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Breathing control advice

Patient information A-Z

What is normal breathing?

At rest, a normal breathing rate is approximately between 12-16 breaths per minute. The main muscle used for breathing is the diaphragm. When you breathe in (inspiration), the diaphragm contracts and flattens, creating space for the air to flow through the airways and into the lungs. When you breathe out the diaphragm relaxes and pushes the air out of the chest (exhalation).

During inspiration the diaphragm contracts and flattens and the stomach is pushed forward and out. During exhalation the diaphragm relaxes and the stomach returns to its resting position. Throughout the whole of this cycle the top part of the lungs remains relatively still.

Diagram of the normal breathing process: two torso's with arrows to indicate breathing in and out

How do I breathe?

Lie in a comfortable position with pillows under your head and knees. Place your hands on the top of your tummy and on your chest wall.

Watch and feel which of your hands moves most as you breathe in and out. This will help you understand which part of your lungs you use the most.

Illustration of a person lying on their back with their head on two pillows, a pillow under their knees and their hands on their chest and stomach

How do people with hyperventilation breathe?

People with hyperventilation often breathe incorrectly. Instead of using their diaphragm they use their upper chest muscles to help with breathing in. They also tend to breathe faster with shallow breaths and occasional deeper breaths.

Breathing control

Sit in a comfortable armchair or lie on the bed and ensure that you are as relaxed as possible. Release any tension in your neck and shoulders before starting this breathing. Place your hands on your stomach and chest wall as shown in the diagram below. Focus your thoughts on breathing the air towards your stomach, filling your lungs from the bottom upwards. You should feel your stomach rise under your hand. Ensure that your breath size and rate does not increase as you practise this. Try to add in a pause at the end of each breath. Hold your breath for a couple of seconds, before breathing in again ensuring your pattern of breathing remains smooth and calm.

Illustration of a person lying on their back with their head on two pillows, a pillow under their knees, hands on their chest and stomach and an arrow indicating breathing out, and an illustration of a person in an armchair with hands on chest and stomach

During breathing control you may find that you feel hungry for air. This sensation is perfectly normal and is a result of the levels of carbon dioxide increasing to a more normal level within your lungs and bloodstream. As you continue to practise this breathing style you will find this sensation will diminish.

Practice this way of breathing for about 10 to 15 minutes; three times a day. If you feel your symptoms start, then concentrate on your breathing pattern and try out the exercises you have been practising. This should help with some of your symptoms.

Who can I contact for help?

Neurological Physiotherapy on 01223 217568

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Smoking is not allowed anywhere on the hospital campus. For advice and support in quitting, contact your GP or the free NHS stop smoking helpline on 0800 169 0 169.

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Cambridge University Hospitals
NHS Foundation Trust
Hills Road, Cambridge

Telephone +44 (0)1223 245151