curse or HADDAD syndrome.


To summarize, apnea or forgetting to breathe is a real phenomenon. It may be caused by varying factors such as anxiety, central sleep apnea and the usage of drugs. It is often resolved by the body in a matter of seconds or minutes but persistent apnea requires respiratory support and specialist care to avoid causing complications which vary from some level of discomfort to being life-threatening.

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Zubair Abdulahi, MBBS

Dr. Zubair Abdulahi is a licensed medical practitioner with a degree in medicine and surgery who is interested in using new media to influence health decisions by providing information on health queries. He has written for top publications in Nigeria like the Guardian. When he's not working as a doctor, he enjoys the game of football as well as sight-seeing and listening to classical music.
Zubair Abdulahi, MBBS