From fear to calmness - How your breathing helps during a panic attack

June 15th, 2022,

5 min read

From fear to calmness - How your breathing helps during a panic attackfeatured image

Everyone panics sometimes. For example, when you are startled by a sudden frightening situation. This is a perfectly healthy reaction, however, when this momentary panic turns into all-consuming fear, without an actual threatening situation, you are dealing with a panic or anxiety attack.

How exactly do panic attacks work, and how can they be controlled?

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is best described as a wave of intense fear that suddenly overwhelms you. This can last a few minutes, but often longer. The overwhelming feeling usually subsides after half an hour.

Panic attacks can be recognized by various symptoms, such as an accelerated heartbeat, sweating, dizziness, trembling, hyperventilation, a stuffy feeling, or tingling sensations in your body. These physical reactions can, in turn, be frightening, which increases the feeling of fear and panic. It is therefore very important to try to break the circle of fear and calm yourself again. It is possible, even though you may not think so in the moment. Your breathing plays an essential role in calming yourself down.

Why do you get a panic attack?

One person suffers from them regularly, another will never experience them. There are several factors that increase the likelihood of panic attacks, yet there is never one clear cause.

Often it has to do with your thoughts and beliefs and the way you (unconsciously) react to external stimuli and emotions. Are you easily overwhelmed by what is happening outside and inside of you? Do you worry a lot about what could go wrong, do you see the glass as half empty rather than half full? The sooner you are inclined to cringe, the greater the chance of a panic attack.

Perfectionism, the urge to control, and the fear of failure also make you more susceptible to panic attacks. When you set the bar (too) high for yourself and hold on to 'how things should be', you will experience more tension and panic. After all, life is never in your control.

Did you know that what you eat and drink can also have a big impact? Caffeine has a big influence on your alertness and can make you nervous. This applies to coffee, but also to cola and red bull, tea, and even chocolate. Sugar (which can be found in more products than you think) isn't helping either.

What can you do in case of a panic attack?

Firstly, it is helpful to look into the triggers that cause you to panic. Can you - where possible - tackle them, or can you revise your outlook on the situation - with or without the help of a professional? This will get you a long way.

However, it is still difficult to completely prevent a panic attack. What can you do when you are in the middle of it? Your breathing plays a major role in controlling a panic attack. Consciously controlling (read: slowing down) your breathing is the most direct and effective way to shift your state. Moreover, it is the most practical and available tool, since your breathing is always with you.

Conscious breathing during a panic attack: 3 breathing exercises

The following three breathing exercises will help you to calm down quickly, at any moment you might need it. You can also do these exercises without having a panic attack, given they are beneficial for your health, each and every day. When you regularly practice slow breathing exercises, your nervous system becomes more balanced (which makes you less likely to panic) which makes you better prepared for those moments when you do panic.

1. Coherent breathing

Calm, coherent abdominal breathing regulates the nervous system and acts as a powerful antidote to fear and panic.

This coherent breathing exercise can be done in a sitting position or lying down if you find it more comfortable. As long as you are at peace, in a place where you feel safe and comfortable. Try to completely let go of any tension in your body during the exercise. It helps to close your eyes.

Put one hand on your lower abdomen so that you can breathe into this direction. Put your other hand on your chest. Breathe in and out through your nose at a slow pace: five counts in, five counts out. Try to breathe lightly: not too much, but slowly. If five counts is too slow for you, try three or four seconds first. As long as you breathe at a calm, coherent, even pace.

As you breathe, feel the hand on your belly move, the hand on your chest stays still. Focus completely on your breathing during the length of the exercise. Breathe like this for five to ten minutes, or simply until you have calmed down.

2. Box Breathing

This technique is used by Navy Seals in America (and for other stressful professions), because of its powerful calming effect on the autonomic nervous system. With box breathing you can quickly and effectively calm down your heart rate and regain focus. The exercise is called this way because you breathe along the imaginary four sides of a square (box).

Sit up, with your back straight, your feet flat on the floor and your eyes closed. Breathe in and out through your nose during the whole exercise. Breathe in gently for four counts. Then hold your breath for four counts. Breathe out for four counts. And hold again for four counts. Focus fully on your breathing. Continue for five to ten minutes, or simply until you feel calm again.

3. Extend your exhalation

Did you know that the inhalation is linked to the sympathetic nervous system (your 'gas pedal') and the exhalation to your parasympathetic nervous system (your 'brake pedal')? When you emphasize your exhalation by lengthening it, you automatically put more emphasis on the side of your nervous system that provides rest and relaxation. This way, you push the brake pedal and trigger the relaxation response in your body.

Sit up straight, close your eyes and relax your body. Breathe in gently and lightly through your nose for four seconds. Then exhale slowly for eight seconds - through your mouth with pursed lips, as if gently blowing air through a straw. This makes it easier to lengthen and slow down your exhalation.

Can't manage to breathe out for eight seconds? Then inhale three seconds and exhale for six. Always maintain a 1:2 pace. And remember: the slower your exhalation, the more you will push the brake pedal, the calmer you will feel. Continue like this for five to ten minutes, or simply until you feel calm enough to continue your day.

Want some extra help with slow breathing? Discover what moonbird can do for you.

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