Hyperventilation: Concerns about Breathing, Anxiety & Panic

by Sam Malone


Hyperventilation, also known as rapid deep breathing, over-breathing and fast deep breathing, is as the name suggests, breathing deeply and/or rapidly and usually occurs when an individual is nervous, anxious or is having a panic attack.

Hyperventilating has many physiological effects on the body. When you breathe, you exhale carbon dioxide from the body. Excessive rapid breathing as caused by nervousness can cause blood carbon dioxide levels to fall and may also cause other symptoms such as lightheadedness and palpitations as well.

An individual who is hyperventilating may also be unaware of the fact that he or she is hyperventilating. One way to tell if you are hyperventilating is to look for some of the other symptoms of hyperventilation. Hyperventilation can cause bloating, belching, chest pain, disorientation, confusion, dizziness, dry mouth, muscle spasms in the hand and feet, palpitations, breathing difficulties, disturbed sleep and general weakness. If you have any of these symptoms and have been observed to breathe rapidly, then you should consult your doctor to ascertain the cause of your hyperventilation.

If you are of a nervous disposition, you need to be aware that panic and hyperventilation can merge into a vicious cycle where panic causes rapid breathing which itself causes further panic. This is known as hyperventilation syndrome and can also be triggered by feelings of stress, depression, anxiety or anger. Feelings of depression and anxiety can cause low blood oxygen levels which is why they trigger bouts of hyperventilation as a compensatory measure. Hyperventilation caused by panic is frequently related to specific phobias such as claustrophobia or the fear of enclosed spaces.

Hyperventilation need not necessarily be brought on by nervousness, anxiety or panic. It may be caused by other conditions such as:

  • Excessive bleeding
  • Heart conditions such as congestive heart failure and heart attack
  • Side effect of certain medications such as an aspirin overdose
  • Infections such as pneumonia
  • Ketoacidosis which is caused as a byproduct of the body burning fat instead of sugar
  • Disorders of the lungs such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pulmonary embolisms
  • Pregnancy
  • Severe pain
  • Excessive use of stimulants including caffeinated beverages, cocaine and amphetamines

Once your doctor has checked you and ruled out any medical illnesses and confirmed a diagnosis of hyperventilation syndrome, you will be advised on steps to take to remedy the situation. These include:

  • Getting your family members and friends to make you aware that you are hyperventilating and asking them for help in calming you down. Reassurance from those you are close to can go a long way in helping you calm down.
  • Try breathing through pursed lips or through one nostril at a time. This will decrease the amount of air entering your lungs and increase blood carbon dioxide levels.
  • Learn meditative techniques that will help relax your body and your mind. One very effective form of therapy is yoga. Certain breathing and meditative techniques such as Pranayama can help to calm you down. Consider joining a yoga group under the guidance of an experienced yoga instructor.
  • Exercise regularly

If these measures are not enough to prevent you from over breathing, your doctor may prescribe certain medications such as beta blockers that will slow your heart rate. He or she may also recommend that you consult a psychologist or even a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist will attempt to treat you using medications such as sedatives and tranquilizers that will help lift your depression or make you less anxious. A psychologist will attempt to get to the roots of your phobias or anxiety using techniques such as rational emotive behavioral therapy (REBT).

References

  1. http://www.umm.edu/ency/article/003071all.htm
  2. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003071.htm

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