How to Breathe Properly to Avoid Panic Attacks

Treatments for Panic Attacks

Why is breathing so crucial?

Everyone takes breathing for granted.  People think they always breathe panic attack breathingcorrectly.   Unfortunately it’s not true.  We all slump in our chairs and at first we feel comfortable and relaxed.  But after a while we begin to ache.  Sitting in unnatural positions can cause problems.  Breathing is similar to this.  Breathing very fast over a short period of time is not a problem.  Think of the time you were late for the bus and then you saw it coming down the road.  You probably ran for the bus stop and felt totally out of breath when you reached the bus stop just in time.  When you got on the bus your breathing and heart rate then started to slow down.  Your body is designed to cope with short bursts of adrenaline so there is no problem.  But if you continually breathe rapidly over a long period of time and you are not moving, then this can cause frightening sensations.   This kind of breathing is often referred to as hyperventilation.  It’s a normal reaction to a stress response if you have become constantly anxious over something.  This kind of reaction will eventually lead to a person becoming ‘sensitized’ to a place, situation or thing.

When a person becomes sensitized they have essentially conditioned their body and mind to react to certain physical and psychological stimuli, with extreme hypersensitivity.

For example, say you don’t like heights.  Every time you see a tall building in real life or even just on TV, it brings a reaction of fear physically or emotionally (or maybe both.)  Your body will tense up; you will have racing scary thoughts and your breathing will speed up amongst other things.

How do you know if you have become sensitized or are not breathing properly?

There is a quick test you can do.  Lie down on your bed and just try to relax as best you can.  Please one hand on your diaphragm or your belly button.  Place your other hand in the middle of your chest just below your collar bone.  Take note of which hand is moving the most.  If the hand on your belly button is moving up and down slowly, then you’re breathing OK.  If the hand on your chest is moving up and down then you’re not breathing properly.  This is important because breathing from your upper chest increases the risk of hyperventilation.

Have you ever be told at school to stand up straight, stomach in and chest out.  Although this may look good, it encourages poor breathing and hyperventilation.  I’m sure we have been in pubs or shopping and tried to bring in our bellies to make us a look a bit thinner!  Well this encourages poor breathing as well. 

You have probably noticed that when we exercise we breathe more quickly to give our muscles oxygen.  This enables us to exert ourselves, to run away from a situation or to fight (flight or fight response.)  In doing this we are relieving our bodies of stress.   Our bodies tend to naturally chest breathe when we exercise so that we can get more oxygen more quickly.  However if we over breath all the time (ie it becomes a habit) our oxygen level rises to much, and our carbon dioxide level falls too much.  You may have seen the classic way to overcome this, often taught in medical books, is to breathe into a paper bag.  By breathing back in what you have exhaled (Carbon dioxide Co2), your balancing Oxygen and Co2 to their normal levels. 

Does it matter that I don’t breathe properly?

Yes it does.  Why?, because it produces all the unpleasant sensations we become afraid of Exhaustion, Visual problems, cramps, shakes, tingling sensations, chest pains, etc.   The problem with hyperventilation is the symptoms are extremely alarming, and cause more symptoms which in turn cause more over breathing and more symptoms.  It’s kind of a downward spiral.  Hyperventilation always results in anxiety and panicky feelings.

How to Correct your Breathing?

Keep your hands on your diaphragm and close your mouth and breathe in and out via your nose.   This bit is important, as you breathe in, I want you to expand your stomach and inflate it like a balloon and then deflate your stomach as you breathe out.  I want you to breathe in to the count of 4 seconds.  Hold the breath for a second or two and then exhale for about 5 seconds.  The exhale should always be longer than the inhale.  This is because you want to make sure you are emptying your lungs.  As you practice and improve you be able to breathe in for say 8 seconds and exhale for 12 seconds.  At first this may seem strange but with practice you will get the hang of it.   The idea is to inflate your lungs slowly, hold, then exhale even more slowly in a calm, rhythmic state.  Controlling your breathing is what we are ultimately trying to achieve, with slow and even breathes.  As you exhale just release any stress or tension.  Let your body be as loose and floppy as possible.  You should feel your body after 10 mins or so start to sink in the bed with a feeling of weightlessness, and a feeling of being detached from your body.  Aim to undertake this breathing for about 15mins (longer if possible).  Practice is the key and more often you practice during the day the better you will acquire the skill.   After a while your anxiety and panicky feelings will subside.