Better breathing means better mental health

This year, the focus for National Physiotherapy Week (6-12 September) is on the mental health impact of Covid – and how your physiotherapist can help

For many people recovering from Covid, problems with breathing lead to intense anxiety. And that’s understandable: it’s natural to feel panicky when you have difficulty drawing breath. “Feeling that fear can make it even more difficult to breathe, and physiotherapists know this,” says Rogier van Bever Donker, President of the South African Society of Physiotherapy. “We are trained to help patients who are struggling to breathe.”

During the pandemic, you may have read that lying on your tummy (proning) is one way to make breathing easier. There are other positions your physiotherapist can show you which will help with breathing. For example:
Put a pillow on a table.
Sit down and ensure your feet are flat on the floor.
Lean forward and place your forearms on the pillow.
Rest your head on your arms.
Breathe in and out.
You can help your breathing in a similar way while standing, by leaning forward and placing your hands on your knees or thighs.

“Your physiotherapist can show you a number of simple ways to facilitate breathing, and that’s empowering,” says van Bever Donker. “Physiotherapists can also help with breathing exercises that strengthen your lungs – and, at the same time, help calm your anxiety.”

The link between your emotions and breathing – and breathing and the emotions – is strong; physiotherapists teach diaphragmatic breathing to have a positive impact on mental health as well as physical health. Belly breathing, or pulling in air with the big muscle between your lungs and your gut, is better for your lungs and helps you to relax, limiting the impact of the stress hormone, cortisol. Deep, healing breaths can help you manage stress and depression.

“Physiotherapists can guide you with other techniques, such as visualisation, to calm anxiety too,” says van Bever Donker. “Our job is to help you reach optimum health, wellbeing and function; so consult a physiotherapist to help you recover from this debilitating virus.”

To find a physiotherapist, go to