What is hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation is when someone is breathing more than necessary for that given situation. Typically, when people hear the term ‘hyperventilation’, they instantly think of someone having a panic attack and breathing into a brown paper bag! Whilst hyperventilation certainly can occur with anxiety and panic attacks, hyperventilation can be much more subtle than this.

In fact, hyperventilation can present itself in a number of different ways; commonly, this will look like someone who is breathing really quickly and subsequently has a high respiratory rate (number of breaths per minute). Equally, it can also be a result of breathing big breaths, where a large volume of air is being inhaled and exhaled. Other times, people can hyperventilate as a result of talking a lot or fast, or sighing and yawning excessively. The outcome of hyperventilation is a drop in carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, where more CO2 is being exhaled than the body is producing.

Why do people hyperventilate?

Going back to basics, we all breathe oxygen in and exhale CO2 out, and ideally, our breathing pattern matches the activity or metabolic demand for that given moment. For example, when we are exercising, and the muscles under load require more oxygen to work, our breathing should increase to match this demand, delivering more oxygen and removing more CO2.  However, when there is a mismatch, for example, if someone is sitting still, but they are breathing at a faster rate, as if they were exercising, this is hyperventilation and results in someone blowing off too much CO2. 

Whilst CO2 is often referred to as a waste product that the body needs to get rid of, it is important to understand that not having enough CO2 can create just as much of a problem as having too much.   

Hyperventilating for a short period will do us no harm; however, if we develop a more persistent form of hyperventilation, where in order to keep our blood pH normal and our systems balanced, our body learns to hyperventilate all the time, in order to maintain this state of balance. The result of this is a type of disordered breathing, and these individuals would benefit from a breathing re-training programme.

Am I hyperventilating? 

What does hyperventilating feel like?

Common symptoms of Hyperventilation:

  • Dizziness or lightheaded
  • Anxiety and panic
  • Tingling sensations
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Difficulty concentrating and poor memory
  • Headaches
  • Muscle weakness

How can Breathing Works help hyperventilation?

We will:

  • Help you understand how you are hyperventilating and the common triggers to avoid.
  • Help your system to return to optimum carbon dioxide levels and balance your physiology.
  • Teach you a diaphragmatic breathing pattern which will unload your neck muscles.
  • Teach you relaxation techniques to assist in your recovery from an often disabling and stressful condition.
  • Assist in your return to normal, daily life activities, including work and sports or exercise.
  • Strengthen your breathing muscles to improve your general health and well-being.

A Couple of Frequently Asked Questions

How does breathing into a bag help hyperventilation?

If someone experiences heightened anxiety or a panic attack, they are typically breathing in a fast, shallow pattern which is called hyperventilation. Hyperventilating occurs when someone exhales CO2 faster than the body is producing it; the net result is a drop in CO2 levels within the bloodstream. The reason you may have seen or heard of people breathing into a paper bag when they hyperventilate is that the air that is being inhaled from the bag has a higher concentration of CO2 than the previously exhaled air. Essentially you are re-inhaling the CO2 you have just blown off. Compared to continuing to breathe normal room air, people are able to increase their CO2 levels at a faster rate, subsequently reducing the panic symptoms and response.

At Breathing Works, we do not generally advise people to use a paper bag. Not only is it inconvenient, but it can sometimes encourage people to continue to breathe large volumes of air, which will continue to keep the CO2 levels low. Instead, we teach a technique that applies a similar theory but uses your hands cupped to your face instead. Get in touch if you want to learn more about rescue breathing techniques for anxiety and panic.

Can you pass out from hyperventilating?

It is uncommon for someone to completely pass out from a panic attack or episode of hyperventilation. However, when someone hyperventilates, the CO2 levels get very low in the bloodstream; this will reduce blood flow to the brain, and people will often feel lightheaded and faint as a result.

If you have any questions about hyperventilating or need assistance with rescue breathing techniques, contact us today.

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