How to breathe during an anxiety or panic attack

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It almost sounds funny, to think that there might be a need for instruction on how to breathe. Breathing is something that we do naturally and automatically every single moment of every single day. In each moment, we are either inhaling or we are exhaling (and maybe we’re occasionally holding our breath if we’re watching a thriller of a movie or ducking underwater!). Breathing is what we do without thinking and it helps us stay alive; after all we don’t have to think about making our hearts beat.

However, much of the time we don’t breathe in the most efficient way. Yes, we breathe enough to keep from dropping over dead from suffocation. But how often do we stop and regulate our breathing, doing it slowly and deeply so that we’re not only getting oxygen into our lungs but also calming our nerves and slowing our heartbeats?

This is especially true when an anxiety attack or panic attack shows up. This can cause a shallow and rapid type of breathing. The problem there is that it causes hyperventilating, a lightheaded feeling, and an increased heart rate. All that does is increase the feelings of anxiety and fear, and it just feeds itself in a circle of crazed panic.

How to breathe during an anxiety attack
How to breathe during an anxiety attack

So when you feel the speed of your breath picking up when you’re nervous – whatever the reason might be – resist the urge to try to rapidly gasp in air. It’s not going to help. Proper breathing is.

How to breathe during an anxiety attack or panic attack:

1. Inhale for a count of 4 or 5.
2. Hold the breath for a count of 4 or 5.
3. Exhale for a count of 7 or 8.
4. Hold for a count of about 3. *
5. Repeat at least 5 times but keep doing it for as long as you feel that you need to.

* Holding your breath after the exhale can feel scary if you’re not used to it. You’ve just breathed out all the oxygen in your lungs and it’s natural to feel like you need to inhale right away. If this is true for you, start slowly and try holding just for a count of 1 before inhaling, then work your way up.

I like to combine this with a visualization style of meditation (picturing a hand over my heart to slow it down) or with a mantra (I often think “I am” on the inhale and a long, drawn-out “relaxed” on the exhale). It’s not necessary though. Your brain and body will respond to the slowed-down breathing even without meditating or using mantras.

It’s very effective and it works surprisingly quickly. You might still feel some of the other residual effects of anxiety but they’re much more manageable once you get your breathing under control. Doing that slows your heart rate down which automatically makes your brain think you’re more relaxed, and it takes away that woozy head that can feel so terrifying.

If you enjoy how this breathing works for your anxiety and panic attacks, you can also try Alternate Nostril Breathing which is a total anxiety-blocker.

Have you tried controlled breathing for your anxiety attacks? Let me know if this works for you!

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How to breathe during an anxiety or panic attack

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