Anxiety and panic attacks are moments of sudden and intense fear. Although anxiety is a mental illness, anxiety attacks are also marked by physical symptoms like rapid heart rate, excessive sweating, dry mouth, dizziness, and rapid breathing. While these anxiety attacks aren’t fatal, they can be terrifying. What’s more, symptoms like rapid breathing can especially make you feel like you’re having a heart attack, which may worsen the feeling. For those with anxiety disorders, here are some effective breathing techniques for anxiety attacks that can help you relax.
Anxiety is the body’s natural response to fear, otherwise known as the fight-or-flight response. Your body reacts in both physical and mental ways to prepare you to either fight the threat or run away from it. Shortness of breath is one of these responses.
It’s common to experience shortness of breath from anxiety attacks. You may feel like you can’t catch your breath, feel a tightness in your chest, or feel as if you’re suffocating. Various studies have shown that an increase in alertness can affect certain functions due to anxiety, causing shortness of breath, among other symptoms. Other symptoms that may occur during anxiety attacks include:
Anxiety causes shortness of breath due to your body’s fight-or-flight response. This response creates a sensation of anxiety on purpose to protect you. If it didn’t, you might not feel enough motivation to run or remove yourself from a bad situation. This sensation produces a stressful response, so you snap into action.
Tightness of the chest, shortness of breath, and rapid breathing are all normal responses to anxiety. This is simply the body’s way of getting more oxygen to the muscles, preparing you to run. Your heart rate increases, and you may feel hot as your blood pumps faster, preparing you to fight.
For some people, this response can kick in even when they’re not running away from wild bears. A simple trip to a crowded grocery store or presenting something to a group at work can provoke anxiety symptoms.
Understandably, it can be difficult to remember how to breathe during a panic attack. But by focusing on your breathing, you can get it under control and get the right amount of air into your lungs. When you do, you’ll find that your body and mind will eventually relax.
The most highly recommended breathing exercise for anxiety attacks is diaphragmatic breathing, which refers to using your diaphragm to breathe. When you’re experiencing shortness of breath during an anxiety attack, you’re generally breathing in through your mouth or with your chest.
In general, Diaphragmatic breathing can help slow your heart rate, decrease your need for oxygen, and use less effort and energy to breathe. Here’s how to practice diaphragmatic breathing to help shortness of breath during anxiety attacks:
Inhaling deeply may not work for you. While inhaling is actually linked to the sympathetic nervous system – which controls the fight-or-flight response – exhaling is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, which influences our body’s ability to relax. Taking too many deep breaths too quickly can cause you to hyperventilate, which decreases the amount of oxygenated blood that flows to your brain and can induce further anxiety.
Instead, try to do the opposite:
Similar to diaphragmatic breathing, belly breathing requires you to inhale with your belly rather than your chest.
Practice this daily for up to 10 minutes.
The purpose of these techniques is to focus on your breathing. The more you focus, the more control you will gain, and the better you’ll feel. While practicing the exercises we mentioned above, we also encourage you to engage in breath focus. You can do this by:
Practice these techniques for up to 20 minutes daily.
Equal breathing is a technique that originates from pranayama yoga. This practice requires you to inhale for the same amount of time you’re exhaling. You can practice this breathing exercise for anxiety while either sitting up or laying down. When you do, follow these steps:
Also called coherent breathing, resonant breathing can help you relax in moments of anxiety. Try it out:
Unlike the other breathing techniques for anxiety attacks we’ve mentioned, this one involves exhaling forcefully. Follow these steps and try it out for yourself:
Alternate nostril breathing is another common breathing tool for anxiety and should be practiced in a comfortable place while sitting and stretching out your spine and opening up your chest. Rest your left hand in your lap and raise your right hand. Then rest the pointer and middle fingers of your right hand on your forehead in between the eyebrows, almost as if you were making a fin on your forehead with your hand.
Next, close your eyes and inhale and exhale through your nose while following the steps below:
If you have anxiety or panic disorders, these breathing techniques for anxiety attacks can help alleviate your symptoms. However, these aren’t always the solution. If your symptoms don’t go away or they worsen, you should seek professional support.
Many of our Banyan Treatment Center Locations offer mental health treatment, such as depression and anxiety treatment. Our disorder-specific programs are guided by our evidence-based therapy modalities to help clients understand their symptoms, what triggers them, and the best ways to cope.
Considering how stressful mental health disorders can be, we understand that many people with mental illnesses like anxiety and panic disorders are more likely to use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate. Fortunately, for those struggling with both addiction and mental illness, our select Banyan locations also offer co-occurring disorder treatment.