Shallow Breathing: Causes, Effects, Solutions
The term "shallow
breathing" can refer to 2 different processes:
- breathing mechanics (problems with thoracic or chest breathing);
- breathing volume (too small tidal volume or amount of air per inhalation).
Bear in mind that ideal or healthy automatic breathing at rest is very small in
amount, but mainly abdominal.
Shallow breathing causes
Shallow breathing is generally caused by one factor only: hyperventilation (or
breathing more air than the medical norm). In normal conditions,
hyperventilation cannot improve blood oxygenation in any significant degree:
normal breathing provides arterial blood with 98-99% oxygen saturation. Hence,
overbreathing reduces CO2 levels in the arterial blood. This causes decreased
oxygen delivery to cells leading. Cell hypoxia and hypocapnia can cause a spasm in
all muscles of the human body: airways, colon, arteries, arterioles, and
Shallow breathing can be triggered by anxiety, stress, night sleep (or being in
a horizontal position), fatigue, mouth breathing, and other factors that
Shallow breathing symptoms
The symptoms of chest breathing are very individual and can range from
dyspnea (or shortness of breath, which is common
during terminal cancer, HIV-AIDS, cystic fibrosis, COPD, emphysema, and many
other conditions) and angina pain (a sign of low heart oxygenation) to blocked
nose, sleep apnea, anxiety, fatigue and constipation. All these symptoms are
analyzed on the web page Symptoms of
Shallow breathing treatment
Since hyperventilation causes chest breathing, the solution is simple: normalization of breathing. However, it is not easy to implement in practice because it is necessary to correct the automatic (unconscious) breathing pattern that is going on day and night.
Could shallow breathing mean low tidal volume?
However, when we speak about tidal volumes (a single volume of inhaled air),
normal healthy breathing and ideal breathing for maximum body-oxygen levels are
shallow (a tiny air volume inhaled in during one breath). Hence, it is sensible
that healthy people are usually unable to sense their respiratory movements.
Sick people have heavy and deep (often
noisy) breathing because they breathe too much (see the Homepage).
They often feel movements of air in the nasal passages, chest movements (due
to chest breathing or shallow breathing), and other effects related to their
hyperventilation, which is the main problem.
There are, however, exceptions to these observations. Some
groups of people can feel their breath, even though they have easy and light normal
- Healthy children (e.g., 6-10 years old) with normal
breathing patterns are able to feel their breathing (even though it is
tiny in amounts) due to acute awareness of their bodily sensations.
- Vice versa, elderly people, even when they breathe 2 times
faster and/or twice more deeply than the medical norms, often do not
notice any sensations of their heavy breathing because of they have not paid
enough attention to their breath for many decades.
- People who have been learning and practicing breathing
retraining methods and techniques (the Buteyko method, Hatha Yoga, etc.), often
have acute perceptions of their breath - even if they
breathe less and slower than the physiological norms or have shallow
(small in volume) automatic breathing.
This is possible because of their deliberate focus on breath
sensations during their training sessions, including Buteyko shallow breathing
Old Hatha Yoga manuscripts are full of ideas and quotes on to how to restrict, slow down
and restrain breathing (see Yoga pages for
more detail). These ideas are wise since breathing less
during our automatic or unconscious breathing increases body
*Note. The main Buteyko method exercise is
sometimes called "shallow breathing", but "reduced breathing" is a more
For more information, visit
Diaphragmatic breathing exercises and techniques.
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