Tips to help you breathe more easily

Breathlessness can be difficult to live with. But there are ways you can manage it, including breathing techniques, relaxation, changing your day-to-day activities, pain control, eating well and being physically active.

There are different breathing techniques that you may find helpful. These include using different comfortable seating and standing positions when you feel breathless. You may also want to try practising controlled breathing. This involves using your diaphragm and lower chest muscles to breathe instead of upper chest and shoulder muscles, which causes fast, shallow breathing. It’s also important to breathe gently and to relax your shoulders and upper chest muscles when you’re feeling breathless.

Another option is to use a small handheld fan to reduce your breathlessness. You can use it to blow cool air towards your nose and mouth. Sitting in front of an open window may also be helpful for you.

Breathing more easily

Although breathlessness can be a difficult symptom to live with, there are things you can do to reduce its impact on your life. These include breathing techniques, relaxation and changing how you do your daily activities. Other things are to get your pain well controlled, to eat well and to take part in physical activity. These can all help to reduce the distress of breathlessness and make your breathing easier.

Get into a comfortable position

When you feel breathless, it can help to get in a comfortable position that supports the use of your upper chest muscles and allows your diaphragm and tummy to expand. The following are comfortable positions:

  • Position 1 - sitting in a chair in an upright position with your back supported, uncross your legs and let your feet rest comfortably on the floor. Let your shoulders drop and feel heavy, with your arms resting softly in your lap. Keep your head upright.
  • Position 2 – sitting in a chair and leaning forward with your upper body, 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.
  • Position 3 - standing and leaning forward on to a secure surface. Let your arms and elbows rest on the surface, so that you are supporting the weight of your upper body. Keep your shoulders and chest relaxed by letting your forearms remain shoulder width apart.
  • Position 4 - standing in an upright position and leaning against a secure surface. A wall is best. Let your arms drop to your sides and make your shoulders heavy and relaxed.

Controlled breathing

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 is moving.

Breathe gently

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, you can 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.

Using a handheld fan to help with breathlessness

A handheld fan is a simple, but important way of easing breathlessness. It can help you recover quicker from a breathlessness episode. You may also find a floor standing fan or desktop fan effective. When using a fan:

Get into a comfortable position –  if you’re uncertain ask a doctor, nurse or physiotherapist at the hospital.

Hold the fan yourself if possible – about 15cm (6 inches) from your face.

Let the cool air blow towards the middle part of your face – around the sides of your nose and above your upper lip.

Sitting in front of an open window with the cool air blowing over your face can also be helpful. Some people find a cool flannel on the face effective.

You can watch a video on how to use a handheld fan the correct way on the Addenbrooke's charitable trust website. This video has been made by the Breathlessness Intervention Service of Cambridge University Hospitals.

Back to Breathlessness

Relaxation techniques

You may want to try using relaxation techniques to help you manage your anxiety and reduce breathlessness.