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Is Your Anxiety Caused By Hyperventilation? A Look At The Science.

the-science-behind-hyperventilation-and-anxiety

Hyperventilation (deriving from HYPER = TOO MUCH and VENTILATION = AIR MOVEMENT) refers to a type of breathing which is too deep and too rapid.

Such breathing results in :

1) too much oxygen

and

2) too little carbon dioxide

entering the blood stream.

Indeed, severe hyperventilation can result in the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood stream falling by 50℅ within sixty seconds.

Why is a reduction of the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood undesirable?

A significant reduction of the normal amount of carbon dioxide circulating in the blood stream is undesirable because it raises the pH levels in nerve cells.

This, in turn, makes the nerve cells too excitable and can trigger the fight/flight response (click here to read my article about this). The physiological effect of this can then lead to symptoms such as those I list below:

– sweating

– dizziness/faintness/light – headedness

– tingling sensations in the hands and feet

– rapid heart beat ( also known as tachycardia) and/or heart palpitations

– chest pains/heart burn

– a dry mouth

– muscle tension and/or muscle spasms

– shortness of breath/a choking sensation

– difficulty swallowing

– fatigue and/or feelings of weakness

Such symptoms of anxiety can occur very quickly once we start to hyperventilate ; within a minute, in fact.

 

Lack of awareness:

Many people whose anxiety is linked to the fact that they hyperventilate do not realise that their maladaptive breathing style is significantly contributing to their symptoms. Indeed, many do not realise that they are hyperventilating. I myself hyperventilated for years without being properly aware of the fact and without fully appreciating how important it is to train oneself to stop doing it. I suppose an (irrational) part of me felt that such a simple change could not make a significant difference to how I was feeling.

 

Two main types of hyperventilation:

These two types are:

1) At rest, breathing from the upper chest instead of from the diaphragm

2) At rest, breathing through the mouth instead of the nose

Many people who suffer from anxiety breathe from the upper chest whilst at rest. Whilst breathing from the upper chest is normal when we are in imminent danger (as it prepares us for ‘ fight or flight’ by introducing extra oxyden into the blood stream) and evolved to help our distant ancestors avoid danger from predators (eg by feeding muscles with extra oxygen to help them run away from the threat as fast as possible), such breathing was designed by evolution to be a temporary response triggered by a life-threatening, physical danger – so it only rarely serves a useful purpose for us today.

On the contrary, in fact, continuous, chronic breathing in this way can effectively permanently trap us in the ‘ fight/flight’ response.

This, in turn, can lead us feel under threat, nervous, fearful and in danger chronically.

 

Examples of conditions to which hyperventilation can be particularly relevant:

The three examples are :

social phobia

PTSD/flashbacks (click here to read my article about childhood trauma and PTSD)

panic disorder

1) Social phobia:

A person with social phobia may have their tendency to hyperventilate triggered by stressful social situations. The hyperventilation, in turn, will lead to increased symptoms of anxiety which can then result in the person’s hyperventilating becoming more severe still. In this way, a vicious cycle can develop (see below).

vicious_cycle_of_hyperventilation

2) PTSD/flashbacks:

A similar vicious cycle may occur when anxiety symptoms are triggered by a flashback.

3) Panic disorder:

In extreme cases, the vicious cycle of anxiety/panic can increase symptoms of anxiety to a level at which a panic attack occurs.

why_does_breathing_into_paper_bag_help_lower_anxiety_levels?

Based on the science above, some people find that breathing into a paper bag helps when experiencing a panic attack, as doing so increases carbon dioxide levels in the blood stream and returns them to normal.

Resource:

Learn Deep Breathing Relaxation Techniques Rapidly. CLICK HERE.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

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Why We Worry.

 

why we worry

Other posts in this category have already dealt with how early life experience of trauma can contribute to us becoming anxious adults, and, also, that the type of negative thinking (cognitive) style we may have developed as a result of the early trauma can perpetuate symptoms of depression and anxiety. But what are the other causes of excessive worrying and what are the other ways of dealing with the problem? It is to this question I now turn:

CAUSES OF ANXIETY/EXCESSIVE WORRY:

1) OUR GENETIC INHERITANCE: It seems we can inherit a predisposition towards anxiety genetically. This means, for example, if we have a parent who is very anxious, all else being equal, we are more likely to become anxious ourselves due to our genetic inheritance. (Also, of course, if we have a very anxious parent, we are more likely to develop anxious responses due to ‘learned behaviour’ – ie modelling our behavioural reponses on those of the anxious parent). However, the key word here is ‘predisposition’; in other words, having an anxious parent will not guarantee that we, ourselves, will become anxious adults, but, rather, we will be more vulnerable to this happening if other factors also affect us in life (such as those detailed below):

2) LATER LIFE EXPERIENCES: If we have suffered the experience of early life trauma, the damage done by this can be compounded (made worse) by going on to experience yet further trauma in later life. It is particularly unfortunate, then, that early life trauma can in itself create problems for us in later life, thus increasing the probability that further trauma will strike (which is one reason, amongst many others, why early therapeutic intervention is crucial for those affected by childhood trauma).

3) DRUGS: It is not just a side-effect of many illicit drugs which can create anxiety conditions; some prescribed drugs, too, can cause anxiety as a side effect. It is, of course, always important to ask doctors about possible unwanted effects of the medications they may prescribe.

4) INTERNAL CONFLICTS: Sometimes we behave in ways which CONFLICT with our own ideals and values, or the ideals and values we have INTERNALISED from our upbringing and culture (even if we have only internalized them on an unconscious level). Freud believed we all have such internal conflicts, a price he thought was paid for living in a ‘civilized’ society, in which we are compelled to repress many natural human instincts (for those who are interested, you may wish to investigate further Freud’s view of how the ‘Id’ (the name he gave to our instinctual self/basic impulses) and the ‘Superego’ (the name he gave to our conscience/moral selves, which develops due to learning from parents, teachers, society, culture etc) may be constantly ‘at war’ with each other.

Therapists who place emphasis on the link between INTERNAL CONFLICTS and ANXIETY tend to recommend what is known as PSYCHODYNAMIC PSYCHOTHERAPY.

5) NEUROLOGICAL FACTORS: This refers to how the brain we possess is physically set up or ‘wired’ Some of us are, it seems, ‘wired’ in such a way that our ‘internal alarm systems’ are highly sensitive. I have discussed in other posts how the brain’s physical ‘wiring’ can be affected by the experience of early trauma.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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