A Breathing Exercise
to Calm Panic Attacks

by Dave Carbonell, PhD

Here's a simple breathing exercise that will restore your comfortable breathing and soothe many of the physical symptoms of a panic attack.

You may have already tried deep breathing and not had much success in soothing your panic symptoms. The reason for that is that most descriptions of deep breathing leave out a critical step. I'm going to show you how to do it right.

A simple, but powerful, technique

If you have Panic Disorder or Social Phobia, this deep breathing exercise may be the single most important coping technique I can show you. It's also useful with other anxiety disorders in which the physical symptoms are less prominent, but still present. Comfortable, deep breathing is the key to relaxation. All the the traditional relaxation methods (yoga, meditation, hypnosis) place a central emphasis on breathing.

I can't catch my breath!

Feeling like "I can't catch my breath!" is probably the most common of all panic symptoms. Your breathing feels labored, you strain to take a deep breath, you fear you're not going to get it - and the harder you try, the worse it feels!

When you feel short of breath, it doesn't mean you're not getting enough air. In fact, people will often say "I can't catch my breath", and this shows that they're getting air, because we talk by making air vibrate. If you're talking, you're breathing! It's not a dangerous symptom.

But it does get people very scared, and it produces other uncomfortable physical symptoms, so it's worth your while to be able to correct it.

You've probably already had it told to you, and you've probably also read it as well, that what you need to do is "take a deep breath". If you're like most people, that advice hasn't helped you much. It's good advice, but it's incomplete. It doesn't tell you how to take a deep breath. A good breathing exercise should tell you how to take a deep breath, and that's what I'm going to do.

Here's the Key

When you feel like you can't catch your breath, it's because you left out a key step.

You didn't exhale.

That's right. Before you can take a deep breath, you have to give one away. Why? Because, when you've been breathing in a short, shallow manner (from your chest), if you try and take a deep inhale, you just can't do it. All you can do is take a more labored, shallow breath from your chest. That will give you all the air you need, but it won't feel good.

Go ahead, try that now and see what I mean. Put one hand on your chest, the other on your belly. Breathe very shallowly from your chest a few times, then try to take a deep breath. I think you'll find that, when you inhale, you use your chest muscles, rather than your diaphragm, or belly.

When you breathe in this shallow manner, you get all the air you need to live, but you can also get other symptoms which add to your panic.

You get chest pain or heaviness, because you've tightened the muscles of your chest to an uncomfortable degree. (The chest pain people feel in a panic attack isn't from the heart, it's from the muscles of the chest). You feel lightheaded or dizzy, because shallow breathing can produce the same sensations as hyperventilation. You also get a more rapid heartbeat, and maybe numbness or tingling in the extremities as well.

All from breathing short and shallow!

One of the very first things I ask my patients with panic disorder to do is to learn and practice belly breathing. I recommend it to you as well. Here's the breathing exercise.

Belly Breathing Exercise

1. Place one hand just above your belt line, and the other on your chest, right over the breastbone. You can use your hands as a simple biofeedback device. Your hands will tell you what part of your body, and what muscles, you are using to breathe.

2. Open your mouth and gently sigh, as if someone had just told you something really annoying. As you do, let your shoulders and the muscles of your upper body relax, down, with the exhale. The point of the sigh is not to completely empty your lungs. It's just to relax the muscles of your upper body.

3. Close your mouth and pause for a few seconds.

4. Keep your mouth closed and inhale slowly through your nose by pushing your stomach out. The movement of your stomach precedes the inhalation by just the tiniest fraction of a second, because it's this motion which is pulling the air in. When you've inhaled as much air as you can comfortably (without throwing your upper body into it), just stop. You're finished with that inhale.

5. Pause. How long? You decide. I'm not going to give you a specific count, because everybody counts at a different rate, and everybody has different size lungs. Pause briefly for whatever time feels comfortable. However, be aware that when you breathe this way, you are taking larger breaths than you're used to. For this reason, it's necessary to breathe more slowly than you're used to. If you breathe at the same rate you use with your small, shallow breaths, you will probably feel a little lightheaded from over breathing, and it might make you yawn. Neither is harmful. They're just signals to slow down. Follow them!

6. Open your mouth. Exhale through your mouth by pulling your belly in.

7. Pause.

8. Continue with Steps 4-7.

Many people find it easier to learn from watching a demonstration, rather than just reading a set of instructions. So here is a video I have on my YouTube account which explains and demonstrates the belly breathing exercise. If you like, have a look at the video before doing the practice.

Now Try the Breathing Exercise

How does my video demonstration compare to how you usually breathe?

If you've been struggling with panic for a while, it's probably the opposite of how you usually breathe. That's because you've become a chest breather. You can live that way, but it will make it harder to overcome panic.

Go ahead and practice the breathing exercise for a few minutes.

You may find it awkward at first, because it's very different than your present habit. But you used to breathe the way the video shows, because all of us come into the world breathing this way. If you want to see some world class belly breathers, visit some newborns or infants!

Let Your Hands Be Your Guide!

Your hands will tell you if you're doing this correctly or not. Where is the muscular movement of the breathing? You want it to occur at your stomach; your upper body should be relatively still. If you feel movement in your chest, or notice your head and shoulders moving upwards, start again at Step 1, and practice getting the motion down to your stomach.

After you've practiced for a few minutes, continue on to Deep Breathing: Part 2 for further discussion of this breathing exercise, including suggestions of how often to practice, and for how long.

Read a Study of Diaphragmatic Breathing

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© 2010-2024 David Carbonell, PhD.  Anxiety Coach® is a registered mark.
P.O. Box 256539, Chicago, IL 60625

Last updated on June 25, 2024