How to Relieve Shallow Breathing

Chronic stress, posture, and muscle tension can all play a role in developing shallow breathing. When we habitually take shallow breaths, our oxygen supply is limited. This can contribute to serious medical conditions including anxiety disorders, panic attacks, hyperventilation, shock, asthma, pneumonia, pulmonary edema, and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the body known as hypercapnia.

For most of us, the way we breathe is habitual, meaning that we aren’t conscious of it. It’s easy to spend your life breathing shallowly, depriving yourself of oxygen and increasing your stress level, without being aware of it. So, it’s important to tune into how you’re breathing, and take the time to train yourself to breathe more deeply if needed.

In this post, I discuss:

  • Types of breathing
  • Why chronic stress causes shallow breathing
  • How posture and muscle tension cause shallow breathing
  • The muscles involved in breathing
  • The nerves involved in breathing
  • Learning how to breathe diaphragmatically
  • Clinical Somatics exercises that relieve shallow breathing

Types of breathing: diaphragmatic, shallow, clavicular, and eupnea

As you can see in the diagrams below, the diaphragm is an umbrella-shaped muscle located just below our lungs. In diaphragmatic breathing, we contract our diaphragm, pulling its center downward and inverting its umbrella shape as we inhale. This action draws air into our lungs, and pushes the contents of our belly forward. So, our abdominal muscles must be able to fully relax in order to allow us to take a full inhale and let our belly expand forward. Then as we release our diaphragm, it relaxes upward and expels the air out of our lungs.

diaphragmatic breathing

diaphragmatic breathing

When we become stressed for any reason, however, we instinctively shift to shallow breathing. This is also referred to as chest breathing and thoracic breathing. This type of breathing consists of drawing air into the lungs without allowing the belly to expand forward. Shallow breathing mainly uses the intercostal muscles (the muscles in between the ribs) instead of the diaphragm. Shallow breathing, as the term implies, does not allow us to take full breaths.

Clavicular breathing involves drawing air into the chest by raising the shoulders and collarbone (clavicle). To do this, we simultaneously contract the abdominal muscles. This type of breathing results in the least amount of air being inhaled.

If you are at rest and you have nothing limiting your ability to take a full breath—stress, muscle tension, or posture—then you will likely notice that your breathing is in the state of eupnea. This is also called quiet breathing, and it requires no conscious effort.

Eupnea is the healthy, unaffected breathing of all mammals. In the state of eupnea, the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles automatically contract to draw air into the lungs. The abdominal muscles are relaxed, allowing the belly to gently expand forward during inhalation. The chest also expands during inhalation, and the collarbone and shoulders will subtly rise. During exhalation, the belly, chest, collarbone, and shoulders all return to their neutral resting position.

Why chronic stress causes shallow breathing

When we perceive a threat to our well-being, our “fight, flee, or freeze” response is activated. The autonomic nervous system automatically speeds up our rate of breathing so that we can take in more oxygen, making us better able to defend ourselves and survive attack.

Evolution designed shallow breathing to be a short-term solution, not a chronic state. But if we experience stress on a regular basis, shallow breathing can easily become habitual. That means that our nervous system has adopted this way of breathing as a constant activity, and we are likely unaware of it. If shallow breathing becomes habitual, then we’re breathing that way all the time, whether or not we’re experiencing stress.

Once shallow breathing has become habitual, the breathing pattern itself can induce stress, independent of whether or not we perceive stress in our daily life. Try it: Breathe only up into your chest, not letting your belly expand, and notice how you feel. Do you feel stressed out, simply by breathing this way?

A specific source of stress that directly affects our breathing is body image. If we don’t want to appear overweight, we may develop the habit of contracting our abdominal muscles to suck our stomach in. Many people hold chronic tension in their abdominals as a result of sucking in their stomach so often, and this tension limits their ability to take a full diaphragmatic breath.

For suggestions on how to reduce stress, go to The Life-Changing Link Between Anxiety and Muscle Tension and scroll down to the section titled “How to recover from anxiety.”

How posture and muscle tension cause shallow breathing

The posture most often associated with shallow breathing is postural kyphosis, or rounded posture. When the abdominal muscles and pectoral muscles are chronically tight, the head, shoulders, and rib cage are pulled forward. Try it: Do a “crunch” while you’re sitting and reading this, and you’ll feel how tight abdominal and chest muscles can keep you stuck in rounded posture.

In postural kyphosis, the thoracic cavity is compressed and the abdominals are tight. So, not only can the lungs not fully expand within the thoracic cavity, but the abdomen cannot expand forward in order to allow the diaphragm to press downward.

The opposite postural pattern, hyperlordosis, can also cause shallow breathing. When the psoas major is tight, it can pull the lower back into an exaggerated arch (hyperlordosis) as well as create a thrusting forward of the rib cage, which limits the ability to take a full breath. A tight psoas also compresses the lumbar spine, shortening the torso, which limits the space in which the diaphragm can contract downward.

Scoliosis, a lateral (sideways) curvature of the spine, can cause shallow breathing as well. This is most likely to occur if the curve is in the thoracic or thoracic and lumbar parts of the spine, where the lateral curve and associated spinal rotation would directly limit the ability to expand the lungs.

Postural kyphosis
Thoracic scoliosis

The muscles involved in breathing

Below, I’ve listed the muscles involved in breathing. You’ll notice that some of the muscles are only active in “forced” inhalation and exhalation. Forced breathing is typically defined as a process that occurs during exercise in order to take in more oxygen. In forced breathing, accessory muscles are engaged to allow us to breathe more quickly and increase our lung volume.

Muscles of inhalation and their actions:

Diaphragm: Draw the central tendon of the diaphragm downward, increasing the volume of the thoracic cavity. This creates a vacuum in the upper thoracic cavity, pulling air into the lungs.
Scalenes: Elevate ribs during inhalation.
Sternocleidomastoid: Assist in inhalation by elevating the rib cage.
External intercostals: Assist in inhalation by drawing the ribs superiorly (upward), increasing space in the thoracic cavity.
Serratus posterior superior: Elevate ribs during inhalation.
Quadratus lumborum: Fix the last rib.
Pectoralis major: Assist in forced inhalation if arm is fixed.
Pectoralis minor: Assist in elevating the thorax in forced inhalation if scapula is fixed.
Serratus anterior: May assist in forced inhalation if scapula is fixed.
Subclavius: Assist in inhalation by elevating first rib.

Muscles of exhalation and their actions:

Internal intercostals: Assist in exhalation by drawing the ribs inferiorly (downward), decreasing space in the thoracic cavity.
Serratus posterior inferior: Depress the ribs during exhalation.
Internal and external obliques: Compress abdominal contents.
Transverse abdominis: Compress abdominal contents.
Quadratus lumborum: Fix the last rib in forced exhalation.

The nerves involved in breathing: vagus and phrenic

The autonomic nervous system (the functional division of our nervous system that controls our body automatically, without our conscious thought) is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is in charge of the “fight or flight” response to stress when we perceive danger; so, it makes us automatically breathe shallowly when we feel stress.

The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite: it calms us down, brings our body back into homeostasis, and allows for healing to occur. The vagus nerve is the main neural component of the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, meaning that it emerges directly from the brain without traveling down the spinal cord. It automatically controls parasympathetic motor functions of the heart, lungs, digestive system, liver, gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, and kidneys. This means that the vagus nerve has the very important job of stimulating the “rest and digest” functions of these organs. The vagus nerve regulates lung function and maintains respiratory balance.

The phrenic nerve originates from the C3-C5 spinal nerves in the neck. It is the only nerve that provides motor control to the diaphragm. The phrenic nerve is not purely autonomic (automatic, subconscious) or somatic (voluntary, conscious), but is a mixed nerve. It carries both automatic and voluntary messages to contract and relax the diaphragm, and provides sensory innervation to the diaphragm and adjacent fascia.

Either or both of these nerves can be compressed by chronic muscle tension in the neck, chest, and abdomen, and misalignment of the cervical or thoracic spine. The function of the vagus nerve is also highly sensitive to stress. So when it comes to the neural regulation of our breathing, we need to be aware of our muscle tension and posture as well as our habitual reactions to stress.

It’s a vicious cycle

Stress, muscle tension, and posture are inextricably linked. Stress causes muscles to tighten and can trigger the withdrawal reflex (rounded posture) or the action response (hyperlordosis). On the flip side, simply having chronic muscle tension increases our stress level. And research shows that adopting certain postures for just two minutes can either raise or lower our stress levels. So, imagine the effects of spending years or decades in a certain posture!

Learning how to breathe diaphragmatically

In addition to reducing your stress and practicing Clinical Somatics exercises (listed below) to release your tight muscles and improve your posture, you can practice diaphragmatic breathing. It just takes practice, like any muscular skill. The more often you practice diaphragmatic breathing, the more habitual it will become—and the more relaxed you’ll feel.

Close your eyes. Completely relax. Visualize your diaphragm inside you, just below your lungs. As you inhale through your nose, visualize the air going down to your lungs, and your diaphragm contracting and pushing downward. Relax your belly muscles, and allow your belly to expand as you inhale. Then slowly exhale, letting your diaphragm relax upward slowly and with control.

Now try this while slowly counting to five as you inhale, then slowly counting to five as you exhale.

Now, slowly count to eight as you inhale, then slowly count to eight as you exhale.

If you’re familiar with pandiculation, you’ll notice that you just pandiculated your diaphragm!

The more often you practice diaphragmatic breathing, the more aware you will become of how you’re breathing. Soon, you’ll notice when you’re breathing shallowly because it will feel wrong, and you’ll instinctively relax yourself and return to the natural respiratory state of eupnea.

Clinical Somatics exercises that relieve shallow breathing

Some Clinical Somatics exercises are practiced with a specific breathing pattern: you’re instructed to inhale and exhale at certain times. This is instructed in the videos and audios, but if you want further clarification, please read “Breathing in Clinical Somatics Exercises.”

The exercises below allow you to release the tight muscles that contribute to shallow breathing. They are all taught in the online Level One & Two Courses.

Basic daily exercises:
Diaphragmatic breathing (as described in previous section)
Arch & Flatten
Arch & Curl

More advanced:
Side Curl (for breathing affected by scoliosis)
Iliopsoas Release
Proprioceptive Exercise 1
Diagonal Curl
Head Lifts
Scapula Scoops Part 2
Flowering Arch & Curl
Breathing Exercises