Most people who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks over-breathe in the upper rib cage portion of the lungs, often through the mouth. They often hold poor posture, slouching the upper back while sitting long hours at home or as students or office workers. During panic attacks, over-breathing or hyperventilation becomes more pronounced.
This method of rapid, shallow breathing may be both a symptom of anxiety and a cause of it. The anxiety feelings feed hyperventilation, and the hyperventilation fuels the anxiety.
Hyperventilation actually decreases oxygen in the brain and contributes to feelings of unreality, dizziness, and tingling in the extremities–common symptoms in panic attacks.
There are any number of techniques and tips on how to breathe for panic attacks, most with many commonalities on the basics. It’s just not that complicated, and the body is intelligent enough to get back on track with a little help. But here I am particularly recommending the Buteyko Method, known for treating asthma, but also very commonly effective in treating anxiety and panic attack.
Of course if you have any one of various medical conditions in addition to panic attacks, be sure to proceed under the supervision of your attending physician.
I. Inhale and exhale through the nose.
Breathing through the nose with a closed mouth makes hyperventilation much more difficult than straight mouth breathing. The size of the air passage through the nose is smaller and the flow less direct to the lungs.
But their are other benefits too. Long term, the relatively restricted passage can also strengthen muscles used for breathing in comparison to mouth-only breathing. Air is moistened in the sinuses, causing less dehydration in the bronchial tubes and lungs and increasing lung efficiency. Back pressure of nasal exhalation also increases the occasion for oxygen exchange in the lungs. And nose breathing increases nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels.
II. Breathe using the diaphragm below the lungs
It is logical to use as much lung capacity as possible, yet sedentary, slouching and anxious people often learn to breathe in shallow fashion using mostly the tops of the lungs. Breathing that uses the diaphragm, a sheath of muscles immediately below the lungs, uses the whole lungs.
One can practice breathing from the diaphragm by reclining in a chair or lying on one’s back and placing one’s hands or a weight like a book on one’s stomach region. Breath in such a way that the stomach rises and falls naturally when one inhales and exhales–the way babies do.
III. Self-consciously try to distract yourself and calm down
The goal is to calm oneself deliberately as much as one reasonably can during a panic attack. Self-consciously thinking about one’s breathing or about something pleasant or positive distracts the mind from anxiety-producing “what if” or morbid thoughts. In the beginning at least, it is best to concentrate on breathing slowly through the nose using the diaphragm. Relax your shoulders when exhaling.
Slow breathing can be enhanced by counting slowly during breaths. Four seconds to inhale through the nose. Four seconds to exhale, perhaps with a pause between. If one does not have a watch handy, count slowly as follows: “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three, one thousand, four-one thousand” and so on each time one inhales and exhales. This will typically help one get through a panic attack more quickly and with less severity.
IV. Practice slow, nasal, diaphragm breathing breathing between panic attacks.
First, develop a habit of nasal and diaphragm breathing. This will produce many desirable benefits. Second, practice counting four second inhales and four second exhales for several minute sessions at least mornings and evenings for several weeks. This will help make counting slow breaths easier during panic attacks.
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