Panic attacks are one of the most common concerns of patients who come to see me in my practice. If you are struggling with panic attacks you may have been given this common advice:
If you’re like most of us, your reaction to this advice may have been “yeah, right….”. Something this simple does not seem like it will be of any help to you when you’re in the midst of a full-blown attack. I totally understand how you might feel this way about something so simple. You may have even tried it a few times without any benefit.
But here’s why breathing actually works. Aside from shifting your focus from your physical symptoms to something as simple as your breath, breathing has a direct effect on the mind-body connection.
When you’re experiencing anxiety, you tend to breathe out of only the top portion of your lungs. You breathe in rapid, short breaths and may even hyperventilate. This sends a message to your brain that there is an immediate danger. This used to come in handy when we were cavemen trying to avoid a saber toothed tiger, but for most of us this isn’t really a common scenario. Instead, our brain for some reason has gotten the message that there is an impending danger when it is actually a false alarm.
Even though we can rationalize that we are not in danger, the message our body is sending to our brain, in part due to our rapid breathing, is that we actually are. This amplifies our innate fight or flight response and the panic attack gets worse.
So how does breathing help then? As you continue to breathe slowly and deeply into the full capacity of your lungs, the brain sends a message to your body through the parasympathetic nervous system telling it that it can relax. When we consciously shift from shallow, rapid, upper-lung breathing to slow, deep belly breathing, this sends a different message to our brain – one that says you are not in danger. This will calm you down, decrease the intensity of the panic attack and it will go away.
Conscious, deep breathing is only one way of coping with panic attacks. As with most new skills, it becomes more effective over time and with practice. Here is a simple deep-breathing technique that you can try when you experience anxiety or panic:
- Close your eyes
- Start to become aware of your breathing
- Slowly breathe in to a count of four
- Hold for two counts
- Exhale to the count of four
- Hold for two counts
Repeat the above steps for two to three minutes.
If you struggle with panic attacks, practice the above breathing to start to break their grip over you.