3 Ways to Breathe Through Your Anxiety Attacks

Health Conditions

3 Ways to Breathe Through Your Anxiety Attacks

Dr. Stephanie Smith, PsyD
By Dr. Stephanie Smith, PsyD
Jul 27, 2020
Illustration of a woman who is covering her head with her hands due to an anxiety attack.

Panic attacks, otherwise known as anxiety attacks, are the worst. They come out of nowhere, can occur at any time, are extremely uncomfortable, and can be downright scary. Symptoms of anxiety attacks include the following:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Feeling like death is imminent
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Muscle tightness or pain

In other words: miserable.

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About Panic Disorder

An estimated 2.7% of American adults suffer from panic disorder, which is what is diagnosed when someone experiences panic attacks more than once over a period of time. These symptoms can appear out of the blue, not necessarily in response to a specific fear.

As mentioned above, panic attacks typically occur at seemingly random times. However, they are most likely to occur when your overall stress is high. Starting a new job? Getting married? Coping with your own, or a loved one's illness? Raising teenagers? Moving across the country (or even across town)? Living through a global pandemic? These situations can cause your overall stress and anxiety levels to soar, which makes you more susceptible to experiencing panic attacks.

Luckily, a number of effective treatments exist for managing both generalized stress and panic attacks. These include group and individual psychotherapy, as well as prescription medication. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, in particular, can be effective at managing anxiety and stress.

In addition, there are also free and easy strategies you can use on your own or in conjunction with treatment by a mental health professional. In fact, these techniques can not only be used to help cope with the discomfort of a panic attack, but they can also be used to work through regular, garden-variety stress as well. Think nerves before a test, speech, or tough conversation.

Breathing and Anxiety

Normally, we don’t think about the way we breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth, right? But there are actually two ways we breathe:

Abdominal Breathing

Abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing is characterized by deep, even breaths. We breathe this way when we are relaxed. Your stomach protrudes slightly when you breathe in in this manner.

Chest Breathing

Chest or thoracic breathing can be rapid and shallow. We often breathe this way when we are anxious, stressed, or experiencing a panic attack. Unfortunately, breathing this way for very long can cause problems in the body's oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, resulting in increased heart rate, dizziness, muscle pain, etc. Sound like the symptoms of panic attacks, doesn’t it? Your breath stays high in your chest—that is, your stomach does not protrude—when you breathe in this manner.

So what can you do to encourage the deep abdominal breathing that keeps our oxygen levels on track and helps us get to the other side of a stressful experience?

1. Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is a technique that can help alleviate anxiety and panic attacks. It sounds simple, but it does take practice. Breathe in deeply through your nose, hold in for a moment, then breathe out as if you are blowing out a birthday candle or one of those bubble wands we loved as kids. In fact, investing in a bottle of bubbles or two while trying to perfect this technique is a great idea! Remembering to exhale with a slow, steady, and strong breath is key. Repeat five to ten times a few times a day.

2. 4-7-8 Breathing

The 4-7-8 breathing technique was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil. It consists of the following: Put the tip of your tongue just behind your upper front teeth and keep it there. Then, exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound. Inhale through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale through your mouth (with a whoosh!) for a count of eight. Do this four times. You should practice this at least twice per day.

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3. Belly Breathing

Not sure if you’re using you’re breathing correctly for maximum relaxation? Try belly breathing. Lie down in a comfortable position and put one hand on your stomach (above your belly button) and the other on your chest. Then breathe in through your nose, and notice your belly rise. Your chest shouldn’t rise much at all. Next, purse your lips and exhale through your mouth. Experiment with using your abdominals to push the remaining air out at the end of the breath. Your muscles will feel it! Try this for several minutes twice per day.

Remember — Breathe!

Obviously, we all breathe throughout each and every day but paying attention to our breath is key when managing a panic attack. As such, we can easily take our normal rhythm for granted. Simply slowing down and paying attention to our breath is a great start. Practicing one or more of the above techniques on a regular basis can have real, positive impacts on mental health, particularly on the reduction of anxiety and stress.

Dr. Stephanie Smith, PsyD

Dr. Stephanie Smith, PsyD

Dr. Stephanie Smith, PsyD, earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from CU-Boulder, and her master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from the University of Denver. She has experience working in hospitals, primary care, nursing homes and community mental health settings. She has been the owner and clinical director of her practice in Erie since 2006.

The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.