How do you better control or reduce your breathlessness?

There are many strategies that can help you reduce the impact of your breathlessness.

People who have COPD have more difficulty breathing out fully. The body’s normal reaction when breathlessness occurs is to breathe faster and shallower. However, faster and shallow breathing is not an effective way to reduce the impact of breathlessness.

Aim to breathe out slowly and without force. As you breathe out, let your shoulders and neck muscles relax. Ideally, most of your breathing takes place by the lower ribcage expanding and relaxing, rather than in the upper chest. Seek help from a health professional such as a physiotherapist if you are finding this difficult.

By breathing out fully, you will be able to breathe in better. You may find it useful to practice relaxed breathing when you are at rest so that you are familiar with the technique.

Practice relaxed breathing while sitting by, placing one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach above your belly button. When you take a deep breath in, the hand on your stomach should move outwards before the hand on your chest moves. Practice breathing so that the hand on your stomach moves first.

You can use relaxed breathing any time you are trying to catch your breath. For example, relaxed breathing may be useful after coughing or exercising.

You can learn more about relaxed breathing by clicking here.

Watch the video below from the 5:29 mark to learn more about relaxed breathing.

The purpose of prolonged expiration breathing is to try to reduce the amount of air trapped in the lungs and reduce airway collapse by prolonged breathing out (unforced expiration). Breathing out should take longer than breathing in.

Breathing out through pursed lips is an example of this technique. Pursed lips (lips that are closer together than usual, as if you were gently whistling or blowing bubbles) create a smaller opening for the air to flow through. This helps to hold the breathing tubes open.

You can learn more about prolonged expiration breathing by clicking here.

Good posture is very important. The more you slump, the more you squash your lungs and push your stomach up, making it harder to breathe. 

Try taking a deep breath while slumped. Now try again while standing or sitting fully upright with a tall spine. Can you notice a difference?

Many find a forward leaning position, on to a bar or table, or even with hands on knees takes a load off the chest, and makes breathing easier.

A comfortable recovery position is important. Typically, recovery positions are upright with your arms supported and your shoulders ‘down’ or relaxed. Common examples of recovery positions are shown in the following images:


This is a very important skill and is often overlooked. If you have breathing problems and are noticing that you are more short of breath than previously, you will need to slow down to get your tasks done.

If you rush and try to beat the shortness of breath, you will spend longer trying to catch your breath. If you go slowly and pace yourself, you will be able to do more before needing a rest. For example:

  • While walking, try to establish a pattern of breathing that matches your steps and that you can maintain easily. For example, you may breathe with every step or over a number of steps depending on your level of breathlessness and fitness.
  • If you change your pace of walking, you will need to adjust your breathing pattern.
  • Do not hold your breath and rush through the task to ‘get it over with’ as this will only make you more short of breath.
  • Aim to find a rate of breathing that matches your effort. If you find an activity too hard to do, simply stop and recover before restarting the activity at a slower pace.

Note: Pacing yourself to complete your daily activities is different to doing your exercise program.

Using your reliever, maintenance and preventer medicine can assist in reducing the impact of breathlessness.

It is important that medicines are used correctly to ensure their effectiveness.


You can learn more about medication in Module 2: managing your medicine and symptoms.


Better fitness levels or improved tolerance to exercise will enable a decrease in the effort required to perform everyday activities.

You can learn more in Module 4: physical activity and exercise.


Learning how to manage your anxiety, or situations that cause your anxiety, can assist with your breathing.

You can learn more in Module 5: living with a lung disease.

Click here to download a fact sheet on COPD, anxiety and depression.

Many people find using a small battery operated hand held fan can help control breathlessness. Hand held fans are good because they are cheap, portable and easy to use. A standing fan, a desktop fan or the breeze through an open door or window may also help. Some people find that a cool washer or a mist of water on the face has the same effect.


How to use a fan:

  • Hold the fan about 6 inches or 15 cm from your face so you can feel it on your top lip.
  • Slowly move the fan side to side so that the breeze covers the bottom half of your face.
  • Remember to use your controlled breathing and try and relax your shoulders.
  • You should start to feel a benefit in a few minutes.