Breathing Exercises for Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are sudden, unexpected episodes of fear accompanied by physical symptoms such as racing heart, shallow breathing, sweating and dizziness. Since panic attacks result from the body’s misguided preparation to fight for survival or flee for safety, you can counteract a panic attack by relaxing the body and slowing down its preparation for battle. Changing your breathing is the most straightforward and effective way of reassuring your body that it’s not in danger.

Anticipation Makes Panic Worse

According to a 2006 National Comorbidity Survey published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, only about one-sixth of those who experience panic attacks develop panic disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by frequent, recurrent panic attacks and a preoccupation with future attacks. But even periodic panic attacks are unpleasant and frightening, and most people who have had them experience some degree of dread at the thought of additional attacks.

The problem is that response to panic attacks and anticipation of future attacks can affect the frequency and intensity of these attacks. All panic attacks start with an initial wave of panic and some physical symptoms, and the severity of the attack is the direct result of the response to those first sensations. Unfortunately, many people respond with additional panic but it’s this fear of fear that can drive a panic attack to severe heights. Changing your response to initial panic can minimize the attack and allow it to pass more quickly. The easiest way to do this is with breathing.

Breathe Slowly and Deeply

Shallow, rapid breathing makes panic worse. Slower, deeper breathing relaxes the body, slows heart rate and demonstrates to the body that everything is okay. One way to see if your breathing is deep enough is if your belly rises and falls as you breathe. Place your hands over your belly so you can feel the air being pulled deep into the diaphragm. Try to make your hands rise and fall as your breathing slows.

Exhale Slowly

Slowing the rate that you breathe out will make your body more relaxed. Extend how long it takes to exhale, and be sure to exhale completely. With each breath, try to increase the amount of time it takes to push all the air out of your lungs.

Don’t Blow Out the Candle

One way to slow down your breathing is to pretend that there is a lit candle in front of you that you don’t want to blow out. (Of course, you can practice with a real candle as well.) Blowing at a flame gently enough that it doesn’t go out guarantees a slow, measured exhalation that will lower your heart rate and make you feel more relaxed.

Inhale Nose, Exhale Mouth

It’s easy for your mind to wander while you’re trying to slow down your breathing. Instead, give yourself something to focus on. Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth is unnatural and requires concentration. Directing your attention to your breathing in this way will distract you from anxious thoughts and allow you to gain greater control over your breathing.

About this Author

Dr. Jessica Page is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in New York City. She specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders and motivation for healthy behavior changes.