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Breathing and relaxation techniques

Read about ways to cope if you become breathless.

Try to stay calm if you become breathless. This is easier said than done sometimes. But the more anxious you get, the tighter your muscles will be, and the worse your breathing will become.

Watch a short video showing breathing techniques for long term breathlessness:

Abdominal breathing

Abdominal breathing means deliberately expanding your abdominal wall when you breathe.

Put your hands on your stomach and push them out with your abdomen as you breathe in.

Abdominal breathing helps to expand your lungs fully. But it also helps you to relax and control your breathing because you are concentrating on something else, instead of how breathless you are.

Diagram showing abdominal breathing

Remember – you can’t breathe in properly unless you’ve breathed out first! Sometimes if you are very anxious about catching your breath, you might forget to breathe out. Make sure you take enough time to breathe out fully before your next breath in.

Controlled breathing

If you are getting very breathless, stop what you are doing and sit up straight. This will help to get as much oxygen into your lungs as possible.

Remind yourself breathlessness will ease off soon

Try to concentrate on:

  • breathing in slowly through your nose
  • breathing out through your mouth

The pursed lip relaxation technique

If you can't sleep or are very breathless when you wake, try the pursed lip relaxation technique:

  • breathe in through your nose
  • breathe out through pursed lips (as if you were going to whistle) taking much longer than it took to breathe in
  • keep this up for a few minutes and it should help you feel more in control of your breathing

This technique slows the flow of air as you breathe out. It helps to open up your airways and releases trapped air making breathing easier.

You can use this technique during any activity that makes you feel breathless such as climbing stairs.  

Controlled breathing techniques are very like relaxation exercises. As you breathe out try to relax your shoulders. It can help to have someone gently massaging or pressing on your shoulders as you do this.

If you practise this 3 or 4 times a day, you should notice that you are breathing more deeply as well as more slowly.

Diagram showing controlled breathing

A breeze will also help

Many people with breathing problems find it helps to be near a breeze from an open window or to have a small fan in the room. This gets the air moving and often helps you feel less short of breath.

If you find this helps you might also find it helpful to carry a small hand held fan when you are out and use it when you feel breathless. 

Visualisation or hypnotherapy

Some people find it useful to practise relaxation techniques such as visualisation or hypnotherapy. Once you have learned these techniques, you can use them as soon as you begin to get anxious.

Coping with lifestyle changes

You might feel that you need to change many things about your lifestyle and give up activities you once enjoyed.

This can be hard to come to terms with, especially if you were very active and played sport.

Give yourself time to adjust and try to think of other ways to enjoy your time. This may be an opportunity to try less physical hobbies you've never had time for.

You might find it helpful to join a support group and talk over problems with other people in similar situations. You may also want to look at Cancer Chat - our online forum.

Sources of support

Some hospitals have specialist breathlessness clinics. Ask your doctor to refer you if there is a service in your area. 

You will be taught the techniques here and much more. Or if there isn't a special clinic, ask to have a chat with a physiotherapist or nurse who specialises in helping people with breathing problems.

Occupational therapists can assess your breathlessness and help you find ways of managing your breathlessness. They can get you equipment for your house, such as rails for stairs or your bathroom.

There are also books and booklets about coping with breathlessness, some of which are free. Look in our reading list and cancer organisations pages.

Remember that you are not alone. Other people have gone through similar experiences. 

Last reviewed: 
26 Oct 2014
  • Breathlessness in cancer patients - implications, management and challenges

    S Thomas and others (2011) 

    European journal of oncology nursing  Dec;15(5):459-69

  • Effectiveness of a hand-held fan for breathlessness: a randomised phase II trial

    Bausewein C and others (2010) 

    BMC Palliative care

  • The etiology and management of intractable breathlessness in patients with advanced cancer: a systematic review of pharmacological therapy

    S Booth and others (2008) 

    National clinical practice oncology Feb;5(2):90-100

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