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How shallow breathing affects your whole body

by Rachael Rifkin

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If you want to observe incredible breathing, watch a newborn. They naturally practice deep, or diaphragmatic, breathing by using the diaphragm, a muscle under the lungs, to pull air into the lungs. Visually, you’ll see the belly expand and chest rise as they inhale air through the nose and into the lungs. As they exhale, the belly contracts.

For many people, this kind of breathing is no longer instinctive. Instead, many of us have become shallow chest, or thoracic, breathers—inhaling through our mouth, holding our breath and taking in less air. Over time our breathing patterns have shifted as a reaction to environmental stressors, like temperature, pollution, noise, and other causes of anxiety. Cultural expectations, including the desire to have a flat stomach, encourage holding our breath and sucking in our stomachs, further tightening our muscles.

When we breathe in a shallow way, the body remains in a cyclical state of stress—our stress causing shallow breathing and our shallow breathing causing stress. This sets off the sympathetic nervous system, the branch of the autonomic nervous system that primes us for activity and response.

“Shallow breathing doesn’t just make stress a response, it makes stress a habit our bodies, and therefore, our minds, are locked into,” says John Luckovich, an apprentice Integrative Breathwork facilitator in Brooklyn, New York.

Long-term shallow breathing can seriously affect our health. According to Luckovich, the chronic stress that is associated with shallow breathing results in lower amounts of lymphocyte, a protein that is critical to signaling other immune cells. The body is then susceptible to contracting acute illnesses, aggravating pre-existing medical conditions, and prolonging healing times. Shallow breathing can turn into panic attacks, cause dry mouth and fatigue, aggravate respiratory problems, and is a precursor for cardiovascular issues.

This breathing pattern also creates tension in other parts of the body and can lead to a lot of everyday problems. When we breathe with our chests, we use the muscles in our shoulders, necks, and chests to expand our lungs, which can result in neck pain, headaches, and an increased risk of injury. Our shoulders slump forward and our posture changes as well.

Diaphragmatic breathing, on the other hand, can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate, relax muscles, decrease stress, and increase energy levels. Deep breathing grounds us as well.

“It can help intense sensations, experiences, and emotions feel less threatening. Deep breathing brings awareness which can help us to breathe mindfully, noticing that life is a thread of moments, woven together that come and go,” said Juli Fraga, a clinical psychologist with training in mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindful parenting. 

As if that wasn’t enough to get you to change your shallow breathing habits, a recent study has shown a direct link between nasal breathing and cognitive function. In a series of experiments, people were proven more likely to remember an object and more quickly able to identify a fearful face when inhaling versus exhaling through the nose. The enhanced memory recall and emotional judgment disappeared when breathing was done through the mouth.

To practice breathing from your diaphragm, lie on your back with one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. Breathe in deeply while pushing out your stomach as far as you can. The hand on your stomach will move out and the hand on your chest will remain still. When you exhale, you will feel your stomach pulling back in. Both your chest and shoulders should stay relaxed and still.

The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.


Artwork by CHRIS MARTZ

Rachael Rifkin

Rachael Rifkin's writing has appeared in Narratively, The Development Set, GOOD, and elsewhere. Rifkin is a ghostwriter, personal historian, and freelance writer who once posed as eight of her ancestors.

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