breathingWhat’s one of the first things you notice when a panic attack begins?

For many people, the answer is, “I start to hyperventilate…I can’t catch my breath. It’s scary.”

It is scary to feel as if you can’t catch your breath. But interestingly, breathing – that is, proper breathing – could be the key to stopping panic in its tracks.

How Breathing Impacts the Cycle of Panic

First, you need to know the mechanism that makes your breathing seem so disordered (and scary) during a panic attack. Here’s how it works:

  • The sufferer feels the onset of panic. Often this comes “out of the blue,” without an actual cause of the stress, making things even more frightening.
  • Her heart begins to race, following the brain’s signal that “something is wrong” and initiating the well-known fight-or-flight response. The rapid heart beat pushes blood more quickly through her system in case she needs to run, or to fight an attacker. (Your body doesn’t know the difference between a real, imminent threat and fear/panic that has no tangible source. It only knows that it wants to protect you.)
  • A faster heart beat requires more oxygen, so the sufferer begins to pant or breathe very quickly.
  • With an excess of oxygen now in her system that isn’t used up by actually running, she begins to feel faint as the oxygen floods her brain.
  • The faint feeling makes her more frightened, and she breathes harder. The cycle repeats until the apex of the panic attack (after which the symptoms actually begin to subside – it’s important to note that very few individuals actually faint from a panic attack).

Now here is how taking control of one’s breathing can actually cut this circular reaction off at the pass and create a calming effect:

  • Feeling the onset of a panic attack, the sufferer notices her heart beating faster and her breathing speeding up and becoming more shallow.
  • She deliberately slows her breathing to a normal (not too deep and not too slow) series of breaths. Her heart is still pounding, she is still frightened and she may be experiencing other panic symptoms – such as tingling hands and feet and a feeling of unreality – but she continues her series of measured breaths. It is important to note that she is still frightened – she does not need to feel emotionally “calm” in order to physically begin altering the panic process.
  • The brain receives the signal from her slowed breathing that the danger has passed or that there is no danger, and it signals the heart to slow to a more normal rhythm.
  • As the heart resumes a more normal, non-stressed rhythm and oxygen levels equalize due to the natural breathing, other symptoms of the panic attack disappear.
  • As the symptoms disappear, the sufferer now emotionally feels better as well (she is less frightened), completing the circuit and ending the panic attack.

Indeed, this is one of the most fascinating things about a panic attack: you can “trick” your brain into responding in such a way that even the physical symptoms of a panic attack disappear.

It’s quite simple, really: your brain was tricked into thinking there was a real, physical danger, and it responded the way any stressed brain would respond. You’re simply reversing the process and telling your brain – via your breathing – that there isn’t actually any danger present. This causes it to respond the way a non-stressed brain would respond, and it communicates calmer signals to the rest of the body.

Exercise: Breathe Your Way Free of a Panic Attack

The technique is simple and can be done anywhere, any time you experience a panic attack.

  1. First, you’ll need to raise the carbon dioxide (CO2) level in your bloodstream and brain that has been lowered via hyperventilating. (When you hyperventilate, even though it often feels as if you can’t breathe, you’re actually getting too much oxygen into your system, and this depletes the CO2). This step is easy: cup your hands over your mouth. Breathe slowly, as if you would if you were sitting still and were feeling calm. What you’re breathing back in is CO2. Do this for one to two minutes. Do not perform this part of the exercise for longer than two minutes.
  2. Take your hands away from your face and slowly, without straining, breathe in for a count of 5.
  3. Hold your breath like that (your lungs should not feel as if they’re straining) for a quick count of 7.
  4. Exhale slowly, without forcing the air, for a count of 5-9. This will vary; don’t feel as if you’re forcing out more air than is in your lungs.
  5. Pause for a moment, then repeat steps 3-4 above up to five more times.
  6. Now breathe regularly, at the speed you would if you were sitting still and calm.
  7. If you need to, repeat steps 3-4, pausing for at least one full minute in between.

Will it Really Work?

Yes. You are effectively telling your brain that the situation is calm and that you do not need to either fight or flee. There’s no magic here; it is simple biology. If there is no danger present (as signaled by the quality of your breathing), the “panic” reactions – heightened terror, trembling, faster heartbeat, tingling and numbness – will slow and then disappear.

Of course, it may take some practice. You are re-training your brain in how to respond to a panic attack. Don’t worry or feel as if you’re doing things incorrectly if you don’t instantly feel calmer. Your goal is to reduce stress, not add to it by worrying about counting and steps.

If you’re not sure of the steps or can’t remember them clearly during your panic attack, simply follow them to the best of your recollection. Simply slowing and concentrating on your breathing will be enough to begin breaking the panic-pant-panic cycle of a typical panic attack.

Remember, your body doesn’t want to hurt you – it wants to help you. Assure your body that it is safe and protected by breathing in a way that tells it that all is well. The more you know about your body, and the more you make friends with it and work with rather than against it, the more you will begin to trust yourself, your reactions…and your ability to calm yourself any time, anywhere.