If you have ever experienced a panic attack you will know how scary they are. One of the best ways to cope with them is to understand the link to your breathing. When we are stressed or anxious the ratio of gases we breathe in and out is changed due to shallow breathing.
The ‘fight or flight’ response is a primitive survival instinct that is triggered when we perceive danger. Adrenaline, a hormone, is released to allow us to run from danger and this causes many changes in our bodies: one of which is to breathe quickly and shallowly to get oxygen to the large muscles we need for running away. This is not useful in many situations where we may feel anxious or stressed in our modern lives. This creates the symptoms of panic attacks. So the answer is to start breathing more deeply to reinstate the normal ratios of gases we need to feel at ease and calm again.
What are Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks are extremely frightening, come on suddenly and don’t last very long. About 5% of the population experience them. They are usually the result of stress but other things contribute such as low blood sugar levels, drinking lots of coffee, alcohol, smoking or other stimulants.
Any of the following may be experienced when you have a panic attack:
Difficulty breathing Also worrying thoughts such as:
Heart palpitations I’m losing control
Sweating I’m going mad
Shaking I’m going to die
Chest pains I’m embarrassing myself
Dizziness I can’t breath
Feelings of unreality
(If any of the above symptoms persist then contact your GP to rule out any other illness or causes)
The key thing to understand is that Panic Attacks are caused by a build up of stress and anxiety which effects the way you breathe.
When stressed you breath more quickly and more shallowly, higher up in the chest. This does not allow your body to receive the right balance of gases and triggers off the panic attack.
What to do:
Drop your shoulders;
Expand your chest
Breathe deeply into your diaphragm.
When deep breathing you will feel your stomach rise when you breathe in and lower as you breath out.
This will rebalance the gases and stop the symptoms.
The old fashioned method of breathing into a brown paper bag worked because it allows you to re-breath expired air. This is useful if you have not acted quickly. You probably won’t have a paper bag at hand so you can cup your hands over your mouth and nose like a mask and hold them there.
Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth and then breathe in your own exhaled air.
Doing this slowly and without holding your breath 4-5 times will stabilise the balance of carbon dioxide and the symptoms will stop.
Panic attacks will not kill you
The feelings will soon pass as soon as you breathe slowly and deeply.
Stay in the situation, don’t run away or it will be more difficult in the future.