Hyperventilation And Anxiety
How anxiety affects your breathing
Anxiety begins with the “fight or flight” response – which sets off a number of changes in your body, including an increase in your rate of breathing, known as "hyperventilation". Because your breathing is faster, it also becomes shallower, from the narrow part of the upper chest, instead of from the lower chest or diaphragm.
This leads to a number of effects which you might recognise:
- a sense of breathlessness – because the upper part of your lungs is narrower than the lower part, it becomes harder to get enough oxygen, and so you begin to feel as though you are suffocating. This is interpreted by your body as life-threatening, & triggers further anxiety.
- Tightness in the chest – your chest muscles have to work harder, and so can become tense, tired, and even go into spasm – sometimes interpreted as a possible heart attack.
The relationship between hyperventilation and anxiety
You might think that hyperventilating – “over-breathing” – gets more oxygen into your blood, but in fact the main result is a reduced level of carbon dioxide. This is helpful when you are exercising at max – it reduces acidity in your muscles.
This happens because when you hyperventilate, you tend to breathe out more forcefully than when you breathe in.
But your body works optimally with a stable level of carbon dioxide, and if the level decreases below this, you are likely to become dizzy and light-headed – more symptoms which you may recognise.
How to recognise when you are hyperventilating
Hyperventilating can be obvious, for example when you are experiencing panic. It can also be quite subtle and unrecognisable, in a person who is mildly anxious most of the time. Your body is able to compensate for the effects of mild hyperventilation (reduced carbon dioxide) – but it doesn't take much more stress to trigger a full anxiety attack.
If you are experiencing these symptoms, you may be chronically hyperventilating:
- dizziness & light-headedness
- a sense of unreality
- increased and/or irregular heartbeat
- numbness, tingling, or cold in the hands and feet
- muscle twitching or cramps
If you experience any of these symptoms – or even if you don't – you might want to check your breathing rate. Use the “seconds” hand or display on your watch, or the timer on your mobile phone, and count how many complete breaths you take in one minute. If you are breathing faster than 10-12 times per minute, it's likely you are over-breathing. You are definitely going to benefit from learning & practising a breathing method to help anxiety!
How to manage hyperventilation & stop panic
You probably have already heard of breathing into a paper bag to manage hyperventilation. This works because you are breathing in stale air – air with a high carbon dioxide level. When you are hyperventilating & the carbon dioxide level in your blood falls too low, this is exactly what is needed.
However, you might not be able to find a paper bag when you need it (though your cupped hands will do at a pinch). And who wants to be seen in public breathing into a paper bag?
It's better to learn to control your breathing before it causes trouble.
The best strategy is to practice breathing when you are relatively anxiety-free, in private. This way you can begin to become aware of your breathing, and learn the signs that show when you are beginning to hyperventilate. Then you can choose to consciously change your breathing before it gets out of hand and leads to a full-blown panic attack!
Breathing exercises for anxiety
There are lots of helpful breathing exercises for anxiety that will help you manage any tendency to hyperventilation. Breathing exercises are also helpful for general anxiety, and panic.
Here is one breathing exercise you can practice, to manage hyperventilation and associated anxiety. It's a good practice for anyone, whatever your level of stress or anxiety...
You can browse more remedies for anxiety here...
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