Recognizing Paradoxical Breathing & What to Do Next

The Exhale
February 7, 2022
5 min read

Paradoxical breathing is something of an umbrella term and can be used to describe a variety of different respiratory distresses and can vary from acute to chronic.

However, in simple terms, paradoxical breathing refers to a pattern of breathing that is the opposite of normal. When breathing normally, your diaphragm moves downward, allowing your abdomen to move outward away from the spine.

Conversely, paradoxical breathing occurs when the core retracts inward during exhalation, causing your diaphragm to move upward.

It’s a surprisingly common condition and can be hugely detrimental to long-term health if not dealt with properly. So, in today’s blog, we’ll be exploring the various warning signs, effects, and causes of paradoxical breathing and what you can do to ease the symptoms.

Common Signs & Symptoms

Below is a list of common signs that you, or someone you know, may be suffering from paradoxical breathing or respiratory distress:

  • Struggling to catch their breath
  • Fast heart rate
  • Tension in shoulders and neck
  • Involuntary gasping
  • Dizziness
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Taking sudden deep breaths
  • pain or weakness in the chest

Causes & Effects

Chronic stress is arguably the most common cause of paradoxical breathing. During times of stress, our bodies elicit a fight or flight response that increases our alertness while causing our breathing to be quicker and more shallow. In acute cases of anxiety, hyperventilation can often occur.

However, during times of chronic stress, paradoxical breathing can be a common issue as the body becomes accustomed to maintaining the heightened fight or flight condition.

Prolonged sitting can similarly cause paradoxical breathing to occur in acute cases. Common symptoms for sitting-related paradoxical breathing often revolve around strain on the neck and shoulders. This results from the body's reliance on the shoulder muscles to move the diaphragm, resulting in paradoxical breathing that can worsen over time.

Finally, lung issues such as lung cancer, asthma, and Chronic Obstructive Disease (COPD) can lead to acute and chronic paradoxical breathing cases.

Breathing Better to Reduce Risk

One of the more effective solutions to paradoxical breathing is to apply breathing exercises to your daily routine to recalibrate your body's paradoxical breathing rhythm.

One of the most effective exercises is square breathing. Square breathing, or box breathing, uses a simple counting system to create a controlled, conscious breathing rhythm. This helps to relax the body while encouraging a deeper connection between the mind and the body through the parasympathetic nervous system.

The square breathing technique is as follows:

  1. Breathe in for a count of 4
  2. Hold the top of your breath for a count of 4
  3. Gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4
  4. At the bottom of your breath, pause and hold for a count of 4.

Square breathing is a deceptively simple technique that can be practiced almost anywhere and can help the effects of stressful situations on the mind and body.

For more information regarding how to manage your breathing for a more effective lifestyle, visit our other blogs here at The Exhale to get the latest tips and tricks. For free guided breathing exercises that you can take anywhere, try out the Breathwrk app here.

And remember: Breathe Better, Live Better.


The Exhale