Stress, panic and breathlessness

Breathlessness can be upsetting and frightening for both you and the patient but may not, in itself, be harmful.

Breathlessness can be triggered by:
Activity – e.g. getting washed and dressed
Environment – e.g. hot or cold weather, dust, aerosols
Emotion – e.g. feeling stressed or upset
Infections for more information on how to manage infections, click here

…or there may be no obvious trigger

What is stress?
Stress is a normal feeling we all have from time to time. It is usually a combination of worrying thoughts (often about the future), feelings or emotions and bodily changes like tight muscles, shallow, faster breathing and an increased heart beat.


Stress and breathlessness – an unhelpful cycle
Stress, worry and breathlessness can feed each other in an unhelpful cycle.

Watch the video below to learn from Dr Sara Booth, a Specialist Consultant, why feeling breathless can lead to feeling panicked and stressed

Have you tried...?

Ways to ease breathlessness
Many of the ways you can ease breathlessness are also helpful for reducing stress too. Pick and choose the strategies below you think will work for you. It’s a good idea to practice using these when the patient is feeling ok.

  • Handheld fan / cool moving air – make sure the patient has a handheld fan, or open a door or window. PLEASE NOTE: The use of fans is not currently recommended during the Coronavirus outbreak due to the risk of fans spreading the virus – cooling the patient’s face with cool flannels is suggested instead.
  • Positions to ease breathlessness – help the patient find positions that ease their breathlessness
  • Rectangle breathing – click on the link and try this short, helpful technique – you can do this together
  • Medication – make sure the patient uses their reliever inhaler if they have one. If this makes their mouth dry, sipping cool water can also help
  • Acupressure – using the palm of your hand, firmly stroke down the patient’s arm all the way to the end of the thumb. Gently rub the top-middle of the patient’s back
  • Relaxation – explore ways you and the patient can relax and manage stress everyday

Watch the video below to learn how stress can affect breathlessness and helpful techniques carers have used to help ease breathlessness in patients

What you can do to help the patient

We can’t take away stress completely, but there are things we can do to manage stress levels when they start to feel out of hand.

Have a look at the six Ways to ease breathlessness and talk through them with the patient. Think about which of these strategies you both might find helpful.

Remember that when the patient is breathless they may find it difficult to talk. Being calm yourself, and giving the patient space, can help.

Click here for a printable version of this page (PDF, 400MB)

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Page last reviewed: 08/05/2020