Stress Breathing or Shallow Breathing …

occurs when the downward, vertical movement of the diaphragm is restricted, reducing blood circulation, oxygen supply, visceral health, and energy. Accessory breathing muscles, located in the area of the neck and shoulders, often referred to as stress muscles, become active. Shallow breathing occurs for many reasons, including abdominal tension, illness, and/or stress.

stress-musclesLack of movement of the diaphragmatic during breathing will directly affect posture and wellbeing. For example, our top ribs tend to become elevated via the muscular recruitment in the shoulders and neck, inadvertently ‘lifting’ the diaphragm up. The body will often be stooped or flexed in the upper thoracic vertebrae with the head displaced forward of the shoulders and spine. Air will be primarily accessed from the upper lungs via the top of the ribcage, instead of entering into the full lung below. The diaphragm gradually weakens through lack of use, and the shoulder and neck muscles become tight and ropey.

The smaller the downward vertical movement of our diaphragm during respiration (our ‘respiratory pump’), the shallower our breathing will be. Tension will tend to be felt in the shoulders and neck and the thoracic inlet at the base of the neck will bare the stress. The base of the neck becomes constricted due to muscular compression near thoracic inlet, including the scalene muscles and brachial plexus.

With time, if the diaphragm does not descend naturally as you inhale, the three-dimensional space of the ribcage will narrow and become restricted. When the lower part of the lung will become inactive during shallow breathing, as less air will travel down to the bottom of the lung. Interestingly, it is in this bottom area of the lung that maximum oxygen exchange takes place, so oxygen to our muscles and organs is also diminished. Muscles tense, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, and there is a host of physiological responses are activated, decreasing the health of the body and mind.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Stress Breathing

Increases parasympathetic response

Increases circulation and oxygen, nourishes the discs of the spine

Relaxes muscle, heart rate, stress

Massages organs

Lengthens and creates space in spine

Lengthens, deepens, and widens the ribcage

Contributes to a sturdy yet supple trunk

Contributes to erect posture core support

Effects rhythm of viscera stimulating peristalsis, digestion, internal respiration

Increases sympathetic response (fight or flight)

Decreases circulation and oxygen to the body

Massages organs

Top of lungs fill, bottom lungs stay empty

Shortens the spine and increases spinal curves

Compresses the ribs and ribcage

Hinders posture, strength and energy

Depletes nourishment to the discs of the spine


Whereas excessive abdominal contraction or tension during respiration blocks downward diaphragmatic movement, weak abdominals during expiration leads to forward distension of the abdomen, causing an inability to expel carbon dioxide, the waste product of respiration. A balance is required between strength and mobility, hence, proper breathing technique is essential for life!

Note: Accessory breathing muscles can be useful for increased ventilation to the lungs, muscles, and organs of the body, during forced breathing, when more air is needed for the body to achieve physically demanding tasks. They lift the upper ribs, lengthening the spine and thorax to create more room for oxygen.

Speak soon,