It can feel that panic attacks ‘come out of nowhere’. What’s likely, however, is that you were feeling anxious in the time building up to an attack. 

When we breathe in, we take in oxygen and when we breathe out, we get rid of carbon dioxide. For the body to be healthy and run efficiently we need a balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide.

When we feel anxious we can start to breathe too quickly and take in too much oxygen which disrupts the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. This is called overbreathing or hyperventilating.

A drop in carbon dioxide can reduce blood flow to the brain. So our bodies respond by increasing our heart rate to pump more blood around. These changes can produce symptoms like dizziness, a feeling of light-headedness, numbness and tingling. Your chest muscles can also tighten up making it harder to breathe. Many people feel scared that they might stop breathing and take in more air.

Overbreathing isn’t dangerous in itself. But if you over breathe too often and for too long it can leave you feeling tired and tense and less able to cope with stressful situations.

Try to practise this breathing technique at least one or twice a day. The more you practise the more you will be aware of when you’re breathing too quickly and be able to control this in anxious situations.

Breathing technique

Taking a breath out and then slowly breathing in can help your body to relax. 

  1. Sit in a chair.
  2. Take a breath in (through your nose) for two seconds.
  3. Hold the breath for two seconds.
  4. Release the breath (through your nose) taking six seconds.
  5. Pause slightly and breathe in again.

It’s important to breathe deeply from your stomach. You can check you’re doing this by placing one hand on your stomach and one hand on your chest. The hand on your stomach should rise when you breathe in.

If you practise this exercise regularly it should become easier to remember to breathe like this when you’re feeling anxious. You can also watch our diaphragmatic breathing animation.

Read transcript of Diaphragmatic breathing animation