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Short of Breath? Tips for COPD Breathlessness

Stay calm to breathe easier with COPD.

Learn New Breathing Techniques

Learning new breathing techniques can help someone with COPD breathe more easily. These techniques can decrease episodes of breathlessness. They can also help control anxiety associated with a COPD exacerbation or an episode of breathlessness while helping to restore a regular pattern of breathing. One breathing technique recommended for people with COPD is pursed lip breathing.

With pursed lip breathing, the person breathes in through the nose and then exhales slowly through slightly pursed lips with the mouth nearly closed. The extra time it takes to exhale this way helps keep the airways open longer. That increases the flow of air, slows the rate of breathing, and reduces the work involved.

Smolley recommends using pursed lip breathing during times of anxiety. Doing this slowly 10 times -- breathing in and out -- can help increase feelings of relaxation. Pursed lip breathing may help control the stress reaction which can trigger breathlessness, cough, or wheezing during a COPD exacerbation.

Visualize Relaxation

Visualization exercises may also help to control emotional stress. Studies involving people with COPD suggest that visualization may improve quality of life.

To practice visualization, the person needs to be alone in a quiet place without distractions while trying to visualize a peaceful, relaxing scene. This may be a vacation spot in the mountains or at the seashore.  Whatever the scene is, the person should focus exclusively on this place, imagining the sounds, smells, textures, and feelings associated with it.

Visualization can reduce anxiety during stressful times. It may even lower heart rate and blood pressure.

Recovering From an Episode of Breathlessness

Learning to relax and reduce anxiety can significantly help reduce episodes of breathlessness. But it can’t prevent them all together. It’s important to understand and follow the care plan worked out with your doctor. Know what medications to take and when to seek medical attention. Here are some other steps to take to restore a sense of calm and breathe more easily after a COPD exacerbation:

  • Stop activity and rest in a comfortable position.
  • Breathe in through the mouth and out through the mouth as rapidly as needed.
  • When breathing starts to slow, breathe out longer and use pursed lip breathing to help slow the breathing.
  • When possible, breathe through the nose.
  • After breathing becomes easier, remain in the same position for five more minutes.

If you are the caregiver, it is important to stay calm, and offer reassurance. Encourage the person with COPD to focus on breathing out rather than on inhaling. This is easier and will help slow the breathing rate. Make sure the room is well ventilated. See that prescribed medicines are being taken correctly. If the breathing problems continue, or if the person begins to change color or complains of chest discomfort, seek medical help at once.

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