By heatherericksonauthor.comThe Erickson Family

Breathing Technique: A Non-Medical Approach to Breathlessness

Breathing Technique

This is part 3 of our Breathless Series. In Part 1, we looked at some of the reasons for breathlessness in cancer patients. I also shared my husband’s experience with shortness of breath to the point he nearly died. In Part 2, we looked at medical approaches to breathlessness. This post will be about non-medical approaches to breathlessness, including breathing technique and ways of controlling your environment to alleviate symptoms of breathlessness.

Non-medical approaches, including specific breathing techniques, can be very effective ways to breathe easier.

On January 25, 2017, the Lung Cancer Alliance, kicked off their Coping Series with a webinar called “Breathing Easier.” The Coping Series is designed to educate and provide practical ways to manage the most common symptoms and side effects experienced by lung cancer patients and survivors. If you would like to see the full webinar, click here.

I would like to thank the Lung Cancer Alliance and the webinar presenters. They’ve kindly allowed me to share (originally on Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker) the information they taught, along with some slides from the webinar. I especially thank Dr. Lynn Reinke, a nurse practitioner, recognized nationally and internationally as a dyspnea crisis management expert (1). She spoke about breathing techniques and other non-medical interventions to improve breathing.

Breathing Technique: Pursed-Lip Breathing

There are many advantages to the pursed-lip breathing technique. It is simple to do. In fact, many people intuitively use this method of breathing when they are breathless. It can be used when you are at rest, as well as when you are active. This breathing technique is perfect for when you are climbing stairs since it increases your blood oxygen levels.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Relax
  2. With your mouth closed, inhale through your nose. Count 2-4 seconds as you breathe in.
  3. Now, purse your lips (as if you’re going to drink from a straw).
  4. Exhale slowly through your pursed lips. Count 6-8 seconds as you breathe out.
  5. Repeat as often as you need.
Breathing Technique
Courtesy of the Lung Cancer Alliance

Breathing Technique: Diaphragmatic Breathing

Most people breathe wrong. When they take in a breath, their stomach contracts as they fill their lungs. That’s not the way we were created to breathe. The next time you get to see a baby lying on its back, watch him or her breathe. What do you notice? Their tummy rises as they inhale and sinks as they exhale. That’s because their diaphragm is doing its job the way it was meant to. Check out the diagram below to see what I mean.

By using this diagrammatic breathing technique, you will strengthen your diaphragm and reduce breathlessness, long term.

Bonus: This not only helps with breathing but also with pain control. Because of chronic pain, I go to a pain clinic. In physical therapy, this was the first thing they taught me. Pain perception and pain threshold are both affected by relaxation and the use of this diaphragmatic breathing technique.

Breathing Technique
Courtesy of The Lung Cancer Alliance
Breathing Technique
By John Pierce (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Positioning: Leaning Over

Leaning over helps you to relax your shoulders and upper chest so that your diaphragm can expand opening up your lungs. There are several ways you can do this.

  • Leaning over a grocery cart while shopping
  • Lean over the back of a stable chair.
  • Rest your head on a pillow while seated at a table.

Don’t bend over too far, or you will make it harder for your diaphragm to do its job.

Breathing Technique
Courtesy of The Lung Cancer Alliance

Tricking Your Brain:

One interesting intervention involves using a hand-held battery-operated fan.

  • Aim the fan at your nose/face.
  • Hold the fan 6 inches away.
  • Continue to have the fan blowing on your face for 5 minutes.

It’s believed that the effect of the air stimulates your facial nerves, changes the perception of breathlessness in their brain.

Here is a highly recommended fan on Amazon:
VersionTech Multipurpose Collapsible Portable Fan Outdoor Fan Clip Fan Desktop Fan(3 Speed, Black)

Relaxation technique: Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This can be used in conjunction with the diaphragmatic breathing technique.

Progressive muscle relaxation is just that—you progress through your body, relaxing your muscles one at a time until you are completely relaxed. This reduces anxiety, helping you to breathe better. This has the same pain-relieving bonus as the diaphragmatic breathing technique.

Often this is done by listening to a recording that prompts you to imagine… After you’ve done this a few times, you will be familiar with it and will be able to do it at any time you need to even if you don’t have a recording to listen to.

Here are the basics of PMR:

  • Either lie down or sit in a comfortable chair and relax.
  • Take a few deep breaths by using the diaphragmatic breathing technique.
  • Focus on your toes. Scrunch them up, and then release.
  • Next, tense your ankles and release.
  • As you move through the body, you will repeat this. After releasing, you will keep that part of the body relaxed as you progress through the rest of your muscles. Take a deep breath between each muscle group.
  • Tighten and then release your calf muscles, thigh muscles, your buttocks, and pelvic area.
  • Now, breathe deeply in, and as you breathe out, slowly relax and release any tension you may have in your back.
  • Lift your shoulders and then release completely.
  • Now relax your neck. Gently move your head from side to side.
  • Tighten and release your jaw muscles.
  • Finally, the top of your head. Imagine all the tension in your body has floated out of the top of your head, leaving you relaxed and refreshed.
  • Finish with some more deep breaths. If you are able, stay in this position for a few more minutes of calm and relaxation.

One of my favorite PMR scripts is called “Anesthesia.”  It uses the same concept as the one above, except instead of tensing the muscles, you imagine each part of the body is dipped into a bowl of anesthesia, causing it to fall asleep. It’s so relaxing you just might fall asleep afterward. I once relaxed this way while getting a tooth pulled!

Other techniques include meditation, guided imagery, and acupressure/acupuncture, etc.

Check out this post I wrote for the A to Z Blogging Challenge on Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

Planning: Energy Conservation

One thing cancer patients learn quickly is the importance of conserving their energy. This involves scrutinizing your schedule to ensure it isn’t too full.

  1. Plan your week so that you don’t have more obligations than you can handle each day.
  2. Plan your day according to your priorities. What:
    • do you need to accomplish?
    • would you like to accomplish?
    • can wait until another time if you can’t get to everything?
  1. Pace yourself.
    • Think about the big picture.
    • How will a morning appointment affect the rest of your day?
  2. Plan Your Position.
    • Consider where and when you will be able to sit throughout the day.
    • Getting a shower seat can be helpful when just taking a shower wears you out.
    • Some people get a walker, to always have a seat when they need one. Standing in line can be particularly difficult because there is nowhere to sit.
    • For things like vacations and state fairs, nothing beats a scooter. There are scooter rentals available everywhere. They will even deliver and pick up at hotels.

Your Environment

Avoid environmental triggers that lead to shortness of breath.

  • Smoking
  • Air pollutants
  • Allergens
  • extreme temperatures (Humidity, Cold)

A scarf or face mask can be helpful for reducing the impact of these triggers. In Minnesota, the cold winter air was very hard on my husband’s breathing. It sent him into terrible coughing fits. He began to use a face-mask like doctors use. This made a big difference.

Many Tools for Many Factors

Learn multiple approaches to managing breathlessness and what learns best for you. You will have a variety of ways for dealing with the various things that contribute to shortness of breath.

Next time…

We will look at exercises that can reduce the impact of breathlessness on your life.


I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!


In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on

Also, check out Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer.

Also, put your memories into words with The Memory Maker’s Journal.

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker


Dr. Lynn Reinke, Ph.D., ARNP, FAAN (University of Washington) is a nurse practitioner, recognized nationally and internationally as a dyspnea crisis management expert.



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3 comments on “Breathing Technique: A Non-Medical Approach to Breathlessness

I like that you talked about how learning the right diaphragmic technique will help a person strengthen their breathing and reduce breathlessness. I would love to learn this technique so that I can apply this when I get stressed. It’s because I usually get shortness of breath whenever I get stressed and also when it gets too cold.
Mia Evans recently posted…Paced Breathing Video Engages the DiaphragmMy Profile


Thank you Mia. I even use it when I get out of breath from activity or anxiety. Best wishes!

Your blog post very informative and learning subject.. I would love to learn this technique so that I can apply this when I get stressed.Hopefully form now on education can be benefited personally.I would like to read more of your blog post.

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