Understanding and Correcting Dysfunctional Breathing to Support Healthy Physiology

Jun 10, 2024

By Christine Saari, MA, C-IAYT

Breathing is a fundamental aspect of life, yet many of us take it for granted. It’s an automatic process and something we do without thinking. However, the way we breathe can have significant effects on our physical, mental, and emotional health. This article explores how our experiences and survival instincts shape our breathing patterns over time, the concept of breath dysfunction, and the transformative potential of breathwork. By understanding and correcting maladaptive breathing patterns, we can free ourselves of unwanted stress symptoms and empower ourselves to feel better through this essential aspect of self-care.

Understanding Dysfunctional Breathing

Breath dysfunction refers to irregular, inefficient, or maladaptive breathing patterns that impair overall health. It’s not merely about feeling out of breath; it’s about how improper breathing can affect every aspect of your well-being. When our breathing patterns are disrupted, it sets off a chain reaction that influences our physical, mental, and emotional states.

What Does Dysfunctional Breathing Look Like?

Recognizing breath dysfunction is the first step towards addressing it. Common signs include the overuse of upper respiratory muscles and holding the belly in, chronic tension throughout the body, and specific breathing patterns such as reverse breathing (paradoxical breathing), hyperventilation, frozen breathing or breath holding, mouth breathing, and chest breathing.

Breath-holding patterns, in particular, can lead to muscular tension, an inability to relax, and impaired mental functioning. These patterns are often linked to anxiety, panic attacks, trauma, or other mental health issues. Understanding and addressing these patterns is crucial for improving overall health and well-being.

Causes of Dysfunctional Breathing

Ever wonder why we sometimes struggle with our breath? It might be because we’ve spent years sucking in our stomachs to look slimmer. Or maybe it’s our body’s response to the stress of a rough childhood. It could also be due to a traumatic experience, like a car accident that can cause PTSD. Sometimes, it’s even the fear of unwanted attention or feeling unsafe in our own skin. For some people, chronic stress can also result from living in fear due to their race, gender identity, or sexual preference. This constant state of vigilance can profoundly affect their breathing patterns over time. Breath dysfunction can arise from a variety of stressors, both external and internal, and these stressors take a toll on our bodies.

Our breath is more than just a physical act; it’s a part of our body’s natural defense mechanism, always on standby to react to danger. When we’re constantly or traumatically exposed to stress, our nervous system can get stuck in a state of hypervigilance, known as sympathetic nervous system dominance, or the “fight or flight” mode. Over time, this chronic stress can lead to lasting changes in our breathing patterns, resulting in dysfunctional breathing.

Breath dysfunction isn’t just about stress; it can stem from various physical and psychological factors. On the physical side, conditions like asthma, COPD, sleep apnea, and obesity can affect our breathing. Poor posture, a sedentary lifestyle, and even certain medications play a role too.

Psychologically, anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD, and chronic stress are major contributors. Emotional trauma, phobias, OCD, and Functional Neurological Disorder (FND) also impact how we breathe. When our mental health is strained, our breathing often reflects that turmoil, creating a cycle that’s hard to break.

The Importance of Correcting Dysfunctional Breathing

Why should we care about fixing dysfunctional breathing? Proper breathing is vital for our overall health. It can significantly improve mental health, complementing other treatments we might be undergoing. Correcting our breathing patterns can also alleviate many physical and mental symptoms such as pain, headaches, tingling, panic attacks, dizziness, nervous stomach, constipation, or IBS, offering a simple yet powerful tool for wellness. Read more about how breathwork can help with panic attacks here.

Proper breathwork can regulate the nervous system, improve mood, and signal safety to our bodies. As interest in breathwork grows, so does the need for skills to address breath dysfunction. Research, like the 2023 study by Balban, shows that structured breathing practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal, highlighting the benefits of proper breath regulation.

By retraining our breathing patterns, we support the autonomic nervous system, helping our bodies maintain balance. Learning to control our breath gives us a sense of control over our health, leading to both immediate and long-term benefits.

In short, understanding and addressing breath dysfunction is essential. It’s not just about breathing better; it’s about living better. By taking steps to improve our breathing, we can enhance our physical health, mental well-being, and overall quality of life.

The Science of Breathing: How It Affects Your Body

Breathing might seem simple, but it’s actually a complex process involving several muscles working together. Your diaphragm is the main muscle responsible for helping you inhale, while exhaling usually happens naturally when these muscles relax. When you need to actively exhale, your abdominal muscles step in. There are also accessory muscles, like those in your ribs and neck, that assist during inhalation, and muscles in your pelvic floor and ribs help out during active exhalation.

Diaphragmatic Breathing: The Key to Healthy Respiration

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, relies on the diaphragm as the primary muscle for inhalation. When you practice this type of breathing, your belly should move freely, allowing your lungs to fully expand and efficiently oxygenate your body. This promotes homeostasis, meaning it helps maintain a stable internal environment even when external conditions change, which is crucial for effectively responding to stress.

Benefits of Diaphragmatic Breathing

Engaging in diaphragmatic breathing does more than just improve oxygen intake. It also massages your abdominal organs, such as the liver, stomach, and intestines, which aids in digestion and circulation. A slower, deeper breathing pattern at rest encourages both physical and mental relaxation. This reduces the overuse of upper respiratory muscles like those in your neck and shoulders, preventing fatigue and discomfort.

Dysfunctional Breathing Changes How Your Body Functions

When your diaphragm isn’t working efficiently, your upper respiratory muscles, including those in your neck and shoulders, have to compensate. This can lead to fatigue and tension in these accessory muscles, especially the upper trapezius. It also results in shallow, rapid breaths that reduce lung capacity and can cause hyperventilation, often linked to panic attacks.

Breath dysfunction can also affect your gastrointestinal and systemic health. Without adequate organ massage and proper movement and circulation, you might experience issues like bloating, nervous stomach, indigestion, constipation, and IBS. Over time, these problems can decrease your overall organ health.

Connecting Breath to Overall Well-being

Understanding how your breathing works and practicing diaphragmatic breathing can have profound effects on your overall health. By focusing on healthy breathing patterns, you can improve your physical comfort, reduce stress, and enhance your body’s ability to function efficiently. This knowledge empowers you to take control of your health through something as simple and natural as breathing.

Breathwork: The Path to Healing and Empowerment

In the field of yoga therapy, correcting breath dysfunction is key to establishing beneficial neuromuscular, physiological, and neurological patterns. The natural breath in yoga is diaphragmatic, unrestricted, and relaxed, with natural pauses between breaths. This type of breathing supports overall well-being and is considered a reflection of the body’s allostasis, known as the “life force” or “prana” in yoga. Allostasis refers to the process by which the body achieves stability through physiological change, adapting to stress and maintaining balance.

Breathwork: Energizing or Relaxing the Nervous System

Breathwork can be a powerful tool to directly impact your body’s nervous system. By intentionally controlling your breathing, you can either energize or relax your nervous system based on what you need. Natural breath, which involves simply paying attention to your free, uncontrolled breathing, can be incredibly soothing. It helps cultivate a sense of “letting go,” countering the constant need for control and prediction that often accompanies an overly sensitive fight-or-flight response associated with breath dysfunction. Through meditative awareness, natural breath allows your nervous system to find balance and calm.

Navigating Sensitivities in Breathwork

For some people, breathwork can be a sensitive activity that triggers adverse reactions, feels confusing, or causes discomfort. This is a completely normal reaction, especially if your nervous system is highly tuned and oversensitized to dangers or fears. When you think about it, paying attention to your breath brings awareness to the most vulnerable parts of your body. It’s no surprise that breathwork can feel threatening if you’re disconnected from your body or don’t trust it after trauma or distressing experiences.

The Role of Yoga Therapists

Yoga therapists are skilled at working with these circumstances to help correct breath dysfunction. They use alternative methods like relaxation techniques and body scans of safer areas of the body to work with the nervous system and related breathing in a more indirect way. This approach allows for a gentle reconnection with your breath and body, promoting healing and empowerment in a safe, supportive manner.

By understanding and practicing proper breathwork, you can harness the power of your breath to improve your physical health, mental well-being, and overall quality of life. Whether you’re looking to energize or relax, breathwork offers a path to greater harmony and balance.

Choosing the Right Breathwork

Beware of trendy breathwork techniques, especially if you struggle with breathing into your belly. Breathing exercises that focus on chest breathing can actually reinforce maladaptive patterns, having the opposite effect of what we’re aiming for. Trends like 4-7-8 breathing or box breathing, which emphasize breath holding, can be problematic for people with anxiety. There are better approaches available that can be more effective and safer.

The Benefits of Working with a Yoga Therapist

Working with a yoga therapist can be a valuable investment in your health. The process is individualized, offering personalized help to learn to breathe properly. You’ll gain the knowledge to work with your own breathing over time and receive audio recordings that you can use forever. The education is lasting, allowing you to practice on your own without needing ongoing classes, and it’s free of unwanted side effects or extra costs.

Why Breathwork Matters

Breathwork is more than just a technique; it’s a path to healing and empowerment. Proper breathwork can regulate the nervous system, improve mood, and signal safety to our bodies. It’s a powerful tool for mental clarity, stress reduction, and overall well-being. By investing in proper breathwork techniques, we can enhance our physical health, mental well-being, and quality of life.

Self-Assessment Tools for Dysfunctional Breathing

Wondering if you might have dysfunctional breathing patterns? One helpful tool is the Nijmegen Questionnaire. This questionnaire is an open-source tool that can indicate whether you have symptoms that could benefit from gentle, progressive breathwork. Remember, it’s important to consult a medical professional about your symptoms before starting any breathwork regimen.

Understanding the Nijmegen Questionnaire

The Nijmegen Questionnaire isn’t diagnostic but can guide your next steps. It reflects the subjective aspect of dysfunctional breathing, assessing factors like stress, respiration, and anxiety. High scores on the questionnaire correlate with poor asthma control and breathing pattern disorders, but don’t consistently indicate hypocapnia (low carbon dioxide levels in the blood). Instead, it measures “functional respiratory complaints,” linking respiratory issues with stress and anxiety.

Limitations and Best Practices

Breathing is complex, and no single criterion can diagnose dysfunctional breathing. A comprehensive assessment should include:

  • How you breathe (“ventilatory parameters”)
  • Breathing movements
  • How you feel about your breathing (“subjective variables”)

The Nijmegen Questionnaire is a useful tool for quantifying subjective sensations related to breath dysfunction, but it should be part of a broader evaluation done by a yoga therapist or qualified practitioner trained in breath assessment techniques.

Next Steps

If you find your Nijmegen Questionnaire score is elevated, it might be time to explore corrective measures. Gentle, progressive breathwork could be beneficial, but always do so under the guidance of a healthcare professional and breathwork specialist such as a yoga therapist. This approach ensures you address your breath dysfunction safely and effectively.

Working With Your Breath

If you feel ready to start your breathwork journey and want to begin on your own, you could begin by simply noticing your breath. Pay attention to whether you are breathing through your nose or mouth, if your breath is deep or shallow, and if you are holding your breath at any point. Practice diaphragmatic breathing by lying down comfortably and placing one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. As you breathe in, feel your abdomen rise, and as you breathe out, feel it fall. Your chest should remain relatively still. 

Make time for regular breathwork practice. Even a few minutes each day can make a significant difference in retraining your breathing patterns. Consider working with a yoga therapist or a certified breathwork instructor who can guide you through personalized techniques and ensure you are practicing correctly.

By taking control of your breath, you are not just improving your physical health; you are also enhancing your mental and emotional well-being. Breathwork empowers you to manage stress, improve focus, and cultivate a sense of inner peace. It’s a powerful tool that can transform your life, providing both immediate and long-term benefits.

Finally, if you find it uncomfortable to work with your breath, rest assured, you’re not alone; lots of people feel this way, particularly if trauma is a factor. Yoga therapists can provide alternative methods to address breath dysfunction, which you might find more approachable.

Conclusion

Breathing is more than just a physiological process; it is a reflection of our life’s experiences, recorded and stored as patterns in our bodies. By understanding and addressing breath dysfunction, we can unlock a path to better health and well-being. Embrace the power of your breath and move towards a healthier, more balanced life.

This article aims to inspire you to consider breathwork as a vital component of your self-care routine. By paying attention to your breathing patterns, and with short frequent practice sessions you can do anywhere, you can experience noticeable improvements in your overall health and quality of life.

How can you locate a yoga therapist?

Discovering a yoga therapist is simpler than you may imagine. Organizations such as Yoga Therapy Associates or the International Association of Yoga Therapists can aid you in connecting with certified professionals nearby or via telehealth. You’re not alone on this journey, and numerous resources are available to assist you every step of the way. It’s never too late to take control of your health, and finding the appropriate breathing technique to address breath dysfunction is a significant stride forward. So, why hesitate? Find your yoga therapist today and begin reaping the benefits of personalized breathwork.


References

Balban, M. Y., Neri, E., Kogon, M. M., Weed, L., Nouriani, B., Jo, B., Holl, G., Zeitzer, J. M., Spiegel, D., & Huberman, A. D. (2023). Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell Reports Medicine, 4(1), 100895. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.xcrm.2022.100895

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