Do you frequently find yourself in situations where you find it hard to breathe? It’s a frightening experience. Shortness of breath is a common symptom of anxiety, and over 280 million people suffer from it.

When you feel stressed or threatened, your body enters the flight-or-fight state. This causes your heart rate to increase, and your muscles become ready for action. To make certain muscles get more oxygen, you start breathing more rapidly, resulting in shortness of breath. The scientific name for shortness of breath is dyspnea. 

If you’ve been experiencing shortness of breath, then don’t panic! There are things you can do to prevent it from happening. Here are 12 ways that will help you overcome shortness of breath and fight anxiety:

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

To fight anxiety and shortness of breath, you first need to understand what they are. Knowing your problems can relieve you of stress and give you some comfort. There are two techniques used in CBT to help you relax: Calm Breathing and Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

     a. Calm breathing

Calm breathing helps you slow down your breathing. You should practice this technique at least twice a day for about 10 minutes. Make sure you breathe through your diaphragm and not through your chest. Breathing through your chest doesn’t transfer as much oxygen to the blood, and it can cause you to take rapid, shallow breaths.

To perform calm breathing, follow these steps: –

     i. Sit or lie down flat in a comfortable position

     ii. Put one hand on your belly and the other hand on the chest

     iii. Take a deep breath through your nose. Let the air push your hand on the belly up. Your chest movement should stay

     iv. Breath out through your pursed lips (like whistling). Feel your hand on the belly sinking in, and use the movement to push out all the air

     v. Repeat this process 3 to 10 times slowly

     vi. Feel your feeling at the end of the exercise

     b. Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that you use to tense and relax different muscle groups. When you panic due to shortness of breath and anxiety, your muscles become tense, which sometimes results in body aches. To release the tension and get rid of the pain, you tense different muscles for 4 to 10 seconds as you inhale and then relax them.

Once you relax your body, the anxiety will go away on its own, and your breathing will be normal again. Like the Calm Breathing technique, you can practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation several times a day. 

To perform progressive muscle relaxation, perform these steps: –

  1. Breath in and tense the first set of muscle
  2. Breath out and relax the first set of muscle
  3. Relax for 20 seconds. Then repeat step (i) and (ii) for the second set of muscle
  4. Repeat (i) to (iii) for other muscles
  5. When you finish (i) to (iv), pause for 5 seconds, and focus on the current moment. Your muscle should feel more relaxed

CBT will help you recognize your negative thoughts to learn to challenge them and replace them with more realistic ones. About 75% of patients with anxiety prefer psychotherapy over medication.

2. Medication

If you feel CBT isn’t helping you, then your doctor will prescribe medications. The most common medications used to treat shortness of breath include:

     a. Alprazolam/Xanax

     b. Clonazepam/Klonopin

     c. Diazepam/Valium

     d. Lorazepam/Ativan

These medications will make your symptoms disappear in just 30 minutes. Avoid these medications for more than 4 weeks because of side effects and addiction. Medicines are safe as long as you take them according to your doctor’s instructions. According to a survey by the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, more than 1 in 6 Americans take sedatives or antidepressants.

These medications may cause you to feel drowsy, so make sure you don’t drive or use heavy machinery when you’re under their influence.

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3. Pursed Lip Breathing

Pursed lip breathing is a simple breathing technique that will slow down your pace of breathing. You can use it to release trapped air from your lungs, and it’s helpful in situations like lifting heavy objects or running.

Here’s how you can do it:

     a. Relax your neck and shoulder muscles.

     b. Inhale through your nose and count to two. Keep your mouth closed.

     c. Purse your lips like you do when you’re about to whistle.

     d. Exhale slowly through your pursed lips and count to four.

It may seem odd initially, but it’ll start to seem natural to you if you keep practicing. Just make sure you exhale for longer than you inhale. The pursed-lip will help you improve ventilation, and with prolonged exhalation, you can slow your breathing rate. It’ll also improve breathing patterns by keeping the airways open for a longer time, forcing old air out of the lungs.

4. Posture

Bad posture can also contribute to shortness of breath. When you have rounded shoulders and a forward head posture, the muscles around your chest become tight. Tightening of chest muscles limits your rib cage to expand, resulting in rapid, shallow breathing.

Bad posture also makes it hard for you to access your diaphragm and belly breathing. When your brain doesn’t get the oxygen it needs, it turns to other breathing muscles like the neck and the chest.

There are exercises you can do to fix your bad posture. To fix rounded shoulders, try doing some “chest doorway stretches” – stand in front of a doorway and place your hands on either side of it, slowly move forward with one leg stretched toward the other side of the doorway. Shift your weight on the foot that’s on the other side of the doorway, and you’ll begin to feel a stretch in your chest. Do this three times for about 15-30 seconds.

You can also use a resistance/exercise band to fix your rounded shoulders. All you have to do is stand upright with your back straight and pull the band apart while holding it with an overhand grip. Make sure you squeeze your shoulder blades together when you pull the band!

There are a lot of other exercises that you can do to improve your posture. The most important thing that you should do is always stand with your back straight. Once you’ve fixed your posture, you’ll start to notice significant improvements in your breathing patterns.

5. Count your breaths

It’s a good idea to focus on your breathing pattern when you feel like you’re experiencing shortness of breath. Find a quiet place and sit comfortably. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Release it while saying any word you think would make you feel at ease.

Take normal breaths 10 times and count each breath. Don’t forget to relax your muscles while you’re breathing! Once you’ve finished counting to 10, open your eyes. You’ll notice that you feel less stressed, your muscles are more relaxed, and most importantly, your pace of breathing is now normal!

6. Say no to caffeine, alcohol, and smoking

What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Drink coffee? Now you need to stop doing that because too much caffeine can increase anxiety, leading to shortness of breath. Caffeine triggers the flight-or-fight response we mentioned above, and this can make your anxiety worse.

Alcohol is great if you want to feel a little light-headed so you can socialize, but it can be quite detrimental if you suffer from anxiety and shortness of breath. It changes the level of serotonin and other neurotransmitters, which can worsen your symptoms of anxiety. You may end up trying to cope with the anxiety by drinking more, which will cause you to become addicted to alcohol.

Regularly smoking nicotine can also make your symptoms worse. Many people think that smoking helps them relax, but that’s far from the truth. It only helps them with their nicotine withdrawal symptoms. Smoking harms the lungs, which will, of course, affect the way you breathe. So if you want to overcome shortness of breath, make sure you stop damaging your lungs by smoking!

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7. Distract yourself

Often, people experience shortness of breath when they think about the way they’re breathing. Focusing on your breathing can cause hyperventilation.

Whenever you are too focused on your breathing, you have to find ways to distract yourself. Try watching your favorite show on Netflix or talking to a friend who will help you forget about your problem.

When you are distracted, your muscles will relax, and your body will subconsciously retake control of your breathing, allowing you to breathe normally. 

Alternatively, breathing through a paper bag will prevent hyperventilation. This is due to the amount of oxygen intake into the body. So, breathing through the paper bag will regulate the amount of oxygen intake and prevent hyperventilation.

8. Breathe through your nose

When a person is having an anxiety attack, they sometimes start breathing through their mouth. This is considered an “emergency function,” and it’s a sympathetic stress response. Your heart rate increases, and it becomes difficult to breathe. To combat these symptoms, you have to get your body to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. You can do that by breathing through your nose.

Breathing through your nose will switch your breathing pattern, and it’ll tell your brain that the thing that was causing the anxiety is no longer around. Your breathing pattern will become calmer, and you’ll start to feel relaxed.

Inhale through your nose to fill your lower lungs with air, and then exhale. Make sure it’s your stomach that’s moving when you breathe and not your shoulders.

9. 4-7-8 breathing

Dr. Andrew Weil develops the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Aside from helping you gain control over your breathing, this technique can also help you fall asleep.

You can use this technique to enter into a state of relaxation, which will regulate your body’s balance and the fight or flight response when your body feels threatened. According to Dr. Weil, it is a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”

Before you do this breathing technique, make sure you have a good posture. Press the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth and keep it there while breathing. Many people prefer to purse their lips while doing the 4-7-8 breathing exercise.

Breathe out through your mouth. Breathe in through your nose while counting to four. Hold it in for seven seconds. Next, breathe out through your mouth and count to eight. Repeat this technique four times. The most crucial step of the whole process is holding your breath for seven seconds. If you’re doing this for the first time, only do it four times. When it starts to feel natural to you, you can start doing it eight times.

10. Fan

A clinical trial in England proved that a handheld fan could reduce the sensation of breathlessness.

Whenever you experience shortness of breath, sit in a chair or any place where you feel comfortable and hold the fan 15 cm from your face. Aim it towards your cheeks so that you feel the air around the side of your nose and above your top lip. The feeling of breathlessness will disappear almost immediately.

If you don’t have a handheld fan, you can also use a desktop or floor standing fan. Even opening your windows to let in the air would help. If you don’t have any fan at all, try pressing a cool cloth against your face.

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11. Take steam

Sometimes anxiety can give you a stuffy nose and cause sinuses problems, making it hard to breathe. To clear your nose, you should try inhaling steam. The heat and moisture you inhale from steam cause the mucus in the lungs to break down, helping you relieve breathlessness.

It’s a simple process, and anyone can do it at home in 4 simple steps: – 

  1.      Boil some water and pour it into a bowl
  2.      Add some drops of peppermint or eucalyptus essential oil into the water
  3.      Place a towel on your head and inhale the steam
  4.      Cover the bowl with a lid when you’re not inhaling the steam. Make sure the water isn’t too hot, or the steam can burn your face.

12. Do Yoga

Yoga has been proven to increase breath awareness, and it slows down your breathing rate. One study published in 2016 found that yoga can improve people’s quality of life and symptoms with asthma.

Yoga helps to slow down your breathing whenever you have an anxiety attack. Daily stretching exercises will relax your muscles, and you’ll feel more at ease. Here are some yoga poses you can do to relax your muscles and improve your breathing pattern:

            a. Forward Bend opens up the chest and stretches the back muscles. Stand upright, fold your body forward, and slightly bend your knees to avoid putting any stress on your lower back.

            b. Side Bend relieves pressure from the side of your body and your lungs. Stand with your feet a few centimeters apart and pull your belly in, but not so far in that you find it difficult to breathe with your diaphragm. With your right hand on your right hip and your left arm raised over your head, bend slowly towards the right. Inhale and exhale while holding the pose for a few seconds. Now repeat these steps on the other side.

            c. Savasana is highly recommended for people with asthma, but it works great for those who suffer from anxiety. Lie down on your back, your arms resting on your sides. Relax your jaw and close your eyes. Focus on the way you breathe and gently slow down your breathing. Keep this pose for 5-10 minutes, and you’ll notice your body will start to get more relaxed.

Key takeaways

These are some of the best ways to relieve shortness of breath. If you do even one of the breathing exercises mentioned here correctly, you’ll easily be able to control and regulate your breathing. The key is to get your muscles to relax and to breathe with your diaphragm. Don’t be disappointed if some of these don’t work on the first try! Proper breathing is a skill, and like any other skill, it demands time and lots of practice.

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Alternatively, if you need to seek psychotherapy, be sure to check out Ahealo is an online psychotherapy platform with a diverse range of psychotherapists for many different fields of mental challenges. Ahealo provides ePsychotherapy at an affordable price, confidential, convenient (through a web page 1-1 private video call), and at your comfortable schedule. 

With these options, we believe your shortness of breath can be resolved soon.

Take care, and stay well.