Having panic attacks? Try slow breathing

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden episode of overwhelm and fear that triggers an intense physical reaction for no apparent reason.  They can be very frightening, in particular, when you feel like you’re losing control.  Panic attacks can be brought on by a severely stressful event, exhaustion, or extreme sleep deprivation.

When you have a panic attack, you may feel like you’re going crazy.  Your sympathetic nervous system is turned on to the maximum and you’re in fight, flight, or freeze.

When you’re in fight or flight.  Your heart rate increases, more blood flows into the limbs, your breath gets faster and you may start to sweat.  At some point, when you feel completely stuck, you may feel immobilised and unable to move.

When having a panick attack you may experience:

  • Feelings of suffocation or hyperventilation
  • Racing heart
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Pain in the chest

A panic attack may only last for a few minutes, but the after effects can be devastating.  You may end up living in fear of the next panic attack and start living in permanent stress.

The anxiety of the fear of a panic attack is debilitating.

Panic attacks and slow breathingPanic attacks can be a vicious circle that you may find hard to get under control, the more fearful you feel, the worse it gets.

Whilst you can’t control your nervous system with your mind, to some extent, you can using your breath.  When feeling fearful, your breath rate increases which causes the mind to run, creating more fear and so on.

When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, the breath rate gets faster. You could even find yourself taking 20 breaths in one minute.  Rapid breathing can contribute to, and exacerbate panic the attacks even more.

How many breaths do you take in a minute?

Take a break right now and see how many breaths you take in one minute. I read an interesting article in the Times of India who reported that doctors from Boston studied 5000 patients over 30 years and found that their breathing rate could predict both long term and short term mortality.

The optimum breath rate is between 6 and 10 breaths per minute!

Slow breathing to curb panic attacks

Science has proven that your inhale is connected to the sympathetic nervous system and your exhale is connected to your parasympathetic nervous system.  Therefore if you lengthen the exhale, you are activating the part of the nervous system that calms you down.  You’re also significantly taking less breaths in one minute.

Try this:

  1. Sit quietly with your back up straight
  2. Set a timer for 10 mins
  3. Close your eyes
  4. Inhale to the count of 4, exhale to the count of 8
  5. If you find 4 too little and 8 too much, try inhaling for 5 and exhaling for 7
  6. At the end of 10 minutes, sit quietly for a few moments before getting up.

Breathe better sleep better



Extended exhalation and the sympathetic nervous system

What are panic attacks NHS

Research on slow breathing and panic attacks