Hyperventilation (deriving from HYPER = TOO MUCH and VENTILATION = AIR MOVEMENT) refers to a type of breathing that is too deep and too rapid.
Such breathing results in :
1) too much oxygen
2) too little carbon dioxide
entering the bloodstream.
Indeed, severe hyperventilation can result in the amount of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream 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 bloodstream 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:
– tingling sensations in the hands and feet
– rapid heartbeat ( also known as tachycardia) and/or heart palpitations
– chest pains/heartburn
– 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 realize that their maladaptive breathing style is significantly contributing to their symptoms. Indeed, many do not realize 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 oxygen into the bloodstream) 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 to 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 a 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).
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.
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 bloodstream and returns them to normal.
- Draw Breath: The Art of Breathing: Breathe Your Way to Calm with Simple, Guided Breath-Drawing Meditations
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).