Signs you’re breathing incorrectly, and how to fix it

By Oliver James,
updated on May 3, 2024

Signs you’re breathing incorrectly, and how to fix it

It should be as easy as, well, breathing – but there’s a technique to getting the most from your breath, and here a body-led psychotherapist breaks down everything you need to know

It is almost certain that you are breathing incorrectly. But don’t worry, all of us are doing it, so there is no need to take it personally! That said, we do need to take it seriously.

Perhaps you have experienced anxiety over the last few months? Maybe your energy levels have been all over the place? Or your sleep has been disturbed? Maybe you thought everything was down to the pandemic? It certainly won’t have helped. But what if the root cause was something much simpler, what if it was because of your breathing?

In truth, poor breathing is a pandemic of its own. The way we breathe is linked to everything from how we think and feel to how we relate to the world, and the health and balance of every system in our body.

Not only is good breathing essential, but it is also easily improved. It is accompanied by dramatically positive results. As a body-led psychotherapist and author of 21 Breaths: Breathing Techniques to Change your Life, here are two tests you can try to see if you’re breathing wrong.

Test 1: Do you breathe from your diaphragm or your chest?

You may have heard of how negative chest breathing is compared to belly breathing, and about the importance of restoring belly (or diaphragmatic) breathing. The diaphragm is the most efficient breathing muscle in the body but poor posture, excessive exercise and stress can lead to chest breathing. This is very energy-intensive and we end up breathing faster than would otherwise be necessary. In fact, even the most dedicated diaphragmatic breathers are often engaging their diaphragms incorrectly! To find out for yourself, take the test:

  • Lying on a firm surface (so, not your bed!) place a hand on your lower belly and another on your chest.
  • Shut your eyes. Spend a few minutes feeling which palm is dominated by your breathing. The pattern you notice will vary in two main ways: Noticeable breathing versus barely noticeable breathing and chest breathing versus belly breathing.

It is difficult to define the best breath, but one that begins deep in the pelvis before rippling upwards to the chest is a good start. Also, the experienced breather should be interested in the difference between a breath that pushes compared to a breath that effortlessly expands, as well as the difference between a breath that breathes not only into the belly but also into the lower back, the waist and everything in between.

Oliver James

Oliver James

Test 2: What’s your breathing rate?

Fact: the average person breathes four times more than they need. This means that, with statistical certainty, you are over-breathing. If you are wondering why this is a problem, it is because over-breathing (as it is known), causes our body to receive less oxygen, not more. This happens because of a chemical reaction that takes place in our blood from exhaling more carbon dioxide than we need to exhale. Not only that; over-breathing produces far more free radicals from wasted, superfluous breathing movements. To work out if you are over-breathing, take the test:

Finding a comfortable position, set a 60-second timer and count the number of breaths you take within the period. Scoring anything over six breaths a minute places you in the “over-breathing camp.”

Here are three breathing techniques you can use to relieve those energy distorting, anxiety-inducing, sleep-depriving breathing habits we have all been (too) patiently putting up with:

The Anxiety Reducer: Geometric BreathingTM

  • Placing palms (or your attention) on your lower belly, breathe in towards this area for five counts
  • Exhale for five counts
  • Inhale for five counts
  • Exhale for six counts
  • Inhale for five counts
  • Exhale for seven counts
  • Repeat this breathing pattern (maintaining inhalation of five counts while lengthening exhalation by one count per breath) until you find a comfortable maximum
  • Maintain this maximum for five minutes

The Energy Super-Charger: Celestial lift

  • First, try taking a deep breath and holding it in. Go to the edge of your air hunger, without causing stress.
  • If this feels ok for you, practice it again but this time, hold on to something firm like a door archway. As you repeat the deep breath-hold, this time, use your secure hand grip to lift your heart, throat and face upwards to the ceiling.
  • Only hold your breath in this extended posture for as long as you can still feel your feet on the floor (as you might faint otherwise). The energising magic happens when you come out of position and return to natural breathing!

The Sleep-Restorer: Rising tide

  • Lying down, take a deep breath in and hold it. Squeeze every muscle in your body, exhaling only when you need to. Repeat three times in total to clear tension held in your body. Once complete, return to relaxed breathing for a minute or so.
  • Next, bring focus to lengthening your breath. Let inhalation begin in your lower belly and watch it expand upwards, through your chest, up to your collar bones.
  • Exhale. Notice how exhaling relaxes your entire body.
  • Can you deepen and lengthen your breath further? As your inhale expands upwards, imagine it ascending up the back of your neck and broadening the soft palate at the back of your throat (similar to how a yawn feels).
  • Use the exhale to release tension.
  • Continue this collarbone lifting, soft palate-broadening breathing for ten cycles, after which you can return to relaxed breathing.
  • Repeat three rounds of ten cycles, interweaving tension-release breath holds in between rounds.
  • Do not worry if you have not fallen asleep after the first three rounds. The technique will have begun working. Allow five minutes relaxed breathing before starting another round. Continue for as long as you need.

21 Breaths: Breathing Techniques to Change your Life by Oliver James is published 30th April by Unify, an imprint of Unicorn Publishing Group, priced £12.50, available from all good bookshops and online. Find out more:

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