A lot of symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety are induced by shallow breathing. Symptoms include dizziness, impaired senses, pins and needles and more. Without medicalising this too much the reason for these symptoms are an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, caused by hyperventilating and shallow breathing.
Some sufferers of panic attacks develop a habit of shallow breathing, which creates these symptoms during and in between attacks. This is similar for anxiety sufferers, who practise shallow breathing during periods of high anxiety. Once recognised the sufferer should begin practising proper, abdominal breathing which, in turn, can reduce anxiety and panic symptoms.
Before I move onto proper breathing I will give you a quick biology lesson on why proper breathing can reduce anxiety and panic symptoms. Our nervous system is broken up into two systems: peripheral and central nervous systems (PNS and CNS respectively). The PNS is broken up into more systems, one being the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is what controls the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (SNS and PSNS respectively). The diagram below should help with the ordering of these systems:
The SNS is what reacts during the fight-and-flight response. This is what is responsible for your symptoms of anxiety, stress and panic. When the threat has gone the PSNS is responsible for rest-and-digest and feed-and-breed, meaning it relaxes the body and takes it off guard.
When anxious or panicking in a situation that has no danger to us (like shopping) there is no use to us for a guard to be up, so to switch off the SNS and switch on the PSNS. Although everything in the ANS is controlled subconsciously (like digesting our food and reflexes) we have an indirect control over our SNS and PSNS. To reduce the symptoms of anxiety and panic proper, abdominal breathing can bring our heart rate down, resulting in other symptoms to reduce, i.e. sweating and dizziness, and eventually stop them.
Now you understand how important it is to practise proper breathing let me explain how it is done. Proper breathing is deep, slow and rhythmic. Whilst hyperventilating is concentrated in the upper chest proper breathing concentrates in the abdomen. Breaths in cause the abdomen to expand outwards and retracts when breathing out. Placing your hand on your abdomen you can tell if you are breathing properly. Different organisations, groups and people give different breathing rates, some say breathe in for five seconds, out for seven, three in and three out or two in and five out. I will not give a specific number as people have different lung capacities, one method could cause over breathing for some or it could cause under breathing for others. Experiment to see how long you prefer. Remember to pause during breaths. Here is a step by step process:
- Relax and untense yourself, sitting somewhere quiet
- Breathe in, feeling your abdomen expand outwards
- Hold for a few seconds
- Breathe out, feeling your abdomen retract
- Hold for a few seconds – and start again
It is most beneficial when you practise proper breathing at home. Set aside some time to practise your breathing, preferably somewhere quiet and comfortable, and practise for a few minutes. Once the fundamentals have been learnt this can be done in front of the television or on the bus. That way you prepare yourself for when you need to regulate your breathing and it has a higher chance of working. Do not be disheartened if it does not work the first time, like many techniques it takes practise. As this becomes second nature you will find symptoms like chest pains and dizziness will start to lessen and subside.