Over-breathing, or hyperventilating, is a common symptom of an anxiety attack.
Here Vicky, 37, shares what it’s like to experience severe hyperventilation:
“ I didn’t realise I was having an anxiety attack when I got to the ER. It started in the shower when other anxiety attack symptoms. Heart thumping and darkness coming over my eyes. I couldn’t stand and had to crawl out. My daughter found me and called for an ambulance when I started going into the anxiety attack. I was panicking because I was feeling so strange. My hands started curling up and my lips started to go numb. I was breathing like I was panting. My toes started to tingle and the rest of my body was going numb. I felt like I was being paralysed and my breathing became rapid. When the paramedics arrived they told me that the hyperventilation was cutting oxygen from my body and everything was going to sleep. I was sure I was going to die and I tried to slow start breathing down but it was impossible. It felt like I was drowning. I fainted and when I came around I was breathing much better. I was diagnosed with an anxiety attack. Once I got to the hospital there was nothing they could do except send me home.”
What Is Hyperventilation?
Hyperventilating is a symptom of an anxiety attack. Not only does it make an attack worse, it can even actually bring an attack on. It feels as if you can’t catch your breath or you can’t get enough oxygen in your body. However the opposite is true.
Hyperventilating creates too much oxygen in the body and not enough carbon dioxide or CO2. Hyperventilating stops the body from retaining enough CO2 which means your body can’t use the oxygen you’ve got. This feels like you haven’t got enough air when in fact you have too much.
Research[i] has shown that hyperventilation can happen up to an hour before the anxiety attack even starts. Many people who suffer from anxiety attacks don’t even realise they are hyperventilating until they are so far in they feel like they’ve lost control.
Although hyperventilation is a symptom of an anxiety attack, it has it’s own symptoms too:
Shortness of breath
It’s complicated because if symptoms of an anxiety attack can start up to an hour before the anxiety attack starts, without the sufferer being aware of it, the CO2 levels may be very low once the sufferer recognises that an anxiety attack has begun.
The ensuing panic might translate into shallower breathing, which will increase the other symptoms. Once hyperventilation has taken hold, it’s almost impossible for someone to feel in control.
It’s a complex loop:
Once the sufferer realises an anxiety attack is going to happen, the memories of the last one, together with knowledge that it feels like they’re going to die, can stop them from having any control over it.
How Can I Stop Hyperventilating If I’m Having An Anxiety Attack?
It’s extremely hard to stop the over-breathing in the middle of an attack; in fact, almost impossible.
The reason for this is:
The hyperventilation often starts before you notice it
There’s too little CO2 and too much oxygen
Other symptoms such as dizziness, dry mouth, heart palpitations and numbness make you feel more panicky
Then you recognize an attack is coming
Which makes you breath faster
And this makes all the other symptoms worse
Basically, the more you panic, the worse it gets.
There are many, many websites that tell you what to do when you are having anxiety attack in order to stop the hyperventilation.
What they don’t explain is how difficult it is to focus on specific breathing techniques when the anxiety attack is making you think you are going to die.
For me it was impossible to stop what was happening enough to focus on getting back in control. Impossible.
Here’s The Key To Stop The Hyperventilation
So here’s the key:
If you practice breathing techniques on a daily basis when you are NOT HAVING AN ANXIETY ATTACK there’s a much better chance of breathing techniques working when you do have an anxiety attack.
Why is this?
The reason for this is that you are building ‘brain muscle memory’ or, in technical speake, ‘pathways’. New brain pathways can teach you new ways of handling familiar situations.
I explain more about how these pathways are formed in this blog:
It’s like driving a car
It’s much easier to switch into something that’s familiar to you because you’ve practiced it over and over again; you instinctively know what to do. It’s like driving a car because you don’t have to think about it, you just instinctively know what to do to get from A to Z.
That’s the familiarity level to get to.
Getting to this familiarity level is not difficult, it just takes a commitment and practice.
What’s important is to find a breathing technique that works for you and then learn how to do it without even thinking about it. This will become your safety net during any anxiety attack that will help calm your breathing, even in a situation that has previously triggered many anxiety attacks.
How do they work? They produce an actual physiological response.
These breath techniques are not just tricks of the mind. They actually produce a physiological response that lowers the anxiety in a very physical way.
They do this by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system. This part of the nervous system is the opposite of the fight or flight system. It works by getting your body ready to rest by decreasing your blood pressure, slowing your heart rate and dilating your pupils.
All of this will lower the emotional response at the same time i.e. you will panic less. It’s important to remember that it’s the out breath that triggers the resting response so any technique that focuses on the out breath is a good one to practice.
Of course, practicing any breathing technique on a daily basis will have a general stress lowering effect (this is how mindfulness works) which is worth remembering if you want to keep anxiety attacks in check; anxiety attacks are a response to high stress levels.
Please see my blog for more details on why we have anxiety attacks: Will My Anxiety Attacks Go Away?
What Anxiety Self Help Breathing Techniques Shall I Look For? Any One You Like That Works For You. Here’s Some Examples.
The types of breeding exercises that are recommended for people with high anxiety are as follows:
Holding your breath. In order to prevent the loss of CO2, holding your breath for as long as you comfortably can be sufficient to calm hyperventilation. It’s recommended you do this for between 10 and 15 seconds.
Vigorous exercise while breathing through your nose in and out will help reduce hyperventilation. Exercising regularly will also decrease anxiety levels.
Using a paper bag with which to breathe in and out might seem strange. However, it because it causes you to re-inhale CO2 which in turn balances out oxygen levels.
Use the 7/11 technique where are you breathe in the 7 and out for 11. There are many explanations on the Internet and I would encourage you to check them out because you might find this technique particularly useful.
Finally, Keep A Diary
It could be really useful to keep a record about anxiety attacks.
Making a note of what happens prior to anxiety attack could be very important in understanding anxiety triggers. In understanding what happens during an anxiety attack could help you better manage the symptoms.
It’s also important to note when things go well. You may find you return to a place where you have had attacks before and find you don’t have one this time.
For those of us who suffer from anxiety, these are good things to notice and it helps us be kinder to ourselves.
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***I am not a doctor and you should never use this information to replace your doctor's advice. Always seek medical assistance. This blog is for guidance only.***