What Happens with Your Body During a Panic Attack

Panic attacks ignite the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), triggering the "fight or flight" response. Heart rate soars, blood pressure rises, and breathing becomes rapid and shallow. Although crucial in actual danger, this physiological response can be overwhelming when commuting in an overcrowded bus or talking to your colleagues.

Engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), or the "rest and digest" state, is key to countering this. The PNS slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and brings calmness, restoring balance in the body. The bridge between these two states? Your breath.


How Breathing Can Help Instantly Stop a Panic Attack

Breathing is a direct line to your nervous system. By altering your breathing pattern, you can switch off the overactive SNS and switch on the PNS, providing instant relief from panic. Let's explore some techniques to achieve this.

#1. Physiological Sigh

The physiological sigh, a technique backed by a study from Stanford Medicine, is a powerful tool against stress. It involves a double inhale followed by a long exhale, a pattern that significantly reduces anxiety in minutes by activating the PNS.

How to Do Physiological Sigh

  • Inhale deeply through your nose.
  • Without exhaling, take another deep inhale, filling your lungs to your full capacity.
  • Exhale slowly and fully through your mouth.

This pattern can rapidly bring your body back to a state of calm. To practice it with guided support, use the Oxa app's "Instant stress relief" exercise for an enhanced experience.

#2. Resonance Breathing

Resonance breathing, or coherence breathing, is about syncing your breath to a specific, slow rhythm, typically 3-7 breaths per minute. This practice aligns your heart rate with your breath, hence the name. It also heightens vagal tone, improves baroreceptor sensitivity, reduces anxiety, and enhances mood.

How to Do Resonance Breathing

  • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for about 6 seconds.
  • Exhale slowly and completely through your nose or mouth for 6 seconds.
  • Repeat this cycle, aiming for about 4 to 7 breaths per minute.

How to Get Better Results with Live Biofeedback During Resonance Breathing

Using live biofeedback, like that offered by the Oxa device, can significantly enhance the effects of resonance breathing. It provides real-time data on your heart and breathing rates, enabling you to adjust your breathing for optimal resonance frequency. For a guided experience, start with the "Coherence tutorial" in the Oxa app and progress as you improve.

#3. Long Exhalations

Long exhalations are a form of controlled breathing that extends the exhale, regulating stress levels and bringing about calm. This technique strengthens your control over breath and increases tolerance to air hunger, progressively helping to reduce stress more efficiently.

How to Do Long Exhalations

  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose.
  • Exhale slowly, extending the exhalation as long as it is comfortable.
  • With practice, try to extend the length of each exhale.

This practice provides immediate relief and fosters long-term resilience to stress. For a structured approach, find the "Achieve Deep Calm" exercise in the Oxa app.

#4. Box Breathing

Box breathing, also known as square breathing or 4-4-4-4 breathing, is another powerful technique to restore calm during a panic attack. It's a simple, structured form of deep breathing that is easy to master and can be practiced anywhere at any time.

Physiologically, this technique helps regulate your breath, increases oxygen to your lungs, reduces blood pressure, and lowers heart rate. It also aids in controlling and managing emotions, reducing stress, improving mood, and enhancing focus.

How to Do Box Breathing:

  • Breathe in through your nose for a count of four seconds.
  • Hold your breath by keeping the air inside your lungs for another count of four seconds.
  • Slowly breathe out through your mouth for four seconds.
  • Wait for four seconds before beginning the next breath.

Repeat this cycle for a few minutes until you feel a sense of calm wash over you.

#5. Air Hunger Training

Inspired by The Buteyko Method and Oxygen Advantage, air hunger training was initially developed to improve functional breathing patterns and overall health. This method involves reduced-breathing exercises that create a tolerable need for air, often called "air hunger."

In terms of increasing stress resilience, both schools of thought propose that by slowing down breathing, the mind can be calmed, and resilience in stressful situations can be improved. This happens as reduced breathing can help overcome the fear of sensations that accompany a full-blown panic attack and stop the process of hyperventilation.

How to Do Air Hunger Training:

  • After a calm exhale, close your nostrils with your index finger and thumb.
  • Hold your breath until you feel a natural need to breathe again, signaled by a spontaneous diaphragm movement, and then take a breath through your nose.
  • Follow up with at least 10 seconds of normal breathing.
  • Perform this routine multiple times.
  • Important: stop immediately and resume normal breathing if you feel anxious, breathless, or overly uncomfortable

Be aware that this technique should be avoided if you have an underlying cardiovascular health condition or epilepsy. It is highly recommended to practice it with guidance or an instructor. In your Oxa app, start with Animal Breathing as an introduction, then progress to Minimal Breathing I for deeper practice.

FAQs on Panic Attacks and Breathing Techniques

Q: What exactly is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming fear and anxiety. It's often accompanied by physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, and shortness of breath. During a panic attack, the body's "fight or flight" response is activated, even though there's no real threat present.

Q: Why is breathing important during a panic attack?

Breathing plays a crucial role during a panic attack because it can help deactivate the body's acute stress response. Controlled breathing techniques can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (the "rest and digest" system), promoting relaxation and reducing the intensity of panic symptoms.

Q: How can I manage my breathing during a panic attack?

During a panic attack, aim for slow, deep breaths. Techniques like resonance breathing, where you breathe at a frequency of about four to seven breaths per minute, can be particularly effective. This helps balance the nervous system and brings a sense of calm. Tools like the Oxa breathing wearable can provide live biofeedback to optimize your breathing pace during the session.

Q: Can panic attacks be prevented through breathing exercises?

While breathing exercises alone may not prevent panic attacks, they can be valuable to a broader management strategy. Regular practice of controlled breathing, such as resonance breathing, can improve stress resilience and reduce the frequency or intensity of panic attacks over time.

Q: How does resonance breathing help during a panic attack?

Resonance breathing helps bring your heart rate and breathing into a natural resonance frequency, promoting calmness. This technique, particularly when practiced regularly, trains your nervous system, much like muscles in a gym, enhancing your resilience to stress and reducing the likelihood of panic attacks.

Q: Are there tools or devices that can assist with breathing during a panic attack?

Yes, devices like Oxa offer live biofeedback, guiding you through breathing exercises optimized for your current state. Such devices can monitor your heart and breathing rates, as well as your HRV (heart rate variability), providing real-time insights to help you achieve resonance and calmness during a panic attack.

Serge Weydert
May 28, 2024

Ph.D., is Co-Founder, Scientific Lead and Board Member at Oxa Life. As a neuroscientist and electrical engineer by training, Serge is committed to health innovation. His philosophy centers around empowering people by demystifying health data and restoring control over personal health through actionable insights.

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