Anxiety is a common occurrence for people with chronic lung diseases and it makes sense. If you’ve never had to gasp for your next breath or stop and sit down after walking just a few steps then you cannot begin to understand the feelings that accompany it. Not being able to take in a full breath brings on a feeling of suffocation which can lead to anxiety causing even more distress.  Add to that worry about a global pandemic that affects the respiratory system and you’ve got the recipe for a full-blown panic attack. Aside from reaching for your rescue inhaler or nebulizer there are some things you can do that may help calm you down when shortness of breath occurs and isn’t getting any better.

  • Use purse-lipped breathing techniques to slow your breathing and release more carbon dioxide. Breathe in through your nose for 2 seconds and out through your mouth, pursing your lips as if you are blowing out candles on a cake for 4-6 seconds. Continue until you begin to feel a little more relaxed and are breathing better. This technique can also be practiced every day to help strengthen your lungs.
  • Try “belly breathing”. This will take the focus off of your anxiety and put it on your breathing. When you inhale push your tummy out. When you exhale suck your tummy in. This will push the diaphragm either up or down making it easier for air to move in and out. This takes practice so it’s best to take the time to learn it now.
  • If you are having a panic attack but not experiencing any severe shortness of breath you can still use the above techniques to make your breathing more effective and slow it down. This will help to calm you as well. Try to relax by thinking of a favorite place or time.
  • Remind yourself that a panic attack will pass. If you focus on that fact it makes it easier to get through it.
  • Find a trusted friend or relative that you can talk to who may be able to help you through your anxiety. Opening up about it may help you more than you think.
  • Make sure you are taking your breathing medications as directed by your physician. If you are having to take your rescue inhaler more frequently than usual for a longer period of time consider calling your doctor to make sure you’re taking the right controlling medications (the ones you take every day, not just as needed). The better your breathing is controlled, the less likely shortness of breath will be a cause of anxiety.
  • If you are struggling with anxiety on a regular basis without relief, talk to your doctor about other resources that are available. You may find relief by using anti-anxiety medications and talking to a professional counselor.

Shortness of breath and anxiety go together more that you might expect so don’t be embarrassed to seek help. If you are in a pulmonary rehab program talk to the respiratory therapist or social worker to help you find more support. In the meantime, find some joy in the everyday routine of things. Focusing on what you can control will help to reduce those feelings of anxiety about the things you can’t.