Coping with Breathlessness

Respiratory Team, Physiotherapy Department, Gainsborough Wing, Colchester General Hospital, Turner Road, Colchester, CO4 5JL

Tel: 01206 742550


There are a variety of techniques which can be combined to help reduce the feeling of panic experienced when you find it difficult to catch your next breath. This booklet should be read by you and your carers or close family members. You should also practise the techniques and become familiar with them so that in the event of a panic attack you know what to do.

Although these techniques help to reduce the extreme breathlessness that you may experience, the results will not be instantaneous. It may still take some time for your breathing rate to return to normal. If you have any regular medication to relieve your breathlessness (such as inhalers or nebulisers), these may also help if taken as prescribed.

It is important to adopt a position which will ease the work of breathing.

Sitting (the ideal position to be in)

sitting on the edge of your bed with your feet on the floor, leaning forward, resting your elbows on your knees sitting in your chair leaning forwards with your elbows resting on your knees or a table.


leaning forwards from your waist, resting your elbows on a table or window sill resting backwards against a wall, leaning forwards from your waist.

Once you have positioned yourself correctly, you should practice breathing out.

When you feel short of breath you take lots of small breaths in and don’t breathe out sufficiently, thus leaving no room for the next breath in. The aim is to try and slow your breathing down allowing time for you to breathe out.

purse your lips and gently blow out through them – you will automatically take a larger breath in initially you will take very short, quick breaths. As you continue to ‘blow out’ concentrate on making each blow longer.

Once your breathing rate is back to normal (12-16 per minute) start to practice abdominal breathing.

This is a relaxed breathing technique, which will also aid with calming your respiratory rate. The breaths that you take should be your normal size of breaths, not deep breaths.

rest your hands on your abdomen – this is so you can feel if you are performing the technique correctly gently breathe in through your nose (you should feel the hand on your abdomen rise) breathe or sigh the air out through your mouth (you should feel the hand on your abdomen fall) repeat the above, trying to keep your shoulders relaxed If breathlessness persists for some time after you have tried the above techniques you should seek further medical advice.

When you attend hospital, you will be asked for your NHS number and other information, such as your address. Please be patient with this procedure – it is to ensure our records are kept up-to-date and to protect your safety. If you do not know your NHS number, please don’t worry – you will still receive care!

Please raise any concerns in the ward or department you are in. Ask to speak with the ward sister, matron or department manager, as appropriate. If your concerns cannot be resolved or you wish to make a formal complaint, please call PALS (Patient Advice & Liaison Service) on 0800 783 7328 or pick up a PALS leaflet.

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