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How to Use Breathing Techniques to Help Counter a Panic Attack: According to a Breathwork Coach

Profile of a woman leaning against a tree, with her head in the air taking in a deep breath

Ever wondered how to calm down from a panic attack? If you’re experienced panic attacks in the past, the symptoms of an onset may be familiar to you: a sudden sense of impending danger, or fear of loss of control or death, a rapid, pounding heartbeat, sweating, trembles and shakes, chest pain – all sometimes accompanied by a sense of crushing pressure, dizziness or faintness, shortness of breath and more. 

Related: The sounds of nature may benefit your mental health: Study.

The attacks are sudden episodes of oppressive fear that trigger severe physical reactions, such as the ones described above. But here is the kicker: panic attacks can strike anywhere, any time, and may happen even when there is no clear danger or cause. Some people only experience one in their lifetime, while others have recurring attacks. 

Regardless of frequency, a panic attack is an unpleasant experience for many because it can very much feel like the person is dying or experiencing a heart attack. Luckily, there are breathing techniques you can learn to help calm yourself down during a panic attack or when you feel stressed. 

DISCLOSURE: This advice is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare practitioner. Always seek medical advice that is specific to you and your situation.

Related: Stress vs anxiety: How to tell the difference.

Hand holding a polaroid with the words "and breathe" on it

Why breathwork is important to our nervous system

We spoke with certified breathwork coach Steph Cabrera to find out more about breathing techniques — and how they can help. Cabrera first discovered the impact breathing can have on our bodies while travelling to India for her yoga teacher training, back in November 2016.

“I learned about Pranayama, which is a type of breathwork performed in yoga… I felt so alive and connected to my body that I realised I needed to learn more about breathwork and the science behind it,” says Cabrera. “[I]n 2018, I became certified as a Breathing Coach and began teaching as soon as I finished the course.”

See also: We need to acknowledge BIPOC mental health during times of crisis


Cabrera has experienced big benefits from integrating this practice into her own daily self-care ritual. She says, “Breathwork is a powerful way to tap into the body’s natural ability to heal itself. My daily breathing practice has helped me transform my life by improving my mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well-being. 

“Our breath, or prana (life force energy), is essentially what keeps us alive, but we often go through the day breathing shallowly, denying ourselves our full life force, which keeps us in a condition of tension, or fight or flight. Integrating deep rhythmic breathing into my morning routine has helped me take control of my emotions and the way I respond to stressful situations by balancing my nervous system, moving me out of fight-or-flight mode and into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and relax).”

Related: Want to improve your wellbeing? Optimism may be the key: Study.

Cabrera adds, “Not only have I been able to manage my emotions with my breath, but I’ve also been able to relieve tension and anxiety, fall asleep faster, improve digestion and boost my energy in the morning — this is my source of energy as a non-coffee person. One of the most important benefits I’d like to emphasize is that through my daily practice of breathwork, I’ve been able to release trauma and fear stuck in my body, as well as create a deeper relationship with myself and improve self-love.”   

Try these three breathing techniques to help counter a panic attack

Diaphragmatic breathing technique (also known as belly breathing):

@steph_cabreram Breathwork for anxiety #breathworkhealing #anxietytips #breathcoach ♬ Restore tranquility-meditation – Red Blue Studio

As Cabrera explains, “In this breathing technique, we inhale and exhale through the nose (or the mouth if that feels better for you). This technique massages the vagus nerve, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest-and-relax response).” 

  • Close your eyes and place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand on your belly, below the ribcage.
  • Allow your belly to relax, without forcing it inward by squeezing or clenching your muscles.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose. The air should move into your nose and downward so that you feel your stomach rise with your other hand and fall inward (toward your spine).
  • Exhale slowly through the nose or pursed lips. Take note of the hand on your chest, which should remain relatively still.

Breathing pattern

  • Step 1: Breathe in as slowly, deeply and gently as you can for a count of three.
  • Step 2: Breathe out slowly, deeply and gently as well for a count of three.
  • Step 3: Inhale again for a count of four.
  • Step 4: Exhale for a count of four.
  • Step 5: Inhale for a count of five.
  • Step 6: Exhale for a count of five.

After finishing the first round, take a deep breath in through the nose and exhale through the mouth with a big sigh. Take a moment to reset and begin again with another round; repeat this for 10-20 minutes. 

Related: Over a third of Canadians are burnt out, according to study.

Box breathing technique:

@steph_cabreram If it’s good enough for Navy Seals then it’s good enough for me! #breathwork #calmyournerves #breathingtechnique ♬ Moon and Sun – yoga

This breathing technique is used by Navy SEALs to calm their nerves before going into combat. In this technique the breath is broken down into four equal parts like the sides of a square. Box breathing is a simple but powerful relaxation technique that can help return your breathing pattern to a relaxed rhythm. It can clear and calm your mind, improving your focus.

Breathing pattern

  • Step 1: Find a comfortable chair or place to lie down.
  • Step 2: Inhale for a count of four. 
  • Step 3: Hold air in your lungs for a count of four. 
  • Step 4: Exhale for four, emptying all of the air in your lungs.
  • Step 5: Hold your lungs empty for another count of four.
  • Step 6: Repeat for five minutes, or as long as is necessary to feel refocused and relaxed.

See also: The art of saying ‘no’ and creating personal boundaries.

4-7-8 breathing technique:

@steph_cabreram Even when your mind resists, keep doing the breathing ✨🧘🏽‍♀️ #breathingforsleep ♬ original sound – Stephanie Cabrera

This breathing technique is used to induce a deep state of relaxation in the body. Your body refills oxygen supply by following specific patterns that involve holding the breath for a period of time. If you’re having trouble sleeping because of anxiousness or concerns about what happened today — or what might happen tomorrow —  try this technique. 

Breathing pattern

  • Step 1: Find a comfortable chair or place to lie down.
  • Step 2: Inhale through your nose as you count to four in your head.
  • Step 3: Hold your breath for a count of seven.
  • Step 4: Exhale through your nose for a count of eight. 

It’s recommended that you only practice 4-7-8 breathing for four breaths when you’re first starting out. You can gradually work your way up to eight full breaths.

Related: ‘Sunday scaries’ are real — here’s how to get rid of it for good.

Why these breathing techniques may help

Cabrera points to the science backing the physiological effects of breath. “Our autonomic nervous system controls all the involuntary activities in the body, like heart rate and digestion.”

Cabrera notes that the autonomic nervous system is made up of two counterbalancing parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). 

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“The sympathetic system controls and stimulates ‘fight-or-flight’ responses, preparing us for danger or arousal. The parasympathetic nervous system controls and stimulates the ‘rest-and-relax’ responses, guiding us into a calm state,” she says. 

“Changing the rhythm of the breath can signal relaxation.”

And research backs the notion that breath control can change your life. “Different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing,” says Cabrera, adding that, “changing how we breathe can change how we feel.”

See also: How to support a friend struggling with mental health, according to an expert.

“Focusing on long exhales slows your heart rate and stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs from the brainstem to the abdomen, and is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Triggering your PSN helps you start to calm down, you feel better and your ability to think rationally returns.

“Your heart rate increases as you inhale. It slows down when you exhale. For example, breathing in for four counts and out for eight counts for a few minutes will help to relax your nervous system. Remember: when you feel agitated, lengthen your exhales.”

So next time you start to feel yourself experiences moments of panic, give these breathing techniques a try, and see if they help. If not, it may be a good idea to also consider speaking to a mental health professional to help find additional support.

See also: More sleep could help support youth mental wellness: Study.


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