Relaxation techniques

Breathlessness can make some people feel anxious or like they are having a panic attack. This can make your breathing quick and shallow, which can make you feel even more breathless. This can cause a cycle of anxiety and breathlessness.

You may want to try some of the following to help with this:

  • slowing your breathing rate
  • trying controlled breathing
  • using a handheld fan near your face
  • using medication.

Or you may want to try using relaxation techniques to help control your anxiety. These techniques can help you control your breathing when you are feeling panicky. Make sure you’re comfortable and in a quiet place before trying relaxation. There are instructions available on our website and on our CD called Relax and breathe. You may find some helpful techniques in tapes and CDs in your local library or you may want to try downloading relaxation podcasts from the internet.

Feeling anxious

Some people with breathlessness may find at times that it causes them to feel anxious. Some people feel as though they are having a panic attack. Common symptoms of anxiety and panic are heart palpitations, feeling sick, sweating, a dry mouth or dizziness.

Anxiety may cause you to breathe too fast and to take shallow breaths from the top of your lungs rather than from your lower chest. This may make you feel more breathless, which in turn can increase the anxiety.

A way to break this cycle is to gradually slow your breathing rate, and use controlled tummy breathing exercises or relaxation techniques. Using a handheld fan to blow air on the face, and breathing out against the fan, may also help calm your breathing. Some people may need to take medication to help them manage their anxiety.

If you notice there are times when you hyperventilate (overbreathe), try to identify what triggered it. Talking about the cause with friends or family may help because they’ll be aware of it next time.

Relaxation techniques

Breathlessness can make you feel anxious, frustrated and panicky. All these emotions can cause rapid, shallow breathing, which in turn can make you more breathless.

Learning and practising relaxation can help you control anxiety and breathe more easily when needed. In this section, we explain a relaxation technique that’s easy to do at home.

Try to find a quiet and peaceful place to do these exercises. Make sure you’re comfortable, whether you’re sitting or lying down, with your shoulders, neck and back well supported. Have your arms by your sides or hands resting on your lap. This technique can take practice, so try it for 5–10 minutes once a day to start off with, and then try to do more. Set aside time during the day to practise. It might be helpful to get someone to read the instructions to you.

  1. Close your eyes.
  2. Begin by breathing out and then in, just as much as you need. Then breathe out slowly with a slight sigh, like a balloon slowly deflating. Do this once more, as slowly as you can, and as you breathe out feel any tension in your body begin to drain away. Then try to keep your breathing at an even, steady pace.
  3. Once you feel comfortable doing this, you can move on to the next stage.
  4. Begin to think of each part of your body in turn.
  5. Start with your toes and check they are relaxed and comfortable. Allow them to become heavy, and free of any tension.
  6. Now think about your legs and allow your thighs to relax and roll outwards.
  7. Next, let your tummy muscles become soft and relaxed.
  8. Think about your fingers and let them become limp and still. Allow this feeling of relaxation to spread up your arms to your shoulders.
  9. Let your shoulders relax and drop easily.
  10. Let your neck muscles relax. Your head is resting and supported. Enjoy this feeling of relaxation.
  11. Allow your face and expression to relax; make sure your teeth are not clenched and let your jaw rest in a relaxed position.
  12. Now, as your body feels relaxed, become aware of the all-over sensation of letting go, of quiet, calm and resting. Enjoy this feeling of relaxation. If you find your mind becoming busy again, check where your muscles have tensed and then relax them.
  13. Gently bring your attention back to the room in which you are in. Have a gentle stretch and open your eyes. Remember to get up slowly once you have finished.

Once you feel comfortable doing the above exercises, it can help to imagine pleasant or tranquil surroundings or to listen to some relaxing music. If you have an MP3 player you can download relaxation podcasts from the internet.

You may want to explore other relaxation techniques. Relaxation CDs and tapes may be available from your local library. Some hospitals, cancer centres and hospices offer breathing control and relaxation sessions. Ask your doctor or nurse whether any are suitable for you. 

You might find it helpful to listen to our CD Relax and breathe, which can help you learn ways to manage breathlessness. Call our cancer support specialists for more information or order it free from our website be.Macmillan.

References and thanks

The information in this section has been produced in accordance with the following sources and guidelines:

  • The Cambridge BIS Manual – Building a Breathlessness Intervention Service. Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. 2011.
  • UpToDate website: (accessed April 2013).
  • Bailey, P. The Dyspnea-Anxiety-Dyspnea Cycle - COPD Patients’ Stories of Breathlessness: It’s Scary /When you can’t breathe. Quality Health Research. 2004. 14: 760.
  • Barnett, M. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a phenomenological study of patients’ experiences. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2005. 14: 805.
  • National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) evidence search website: (accessed April 2013).

If you’d like further information on the sources we use, please feel free to contact us.


This section has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been approved by our Chief Medical Editor, Dr Tim Iveson, Macmillan Consultant Medical Oncologist.

With thanks to: Dr Sarah Booth, Consultant Palliative Medicine; Iona Brisbane, Clinical Nurse Specialist; Catherine Moffat, Respiratory Specialist Physiotherapist and Cathy Sandsund, Allied Health Professional Researcher. Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to develop. You could help us too when you join our Cancer Voices Network.

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