Improper Breathing and Its Negative Effects on Your Health


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Breathing is something we all do without thinking about it. We have to in order to survive. But how do we know if we are breathing correctly, and what happens if we are breathing incorrectly? Is there even a “right” way to breathe?

There are, in fact, correct and incorrect ways to breathe. And, though you may not realize it, the way you breathe can be a game-changer for your health.

Many people fall victim to shallow breathing and develop an improper breathing pattern known as paradoxical breathing.2 Paradoxical breathing occurs when the “abdomen draws in during inhalation and out on exhalation,” and is considered the most severe breathing pattern disorder (BPD).2 Those who practice the opposite, diaphragmatic breathing, are able to enjoy full, deep breaths that do wonders for their health. Failure to breathe properly not only leads to noticeable symptoms in the chest, heart, and lungs but also sends signals to the brain that can trigger a host of other negative physiological responses.1

Here we will go more in depth on the correct and incorrect ways to breathe, the symptoms of improper breathing, and how improper breathing can impact your health. We will also go over two common causes of paradoxical breathing—anxiety and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—and discuss ways you can combat those triggers and improve breathing.

Correct and Incorrect Ways to Breathe

It’s strange to think that there are right and wrong ways for your body to carry out a subconscious process. But it is common for people to develop improper breathing tendencies that can be improved through breathing exercises and conscious effort to change. Here are the correct and incorrect ways to breathe:

The Right Way to Breathe

The keys to proper breathing are to breathe through your nose and use your diaphragm. 

Breathing through your nose slows the breath down and helps the lungs function efficiently. Additionally, it increases the intake of nitric oxide, which helps transport oxygen throughout the body. Further, nose breathing helps regulate the air entering your lungs by filtering toxins and allergens and regulating temperature and humidity.

Using your diaphragm when you breathe ensures that your breaths are full and deep. The diaphragm is a muscle in your abdomen between your rib cage and your belly button. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “belly” breathing, occurs when you engage the abdominal muscles and diaphragm when you inhale, which helps pull the air deeper into your lungs. There are a variety of exercises available to help you learn to breathe with your diaphragm. In general, you know you are engaging your diaphragm when you see and feel your belly rise and fall with each breath.

The Wrong Way to Breathe

In contrast to diaphragmatic breathing, improper breathing, or paradoxical breathing occurs when the diaphragm moves the opposite way it is supposed to with each breath. Rather than the diaphragm being pulled down and the chest expanding on the inhale, the chest contracts, and the diaphragm rises. This shallow way of breathing can worsen lung problems and potentially lead to other negative health effects.

Symptoms of Improper Breathing

So, how do you know if you are breathing improperly? And what potential negative effects can improper breathing lead to?

The following are common symptoms of paradoxical breathing:

  • Trouble catching one’s breath
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Pain in the neck and shoulders
  • Pain or weakness in the chest
  • Labored breathing
  • Involuntary breathing gasps
  • Taking a sudden deep breath
  • Overall weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Inability to speak

These are some of the short-term symptoms that are clear indicators that breathing is off in some way. Improper breathing is also shown to have negative effects on cognitive functioning and memory as well as stress and cortisol levels, which can be associated with panic attacks and sleep issues. Basically, when you don’t get a full, deep breath, it signals to your brain that you are in danger, triggering the body’s fight-or-flight response. If your body is left in this state for too long, the nervous system and hormone levels can get out of whack, and the array of possible negative health effects is endless.

Improper Breathing and Anxiety

What’s the Connection between Breathing and Anxiety?

With the way improper breathing can activate our body’s fight-or-flight response, it’s no surprise that there is a strong association between breathing and anxiety. The relationship works both ways: Anxiety and stress lead to shallower breathing, and shallow breathing increases stress and anxiety in the body. If you let this pattern continue, you can get trapped in a vicious cycle. Luckily, breathing exercises can reverse this pattern and calm the body and mind.

Does Improper Breathing Cause Heart Palpitations?

Heart palpations—the feeling that your heart is racing, pounding, or skipping a beat—are often associated with shortness of breath. While there is little research measuring the impact improper breathing has on heart palpations, it has been shown that heart palpations are caused by anxiety, fear, and stress, and they often occur during panic attacks. Therefore, proper breathing techniques that reduce stress and anxiety likely lower the risk of heart palpations. 

Paradoxical Breathing and OSA

Could there be a connection between paradoxical breathing and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)? OSA is the most common sleep-related breathing disorder in which the airway gets blocked and breathing repeatedly stops and starts throughout the night. OSA can be a cause of paradoxical breathing, as the condition causes shallow breathing and disrupts the flow of air in and out of the lungs.

Other symptoms of OSA can include the following:

  • Snoring
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Waking up suddenly during the night, sometimes gasping or choking
  • Dry mouth or sore throat
  • Morning headache
  • Difficulty concentrating during the day
  • Mood changes, such as depression or irritability
  • High blood pressure
  • Decreased libido3

If you are concerned that you might experience OSA and that this could be affecting your breathing, don’t wait to get it checked out. Learn more about OSA and how to get treated here.

You don’t have to continue to suffer from paradoxical or improper breathing. Begin today to implement proper breathing techniques, and you can avoid the negative effects that often accompany improper breathing. This might be a game-changer for your overall health.

1. Bradley, H., & Esformes, J. (2014). Breathing pattern disorders and functional movement. International journal of sports physical therapy, 9(1), 28–39.
2. Chapman, E. B., Hansen-Honeycutt, J., Nasypany, A., Baker, R. T., & May, J. (2016). A CLINICAL GUIDE TO THE ASSESSMENT AND TREATMENT OF BREATHING PATTERN DISORDERS IN THE PHYSICALLY ACTIVE: PART 1. International journal of sports physical therapy, 11(5), 803–809.
3. Strohl, K. P. (n.d.). Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Retrieved June 2, 2022, from Merck Manuals Professional Edition website: https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/pulmonary-disorders/sleep-apnea/obstructive-sleep-apnea
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