What is Shallow Breathing?

People who are under chronic stress often breath in rapid, shallow breaths. People who are having a panic attack are probably breathing in this fashion.

Rapid Breathing Defined

In rapid breathing (as opposed to slow breathing), your inhales and exhales are short and quick, and you take many breaths in a short time, leaving little time in between breaths.

Think of your belly as a balloon while you breath in and fill your belly up with your breath. Photo:  Gypsy4591, Morguefile.com

Think of your belly as a balloon while you breath in and fill your belly up with your breath. Photo: Gypsy4591, Morguefile.com

Shallow Breathing Defined

“Shallow” refers to how deeply you take air into the body. In shallow breathing, you take in a small amount of air into the throat or upper chest area, as opposed to filling the lungs.

This type of breathing causes and is caused by stress, and can cause chemical changes in the body leading to more uncomfortable symptoms of stress.

Deep, Diaphragmatic Breathing Is the Opposite of Rapid, Shallow Breathing

Rapid shallow breathing is the opposite of slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing, where your breath fills the total space of the lungs. You spend more time on each inhale and exhale and you take fewer breaths. The breaths are slow, even and full.

A Slow, Deep Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercise

  1. Lie down in a comfortable position. Gently place your hand on your belly. Take a deep breath in through your nose and try to have the breath fill your belly so that your belly and your hand rise. This may take some practice. It might help to imagine that your belly is a balloon and as you inhale, you are trying to make the balloon blow up. The chest should not move at all during this first part of the breath.
  2. Now as you continue to inhale, let the breath fill the middle and then the top of your lungs. If you do this correctly, you will see that after the belly rises, your ribs and then your chest will also rise, in that order. Once this happens, exhale fully and completely, As you exhale, your chest, ribs and then belly should deflate (i.e. in the opposite order of the inhale).
  3. Once you are able to get your belly, ribs and chest to rise on inhale, begin focusing on the timing of your breathing. A good way to do this is to count (in your head) to six while you are inhaling. Pause ever so briefly at the top of the inhale. Then count to 12 as you are exhaling and make the exhale last for the entire count. Again, this will take practice. If you can only count to 4 while you are inhaling, then exhale to 8. Find the numbers that work for you but make the exhale twice as long as the inhale.
  4. You can either exhale through your nose or your mouth. If you exhale through your mouth, try to make a sound with the exhale so you can hear that you are exhaling to the full count.

After a few rounds of this breathing you should feel more relaxed. If it feels like an effort or like you are straining, try again at a time when you are feeling more relaxed. Trying hard is the opposite of relaxing, so don’t sweat it. After a few practice sessions, you should be able to get the hang of it.

How to Utilize Deep Breathing for Stress Reduction

People under stress tend to habitually breathe in the rapid shallow way and are generally unaware that they are doing it. Like any habit, changing your breathing requires regular practice.

Practice the deep breathing exercise several times per day rather than waiting for stress or a full-blown panic attack to strike. Breathing the right way several times a day, in time, will help you become more aware of when you are breathing shallowly.

Once you have some practice under your belt, you can focus on your breathing when you are in a stressful situation or panic. You should have more success calming yourself in this situation, if you have practiced this regularly when you are not particularly stressed.

Those experiencing troubling symptoms should consult their medical or mental health professional. This article is for information only and is not intended to be a substitute for personal medical or mental health care.

©Lisa C. DeLuca, all rights reserved.  It is a violation of copyright law to reproduce this work on the web or for profit without written permission from the author. This article was originally published on the web in 2008. Please contact the author with your reprint request.

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