Techniques to Help You Breathe Easier

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on June 16, 2017
3 min read

If you have COPD, you know that awful feeling when you just can’t catch your breath. It’s easy to panic, and that makes the situation worse. But there are methods that can help you control your breathing and train your body to feel less short of breath.

It isn’t as simple as breathing in and out, though. You have to be trained, says Norman H. Edelman, MD, senior scientific adviser at the American Lung Association. Respiratory therapists or physical therapists usually do this during pulmonary rehabilitation sessions.

Proper techniques can help you breathe more efficiently, so your body gets the oxygen it needs, says Srihari Veeraraghavan, MD, director of the interstitial lung disease program at Emory Healthcare.

Once you know the routines, the exercises will help you control the anxiety that comes with a loss of breath. Over time, you’ll be able to relax and focus on the techniques and not worry about filling your lungs.

1. Pursed-lips breathing. This "tried and tested" method has you breathe against resistance, Veeraraghavan says. Breathe in quickly through your nose (like smelling a rose) for about 2 seconds. Breathe out slowly through your mouth and keep your lips puckered. This creates a resistance to the air flow and keeps your airways open. (They tend to close up when you breathe out quickly.) Make sure you breathe out at least 3 times as long as you breathe in. Repeat this several times until you have control.

2. Breathe through. This can help you coordinate your breathing with exercise, Edelman says.

Talk to your doctor first and make sure exercise is OK for you. Then try to match your breathing to your activity. Breathe in or out on certain steps and out on others. You do it differently when you do cardio than when you’re pumping iron. Start slow and easy. If you take oxygen, use it when you work out.

3. Learn to cough. You may have a lot of extra mucus. A controlled cough can help you breathe, Edelman says. It comes from deep in the lungs with enough force to loosen the gunk and remove it from your airways.

Sit on a chair with your arms folded. Breathe in slowly through your nose. Lean forward and press your arms against your tummy. Cough two to three times through a slightly open mouth. Coughs should be short and sharp. Breathe in slowly. Sniff to prevent mucus from moving back down into your airway.

4. Belly breathing. “It can take your mind off your breathing and make you less anxious,” Veeraraghavan says. The idea is to make your diaphragm muscle -- between your chest and belly at the bottom of your lungs -- work better.

Keep one hand on your chest and the other on your tummy. As you breathe in through the nose, your belly should push forward. When you breathe out, gently push your abdomen back to help get the air out. This can be done along with pursed-lips breathing.

“Anytime,” Veeraraghavan says. “They’ll help with routine daily activities like climbing the stairs, bending to tie your shoelaces, or picking up objects."

But don’t do them if your COPD suddenly gets worse. Call your doctor.