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Techniques for managing breathlessness

There are a various techniques you can use to help manage your breathlessness at home

Breathlessness (sometimes called dyspnoea) is difficult, laboured and uncomfortable breathing. It can be both frightening and overwhelming and may be caused by a combination of physical and psychological factors.

Common Features

For some people, symptoms may be very mild and do not interfere much with daily life. For others it can be very disruptive. The symptoms can include:

  • General tiredness and a feeling of having no energy
  • Breathlessness after only minimal exertion
  • Even the smallest chore feels like an enormous challenge
  • Difficulty remembering or making decisions
  • Irritability with family and friends
  • Feelings of panic with shortness of breath
  • Problems with sleep

1. Coping with breathlessness

One of the most important things you can do to cope with breathlessness is slow down. This is also one of the most challenging things to do for many people. Use talking as a test. If you are moving at the right pace, you should be able to talk. If you can’t talk because of breathlessness, you need to stop and slow down the activity or introduce breaks in activity.

When doing repeated exercise such as climbing the stairs or walking, try pacing the exercise with your breathing allowing more steps for the outbreath. It can be helpful to breathe out as you step when going up or down stairs.

Using the space provided in this leaflet, write down some things which trigger your breathlessness and some strategies which you can try to reduce this, as explained by your physiotherapist. For instance, if you get breathless when showering, try wearing a towelling robe to dry yourself.

2. Recovering from breathlessness

Breathlessness is not harmful but it can be distressing and exhausting. If your breathing deteriorates so that you are struggling to talk:

  • stop any activity and find a comfortable forward leaning position to rest
  • focus on the ‘out breath’ and try to extend the length of the breath
  • use a fan if you find it helpful and
  • stay still for a minute after you have got your breath back before moving.

3. Panic

Panic is extreme breathlessness with anxiety. Panic can be prevented by pacing activity to prevent breathlessness escalating to the point of distress. It is important to be aware of increasing breathlessness and stop activity before it feels uncontrolled as this can trigger anxiety and a spiral of breathlessness.

If you do experience panic, use the above techniques to control your breathing. Try to practice the following breathing control techniques throughout the day when at rest and use relaxation once or twice a day.

4. Breathing exercises

Be still… be calm…
Drop the shoulders
Slowly sigh out… and out
Hear the sigh
Haaah… soft and quiet
Feel control returning
Peaceful and safe


It is common for patients who are breathless to use the neck and shoulder muscles to help with breathing. This can serve a purpose at times but can also become an unhelpful habit which, over time, can cause pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders.

By practising controlled breathing and neck and shoulder stretches, you will use less energy to breathe and help to prevent this pain.

Sitting well supported in an upright chair, legs uncrossed, place one hand on your tummy, just above your belly button
Relax your shoulders and upper chest and rest your elbows by your side
Feel the movement of your tummy as you breathe in and out – try to relax your breathing and feel your upper chest and shoulders relax more as you continue to breathe
Do not try to take deep breaths.

A position to help you recover from breathlessness

Use this position to help you practise your breathing control, or to recover your breath when you get breathless.

Stand leaning back or sideways against a wall

Have your feet slightly apart, about one foot or 30cms away from the wall. Relax your hands down by your sides. If you prefer, rest your hands or thumbs in your waistband or belt loops, or across the shoulder strap of your handbag.

This position can be helpful for most people with a lung condition. Other helpful positions vary depending on whether you have an obstructive or a restrictive lung condition.