How Breathing Can Reduce Many of the Symptoms of Panic Attacks

March 8, 2013

panic attack

Image Credit: Mark Haertl

by Ryan Rivera

Panic attacks may be an anxiety condition, but they’re characterized by some severe physical symptoms. These symptoms can be so debilitating that many people end up in ambulances, on their way to the hospital because they believe they’re suffering from a heart attack, brain tumor, or some type of dangerous and deadly disease.

But panic attacks and panic disorder are still caused by nothing more than anxiety, and in many ways it’s how you react to your attacks that create panic attacks so severe that they require hospitalization.

Stopping the Panic Symptoms

Panic attacks can be triggered by stress, or they can be triggered by nothing at all. Some people have panic attacks only during moments of intense anxiety, while others can have a panic attack simply because they notice that their heart feels different than normal, as though something is wrong with it. Some people experience panic attacks simply because they are afraid of getting one.

No matter what causes your panic attacks, the more severe the panic attack is the more likely you are to:

  • Fear getting one if the future
  • Alter your behavior to avoid panic attacks
  • Experience health anxiety over “what if” questions about panic attack symptoms.

That’s why it’s so important it is to not just cure your panic attacks, but also reduce their severity when you experience one. One of the best ways to do that is to simply change the way you’re breathing.

Panic Attacks and Hyperventilation

Panic attacks can cause many symptoms, including chest pains, rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and weakness or tingling in the extremities. But most of these symptoms aren’t caused by the anxiety itself. It’s caused by a symptom of that anxiety known as hyperventilation.

Most people have heard of hyperventilation before, usually as kids when their parents tell them not to breathe in and out too quickly. But what you may not realize is that hyperventilation isn’t the act of not getting enough oxygen. It’s actually the act of breathing out too much carbon dioxide. Your body needs carbon dioxide to operate, and when you breathe too quickly you end up with blood that actually has too much oxygen.

Breathing quickly isn’t the only way to hyperventilate either. You can also hyperventilate by trying to take deeper breaths than your body needs, and not holding that air for long enough for it to turn into carbon dioxide. This is especially relevant because hyperventilation can actually cause you to feel as though you’re not getting enough oxygen, causing you to take deeper breaths than you need in order to compensate and unfortunately making your hyperventilation worse.

Reducing Hyperventilation Symptoms

Since most of the worst symptoms of panic attacks are the result of hyperventilation, then it stands to reason that if you can stop hyperventilating before or during an attack, you should be able to reduce the panic attack’s severity.

That’s why when you feel like a panic attack is coming on it is in your best interests to slow down your breathing. Try breathing in slowly through your nose for 5 seconds, holding for 3 seconds, and then breathing out through pursed lips for 7 seconds. This type of slower breathing will rebuild some of the carbon dioxide levels in your body, and potentially reduce the severity of your panic attack symptom.

Only the First Part of the Process

Reducing the severity of your panic attacks isn’t going to cure them forever, because hyperventilation is not the sole cause of the attack. But a weaker panic attack is a great first step, because it reduces the fear that you have over the meaning and future of your panic attacks, and from there you can learn to combat the anxiety and hopefully life a panic attack free life.