Hyperventilation – are you breathing yourself into a panic?

Hyperventilation or hyperventilation syndrome is a common symptom of stress and it affects many thousands of people, though they often do not even know they have it. A consultant doctor recently told the Sassistas ‘Most of the stress symptoms I see are down to poor breathing.’

The symptoms are not dangerous – but always distressing and can include:

  • Palpitations or panic attacks

  • High anxiety

  • Frequent sighing or yawning and feeling that your breath ‘will not go down’

  • Dizziness

  • Numbness in arms, lips or side of face

  • Indigestion/upset stomach, irritable bowel (alternate constipation and diarrhoea)

  • Constant tiredness

  • Lack of concentration

  • Lack of self-confidence or depression

If you frequently suffer the above symptoms and your doctor cannot find a physical cause, then you may be hyperventilating.

Exactly what is hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation is not a disease or illness. It is quite simply over breathing – taking in too much oxygen. Over breathing is normal after running or a fright, but some people over breathe all of the time. By doing this constantly they are causing chemical changes in their body which bring on all or some of the above symptoms. You may not be aware of hyperventilating – but you can assess yourself.

Read the following profiles of Good Breathers and Poor Breathers then sit down on your own and monitor your breathing patterns. Try not to alter your usual breathing. Then, after a few minutes monitoring, read the profiles again and decide which profile describes you.

Good (normal) breathers:

  • Take about 12 – 14 breaths per minute

  • Take breaths which take 2 – 3 seconds to go in and 2 – 3 seconds to go out

  • When they breathe, their abdomens move in and out rather than their upper chest

Tend to breathe through their nose rather than their mouths

Poor (over) breathers:

  • Take over 20 breaths per minute

  • Breathe from their upper chest rather than their abdomen

  • Tend to breathe through their mouths

Takes breaths which are rapid – usually taking 2 seconds to go in and out!

If you think you are an over breather and you have any of the above symptoms, you may benefit from breathing retraining.

How to retrain your breathing

Breathing retraining involves relearning good breathing techniques. Good breathing techniques are essentially using your diaphragm and abdominal muscles to breathe slowly and deeply rather than your chest muscles which cause rapid shallow breathing. Some people can do this very quickly, but for others the process can take some weeks and a lot of practising.

If you have been a poor breather for years your body has a bit of relearning to do!

The basic steps for retraining are:

Step 1 – Relax

  • Lie on your back, head supported by cushions (if this is inconvenient, sit in a chair with your back straight, feet on the floor)

  • Place hands on your abdomen

  • Let as much air out of your lungs as you can – without pushing

  • Relax your jaw – keeping lips together. 

Step 2 – Breathe abdominally

  • With lips together, draw air through your nose

  • Imagine the air is going right down to your abdomen – relax and expand your waist as your abdomen puffs up (your hands should feel the expansion)

  • Concentrate on keeping your chest still – all the expansion should be in your abdomen

  • Breathe out through your nose.(Some people find step 2 easier if they imagine they are breathing through their navel!)

Step 2 may take some time to master – but when you are used to the feelings, and confident that you are using your diaphragm to breathe (chest still, abdomen rising and falling) then move onto step 3.

Step 3 – Timing

  • When breathing in – mentally count “one thousand, two thousand, three thousand”

  • Do the same when breathing out

  • Keep going until you are taking 12 – 14 breaths per minute (someone else may need to count these for you).

Step 4 – Practice

  • Go through steps 1 to 3 for at least 5 minutes every morning before getting out of bed and every evening before going to sleep

  • Practice any other time – while seated comfortably (watching TV, stuck in a traffic jam etc.).

Practice is essential – your body has to be reprogrammed! Eventually, good breathing will become your normal breathing and the distress of hyperventilation will be a thing of the past.

Do not worry if good breathing is difficult at first – it may feel unnatural and jerky. You may feel yourself gulping air. If so, hold your breath for 3 seconds and go back to stage 1 but keep practising and you can breathe yourself better!



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