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Biofeedback Breathing Devices to Help YOU Treat Panic

Heart pounding, out of breath, chest tight, mouth dry, with an overwhelming sense of dread and impending doom. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, this experience unfortunately may be all too familiar, and you are quite aware of how debilitating they can be. You may even have thought that you were dying or having a heart attack! Fortunately, anxiety and panic (yes, even in its most severe forms) are very treatable mental health conditions, though it does take a significant amount of work and time.

Here are some other symptoms of panic to be aware of:

  • Waking up in the middle of the night, anxious
  • Jolting awake/Exaggerated startle response
  • Feeling unable to calm down
  • General distress and unease
  • Headaches/stomach trouble
  • Intentionally avoiding situations you worry will make you panic
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Tingling/Numbness in hands/extremities


Treating Panic and Anxiety:What are the Options?

There are different avenues for treating panic, many involve counseling, medication, or some combination of both. Taking medication is a very personal decision, and no one can make that choice for you. Medication can be a great tool, but making an informed decision is key. Some medications, such as Xanex, help to stop panic attacks by artificially slowing your breathing. This can be such a relief, but you should know that this class of medications (Benzodiazipines) can be habit forming, meaning you could be at risk of becoming addicted in your attempts to treat the symptoms. This means that you may develop a tolerance and need more and more to achieve the desired effect, or feel as though you cannot function without it.

It is important to recognize that your body may come to rely and expect this artificial decrease in anxiety symptoms, rather than “riding the wave” of anxiety and coming back to a state of calm or homeostasis naturally. You may also become overly reliant on the medication which can create a problem even bigger than the initial panic symptoms.

Recall our blog from last week on biofeedback?

No? Check it our here. It is important to remember that biofeedback devices are a NONINVASIVE means of providing information about what your body is doing, and in many cases the device can also help YOU to change what your body is doing to your benefit.  

One benefit of biofeedback over medications is that YOU are the one making changes regarding your body and YOU are in control. There is NO Substance being introduced into your system. You are making the changes based on the information provided. Those changes Last Longer and are Stronger than those introduced by medications. And because nothing is being introduced into your system, there is no risk of this treatment being habit forming or detrimental to your system.

Sounds good, right? So you might be wondering what biofeedback options can be used for panic?

Treating Panic with Freespira

One specific biofeedback device that has recently come on the market targets breathing profiles. The system is called Freespira and has started being a covered option by most Highmark plans.

Biofeedback devices and techniques, though relatively new, have demonstrated very promising effects. Freespira is an FDA-cleared biofeedback device specifically designed to help those who suffer from panic, and it can be used at home WITHOUT any medication.  The treatment involves using the Freespira system two times a day for four weeks, while having your regular sessions with your therapist to monitor progress. The treatment involves monitoring your breathing via a nasal cannula (lightweight tube placed just inside the nose). See this video for more information and a visualization of how the device works. 

When dealing with panic, you have likely heard that deep breathing is often recommended as a coping strategy. Freespira narrows that goal to diaphragmatic breathing with actually decreasing the respiratory volume (how much air you take in). This is because high respiratory volume (or breathing in large amounts of air) actually decreases CO2 levels within the body, which can lead to panic. So how you breathe when you are at rest and NOT panicking, may actually make you more susceptible to panic attacks. People often try to practice deep breathing when they are ALREADY anxious or panicking, and for some people at that point it feels too late and unhelpful. Freespira takes a helpful preventative approach in teaching you how to breathe in ways that help to keep panic at bay before symptoms arise.

Freespira will give you a breathing profile to let you know how you are already breathing naturally, and where your CO2 levels are. Then, it will help train you to breathe in such a manner that will decrease your risk for panic attacks. Freespira is different than simply using a breathing app on your cell phone, because it monitors the CO2 levels as you exhale, which is an important component of panic attack risk. This retraining process doesn’t fight the thoughts and fears that are part of anxiety, but it does keep your body in check so that you can more clearly think thru and respond to your anxious thoughts. In this way, you will be calm enough to better engage in the meaningful work with your therapist to solidify the progress you have made with the biofeedback device.

I’m interested in Freespira, how do I get started?

Freespira is being more widely used in Western Pennsylvania. Highmark is at present the only insurance offering coverage but as more research studies are completed it is anticipated to become covered by additional insurers. You can call your insurance, Freespira or your local therapist to inquire if this may be a treatment option for you.

Biofeedback is offered at Angelus Therapeutic services via different modalities. If you think that one may be of benefit to you, please give us a call or mention it during your next session. And remember that while you may receive relief and positive outcomes via biofeedback, the devices do not replace counseling.  

Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University and soon to be clinician at Angelus Therapeutic Services