Out of nowhere, your heart starts to speed up. You feel weak and lightheaded. You feel like you can't get a deep breath. Suddenly your chest starts to hurt and your mind is racing. You feel like everything around you is crashing – you feel like this might be it. All of the sudden you have one final moment of extreme terror…
… then suddenly it melts away.
You may know that what you experienced was an anxiety attack, and anxiety attacks cause intense physical symptoms. What you may not realize is that those physical symptoms were caused almost exclusively by hyperventilation.
Are You Hyperventilating?
Hyperventilation and hyperventilation syndrome can be caused by and cause severe anxiety and is often responsible for some of the most severe anxiety symptoms. Our free 7-minute anxiety test can provide you with an anxiety severity score, see if you have signs of hyperventilation, and help you learn more about your anxiety.
Introduction to Hyperventilation
While anxiety is to blame for hyperventilation, hyperventilation is to blame for dozens of the worst symptoms of anxiety. Hyperventilation can cause so many problems that some doctors label it its own disorder, known as "hyperventilation syndrome."
It's most common in those with panic and anxiety attacks but may affect anyone that suffers from intense anxiety. Before you keep reading, make sure you take my free 7-minute anxiety test to learn more about what your symptoms mean.
Hyperventilation literally translates to "over-breathing." Contrary to popular belief – and contrary to the way it makes you feel – it is not the act of getting too little air. Instead, it's the act of breathing out carbon dioxide too quickly, causing too much oxygen to enter the lungs. Hyperventilation can occur in many different ways:
- Breathing Too Fast – Breathing too fast is the most common way to hyperventilate, and very common with anxiety. During periods of intense anxiety, the body goes into fight or flight mode and starts breathing quickly as it prepares to fight or flee. But since there is no danger, your body just keeps hyperventilating, until you've started to experience the physical symptoms that come from extensive hyperventilation.
- Thinking About Breathing – Many people with panic attacks tend to think about their own breathing. Unfortunately, this can also lead to symptoms of hyperventilation, because it causes your body to essentially breathe more than it needed to previously. Your body knows how much it needs, and often it needs very little. But when you think about your breathing, you tend to breathe far more than you need to, leading to hyperventilation.
- Unnecessary Deep Breaths – Finally, another way to hyperventilate is to take several long, unnecessarily deep breaths. If you tend to yawn when you're nervous or try to breathe in until your chest expands when your body isn't asking for it, that can lead to hyperventilation as well – especially if you're also breathing in too quickly to do it.
One of the main issues with hyperventilation is that your body starts to feel shortness of breath. Your body feels as though it's not getting enough oxygen when the problem is actually the opposite.
So the reaction that most people have to hyperventilation is unintentionally hyperventilating more. They try to breathe in too much air too quickly because they feel like they're not entirely breathing, causing the hyperventilation to get worse.
Hyperventilation and Hyperventilation Syndrome
Hyperventilation is caused by anxiety, but once caused, some argue that hyperventilation ends up becoming its own disorder, known as "hyperventilation syndrome." Hyperventilation syndrome is when you tend to hyperventilate even without anxiety present because your body has learned to breathe incorrectly due to anxiety and stress.
That's why hyperventilation is such an important thing to understand for those with anxiety. It's not only the cause of many of the worst anxiety symptoms – it also may become its own disorder that requires your attention.
Symptoms of Hyperventilation
Hyperventilation is not dangerous. But it causes symptoms that mimic severe disorders. Hyperventilation causes carbon dioxide levels to drop very low in your bloodstream. This lack of balance causes your blood vessels to constrict and your nerves to fire incorrectly. All of this leads to a host of problems that those with anxiety attacks will find very familiar, including:
- Rapid heartbeat.
- Chest pains.
- Lightheadedness/feelings of faint.
- Difficulty concentrating.
- Shortness of breath
- Weak or tingling limbs.
On their own, these symptoms would already cause significant discomfort. When combined with anxiety, these symptoms often lead to severe anxiety attacks, health fears, and more.
How to Tell if You Hyperventilate
There's no surefire test for hyperventilation since it tends to come and go. If you've been to a doctor and ruled out any other heart or lung problems, the likelihood is that you may be hyperventilating.
There are some warning signs. Chest pains tend to be sharper and more in the center of the chest. Many people find that they have to burp or yawn more than they would previously. And hyperventilation usually corresponds pretty well to how you're breathing.
If you have anxiety attacks, there is a good chance you're often hyperventilating. And if you have anxiety and you've ruled out other health problems, hyperventilation is very likely to be the cause of your symptoms.
What to Do to Prevent Hyperventilation
Hyperventilation is both caused by and causes anxiety attacks, so if you can stop hyperventilating, you can potentially reduce the severity of your panic attacks and possibly prevent them altogether.
Most people don't realize they're hyperventilating until they've already started, so it may be difficult to fully control all anxiety attacks and prevent all hyperventilation. Furthermore, the more you think about your breathing, the more at risk you are for hyperventilation because you'll tend to breathe more than you need to, so it's not always in your best interests to go about your day trying hard to breathe correctly.
You also need to make sure that you're willing to accept what hyperventilation is – a non-dangerous breathing style that is going to cause you some intense discomfort. This acceptance is necessary because if you continually convince yourself that you have a heart problem, you're going to have a hard time using the strategies outlined below. Talk to your doctor first to make sure that your heart is in the clear.
The following are the best ways to prevent hyperventilation:
- Drastically Slow Breathing – The tendency is to want to take deeper breaths. You have to fight this desire as best you can, and slow down your breathing dramatically. Take breaths that last as long as 12 seconds or more. One way is as follows:
- Breathe in through your nose slowly for 5 seconds.
- Hold for three seconds.
- Breathe out through pursed lips for 7 seconds.
Doing this will help your body balance its carbon dioxide levels again and should prevent you from further hyperventilating.
- Walking – Walking can also be a big help. Exercise at all increase carbon dioxide in your body and both walking and running can improve breathing efficiency. Many people with panic attacks find it valuable to get up and move whenever possible, and walking is something that should provide some help.
- Check Your Clothes and Posture – Once you become more prone to hyperventilation, there are issues that increase your risk. Tight clothing, for example, or a belt that is squeezing your stomach too tightly may be causing your hyperventilation. Posture may also be a contributing factor. Fixing these can provide some relief.
- Paper Bag Breathing – Studies of paper bag breathing are mixed, but there is some sound logic to the idea. Typically when we breathe in, we take in extra Co2 that we just expelled. This is important for maintaining the right balance. Breathing into a bag may conceivably improve the levels of carbon dioxide in your body, helping you overcome hyperventilation faster. Never do this if you have a heart problem, and never do this for longer than ten breaths.
- Mental Distraction – Remember, your body wants to breathe normally. Even though some hyperventilation happens against your will, once you've noticed hyperventilation you'll find you tend to make it worse. If you can distract yourself mentally and not think about your breathing as often, you should be able to control the extent of your hyperventilation.
Even if you get enough carbon dioxide back into your bloodstream, it can take a while for your body to get back to normal, which is why the tips above will not always prevent panic attacks or their symptoms. But if you can reduce the extent of your hyperventilation you'll find that you fear it less, and that is important for overcoming anxiety in the future.
Stop Anxiety and Stop Hyperventilating
Curing your anxiety is possible, and when your anxiety goes your hyperventilation will go with it. Learn more about how to cure anxiety with my anxiety test.
Doctors also recommend that you re-train your body how to breathe. Anxiety makes your body stop its standard breathing pattern, so even if you're feeling calm and happy, you may still be prone to hyperventilation, which ultimately will increase your anxiety and your stress and cause further anxiety problems.
There is no clear, scientifically validated way to re-train your body to breathe better, but most experts recommend the following:
- Diaphragmatic Breathing - Diaphragmatic breathing is breathing in through the stomach rather than the chest. It's believed that this method of breathing is less shallow, which should decrease hyperventilation risk. Take 20 minutes every day to practice breathing in slowly through your stomach. Try to make sure your stomach expands first and your chest second. Your body should adopt this style of breathing in the future.
- Yoga – Those that don’t want to simply learn how to breathe again should consider yoga. Yoga teaches this style of breathing in a way that is more interactive, and the added athletic benefit can be useful for controlling your anxiety.
- Aerobic Exercise – Finally, running, in general, seems to be effective at re-training your body to breathe. It's unclear how it does this, but since running tends to put you in an ideal state for breathing, it's possible that you simply learn how to breathe more efficiently every time you run until you pick it up long after you've stopped running.
Of course, all of this is for nothing if you can't control your anxiety. That's why no matter what you decide to do, you should always partner it with some anxiety reduction or prevention strategy.
I've worked with thousands of people that hyperventilate regularly. I start them all off with my free anxiety test, which is the only way for me to learn more about your anxiety and how it affects you to provide further recommendations.
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Rapee, Ronald M. Differential response to hyperventilation in panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 95.1 (1986): 24.
Holt, Phoebe E., and Gavin Andrews. Hyperventilation and anxiety in panic disorder, social phobia, GAD and normal controls. Behaviour Research and Therapy 27.4 (1989): 453-460.
Rice, Raymond L. Symptom patterns of the hyperventilation syndrome. The American journal of medicine 8.6 (1950): 691-700.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Nov 29, 2017.