All of us experience anxiety when we are unable to breathe freely. Those with COPD, asthma, or other chronic conditions encounter this problem more frequently, sometimes daily. Fortunately, there are ways to cope by making breathing easier.
Specialists who treat pulmonary disease often recommend breathing exercises and meditation to help their patients breathe more efficiently over the long term. These techniques, which we describe here, can often be used in tandem to make breathing easier.
Among the most frequently recommended breathing exercise, these four will get you started.
Before practicing any of these techniques for the first time, be sure to consult your doctor or respiratory therapist. You can also ask them to demonstrate each technique to make sure that you are doing it correctly.
Pursed Lip Breathing
Pursed lip breathing is a very simple exercise that can be done standing up or sitting. The idea is to improve your ability to exhale the stale air from your lungs more efficiently. To do that, follow these steps:
- Inhale through your nose with mouth closed for 2 to 3 seconds.
- Then exhale through pursed lips for 4 to 6 seconds. Be sure to exhale twice as long as you inhale.
- As you breathe out, you should purse your lips as if you were blowing on a spoonful of hot soup or whistling.
- Repeat 5 times.
You can do this exercise whenever you feel short of breath. If your still feel short of breath after performing this exercise, you might need to seek medical attention.
Watch this video, created by the American Lung Association, for a demonstration: https://youtu.be/7kpJ0QlRss4.
Diaphragmatic (Belly) Breathing
If you have chronic difficulty breathing, you might be using the muscles of your neck and shoulders, instead of your diaphragm (the muscle just below your lungs), to breathe. To retrain and strengthen your diaphragm, follow these steps:
- Sit or lie down and relax your shoulders.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Inhale through your nose for 2 to 3 seconds (just like pursed lip breathing), and feel your stomach move up or outward. If your stomach moves more than your chest, you are doing this correctly.
- Purse your lips and breathe out slowly through your mouth while pressing lightly on your stomach. This will help strengthen your diaphragm.
- Repeat as much as you feel comfortable doing.
This exercise is designed to help you clear the mucus that can build up in your airway. It is actually a controlled cough to remove mucus more effectively without making you feel tired. Follow these steps:
- While seated comfortably, inhale through your mouth a little more deeply than normal.
- Use your stomach muscles to blow out the air in three even breaths while you make the “ha, ha, ha” sound. Make your controlled coughs short and sharp. Think of rapidly fogging a mirror or a pair of eyeglasses.
- Gently inhale through your nose.
- Rest and repeat only as much as you find comfortable.
Done correctly, the huff cough can help you expel mucus without becoming as tired as you might through regular coughing.
Deep breathing helps to prevent stale air from remaining in your lungs, thereby causing you to feel short of breath. Performing this exercise along with other breathing exercises 3 to 4 times a day will help you inhale more oxygen. Here’s how to do it:
- While sitting or standing, expand your chest outward (you might move your shoulders and arms back to do this).
- Inhale deeply as much as you can through your nose.
- Hold your breath for about 5 seconds.
- Release your breath through your nose as slowly and as completely as possible.
- Cough as needed.
- Repeat as often as 10 times per hour.
When you’re short of breath, anxiety can increase and make it even harder to breathe. Meditation can help improve your sense of well-being and allow you to relax so that you can breathe more easily.
There are various types of meditation. Here are four types that some persons with COPD have found helpful.
Be aware of your surroundings to practice this form of meditation.
As you sit in a quiet space where others will not speak to you or interrupt you, turn off your inner dialogue and focus on what you hear, perhaps birds or playing children outside. Just allow you mind to follow along with one sound after another. Note the time between sounds. Don’t try to analyze. Just notice.
As you become accustomed to this form of meditation, you will be able to practice it during your daily activities. Focus on what you hear, see, touch, and the physical sensations of your body. Doing so will help you relax and become less anxious.
The American Thoracic Society has prepared a free guide for mindfulness meditation that can be downloaded (PDF) from https://bit.ly/2KzIQL6.
The Mayo Clinic also provides free videos that demonstrate mindful breathing and movement practices at https://www.mayo.edu/research/labs/mindful-breathing/videos.
Movement meditation increases your sense of connection between your mind and body. People who practice various forms of yoga report an improve sense of well-being.
One of the most popular types of movement meditation for those with COPD is Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a low-impact method of exercise that features fluid and controlled movements.
Many have found it best to learn Tai Chi in a group setting with an instructor. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, learning how to do it on your own is probably safer. Healthline provides an online guide, complete with a video link, to help you get started.
Focused meditation begins by identifying a focal point for your attention: an object, a sound, a smell, a tactile sensation. Concentrate your mind only on that focal point as much as possible.
When you find your internal dialogue beginning to emerge, redirect your thoughts to your focal point. As you continue to focus on the present, you will find that you become more relaxed and less anxious. And that will help you to breathe more freely.
“Mantra” is Sanskrit for “mind release.” This form of meditation, common to several religious traditions, involves mindful repetition of a particular sound, word, or phrase. With continuous repetition, a person can experience feelings of compassion, calmness, and awareness—sometimes resulting in a sense of unity with the cosmos.
Many people practice mantra meditation by repeating the sound of “Om” or the Sanskrit word “shanti” (peace). Others might repeat the name of Jesus or a short prayer or affirmation.
Repeating a mantra, when practiced over time, can result in increased feelings of well-being, connection to others, and reduced stress. Chanting also promotes breath control.
Healthline provides a good online guide to get anyone started with mantra meditation.
Whether you choose to practice breathing exercises, meditation, or both, remember that the goal is to help you relax, feel better, and breathe more freely. Positive results may not happen rapidly. But the long-term results are surely worth it.