Although breathlessness can be a difficult symptom to live with, there are things you can do to prevent or reduce its impact on your life. In this section, we explain some breathing techniques that can help.
Get into a comfortable position
When you feel breathless, it can help to be in a comfortable position that supports your upper chest muscles and allows your diaphragm and tummy to expand. Here, we describe four comfortable positions, which are also shown in the photos below.
Sit in a chair in an upright position, with your back supported, legs uncrossed and feet resting comfortably on the floor. Let your shoulders drop and feel heavy, with your arms resting softly in your lap. Keep your head upright.
Sit in a chair and lean forward with your upper body. Have your legs uncrossed, feet on the floor and shoulders relaxed. Slowly move forward a little so that your elbows and lower arms are resting on your thighs, supporting your upper body. Keep your knees shoulder-width apart and let your chest relax when you lean forward.
Stand and lean forward on to a secure surface. Let your arms and elbows rest on the surface, so that you’re supporting the weight of your upper body. Keep your shoulders and chest relaxed by letting your forearms remain shoulder-width apart.
Stand in an upright position and lean back against a secure surface. A wall is best.
Let your arms drop to your sides and make your shoulders heavy and relaxed.
Breathlessness can cause you to breathe with the upper chest and shoulder muscles rather than the diaphragm and lower chest. This causes fast and shallow breathing, which can use up a lot of energy and tire you out.
An important part of managing breathlessness is learning a technique called controlled breathing, which uses your diaphragm and lower chest muscles. Controlled breathing can help you breathe more gently and effectively. It can also help you relax.
If you practise this when you’re not feeling too short of breath, you’ll become familiar with it so you can use it to help you when you’re more breathless.
1. Sit comfortably with your neck, shoulders and back well-supported - an upright chair is ideal.
2. Relax your shoulders.
3. Breathe in gently, through your nose if possible. Try to use your lower chest to breathe, so when you inhale, it is your tummy area that expands rather than your upper chest.
4. Breathe out slowly and watch your tummy sink back down.
To check whether you’re breathing from the lower chest:
Place your hands on your tummy, just below your ribcage. As you breathe in, you should feel your hands rising. As you breathe out, your hands will sink back down and in.
Your upper chest and shoulders shouldn’t move very much at all.
When practising controlled breathing, try to get a sense of breathing from around the tummy area rather than from your upper chest. Try to feel your lungs expand as more air is able to get in.
It may also help to sit sideways to a mirror so you can see that your lower chest
Once you’re in a comfortable position, try breathing in through your nose and out gently through your mouth. Some people find it helpful to breathe out through pursed lips
- as if blowing out a candle. If you find breathing in through your nose difficult, breathe through your mouth instead.
Relax your shoulders and upper chest muscles
When you breathe out, feel your shoulders and upper chest relax. As you breathe in gently, keep your shoulders relaxed. If this is hard to do, ask someone to press down gently on your shoulders to help relieve some of the tension.
Breathe in slowly and out gently, feeling your upper chest muscles relax more and more with each breath out. Try to remember this during your day-to-day life. Gradually, you'll be able to adjust your breathing so it's more effective and relaxed.
It can take a bit of time to get used to these exercises. Try not to force the exercises or expect instant results. Aim for a gradual change from breathlessness to controlled breathing.