How to Breathe to End a Panic Attack

by Dr. Lorrie Fisher
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The way most people learn that they’re having a panic attack is that they go to an emergency room and are told that there is nothing wrong with them. Perhaps this has happened to you. And the doctors have said that a panic attack isn’t really dangerous. But you’ve been thinking that you may be the first person to die or go crazy from it. And some people become so fearful of the possibility of something triggering a panic attack, that they stop their normal life activities and refuse to leave home. It’s not so much that they are embarrassed, but that they can’t figure out what is causing the attacks, so they try to limit their exposure. What most doctors won’t explain is that panic is a breathing problem. And fortunately, there is a breathing exercise for panic attacks that will help you stop them!

A panic attack is progressive. In addition to a racing heart, there are sensations of numbness and tingling, feelings of unreality, and perhaps a feeling of faintness. Thoughts begin to race – especially about escaping or dying. These fearful thoughts and strange sensations cause fear which causes the heart to race even more, which intensifies the thoughts and sensations. So panic is fear of fear.

 

The Science of Panic Attacks

Let’s take a look at what science tells us about panic attacks. You already know that your bloodstream carries oxygen to all the cells in your body. What you may not know is that breathing is how you are mostly made of water! Oxygen in your blood is released to cells to join with 2 hydrogens that are left over from each cell’s energy production cycle. Voila: H2O. Water! Hydrogens left alone are acidic (like hydrochloric acid) – so oxygen delivery protects the cells. When this is compromised, the brain stem sends out distress signals.

When people are stressed, they tend to hyperventilate. Hyperventilation involves forceful exhaling, shallow breathing, and rapid breathing. Ironically, hyperventilation may be accompanied by breath-holding or sighing, which are ways the body tries to counteract hyperventilation. Your body is built to handle hyperventilating if you’re running a race or running to safety. But it isn’t designed to handle hyperventilating when you’re watching TV. Some people, especially anxious or angry people, may chronically hyperventilate – just a little. But it ends up being enough to cause a problem.Hyperventilation interferes with the release of oxygen from the bloodstream to the rest of the body. The bloodstream is carrying plenty of oxygen, but the brainstem notices that levels in the cells are getting low. It sends a message to the heart to pump harder and faster to deliver oxygen. But the racing heart triggers more exhaling, and levels in the body get even lower. In the brain, this causes racing thoughts, and in the body even more sensations.

 

Breathing Exercise for Dealing with Panic Attacks

The great news is that panic attacks are a result of too much exhaling! That’s something you can easily learn to control. There is a very easy and inexpensive way:

Get a regular drinking straw. Place one end of it in your mouth. Practice breathing in through your nose without letting your shoulders raise, and with a relaxed belly. Then exhale through the straw — but silently. You will immediately become aware of how much force you are using to exhale. Make that gentle, so that the air just leaks out instead of being pushed out.

When you can do 7 breath cycles without hearing any exhalation noise, you will have the key to stopping panic. Control of exhaling will bring oxygen and carbon dioxide into the right balance in your bloodstream, which will allow the release of oxygen to all of your cells. Your brainstem will respond by moderating your heart rate, and by sending signals to the brain that you are well and doing fine. Some people report a feeling of peace and calm from this powerful breathing remedy.

 

 

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Dr. Lorrie Fisher

Dr. Lorrie Fisher is a PhD Psychophysiologist (literally, a doctor of mind-body integration). She specializes in recovery from problems with trauma, anxiety, attention, and grief.  Dr. Fisher resides in Southern California, but provides holistic telemedicine solutions through online conversational hypnotherapy as well as remote neurofeedback and biofeedback. Learn more at FisherBehavior.com

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