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Control panic attacks by slowing your breathing

Woman taking deep breaths to calm herself

Control panic attacks by slowing your breathing

Dr. Anthony Warren
| 2018-12-03 | 7 min read

Panic attacks affect about 3 million adults in the US alone. They can be extremely debilitating. Heart rates soar as adrenaline rises, and an attack is typically accompanied with sweating, chills, nausea, dizziness, and an intense feeling of losing control. Breathing rate increases too and usually becomes erratic and difficult. Hyperventilation is common. A vicious circle may develop – just the fear of another attack actually triggers a new attack.

Although there can be a number of causes, it is generally accepted that the symptoms are a result of overreaction of the “fight and flight” branch of the autonomous nervous system, the “sympathetic mode”; the balancing and calming “rest and digest” branch, “the parasympathetic mode”  is unable to contain this overreaction. One way to help your natural in-built calming mechanism take control of the attack is to learn to breathe in a very relaxed way. This has to be practiced for a while before any attack occurs so you have a weapon that you can call upon as soon as you feel one coming on.

Typically we breathe at a rest-rate of 12-16 breaths a minute or even higher. During an attack, rates can exceed twice this. If you can learn to reduce your rate down to about 6 breaths a minute, you enter what is called the “coherence zone”. At this breathing rate, your heart and lungs work best together, with your heart slowing down when you exhale and speeding up as you inhale. This heightened “heart rate variability” is very efficient, reducing the load on your heart and helping you to calm down. It takes a few weeks of careful and diligent training to be able to slow right down to this level without over breathing, but it can really help when you feel an attack coming on.

And of course, the situation that triggers the attack is unlikely to be as threatening as you think, so once you have calmed down, you are more able to take a rational view of it. Imagine what is the worst thing that could happen and think of a plan to manage the situation in the highly unlikely event that is occurs. In this way you learn not to be so anxious which enables you to gradually break out of your vicious circle.

Sufferers of panic attacks often have poor breathing habits. Software to check your breathing habits and stress levels is available from breathesimple. Here is a short video that explains more about panic attacks and how improved breathing control can help:

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