We all know that when panicked, some people “hyperventilate” or breath at an abnormally rapid or deep rate. Hyperventilation is extreme and can be dangerous as it results in decreased carbon dioxide levels and increased oxygen levels that produce dizziness, tingling of the fingers and toes, and, if continued, loss of consciousness. What you may not be aware of, is that many of us are prone to “over-breathing”.
While less extreme and less obvious than hyperventilation. Over-breathing also means that you have altered your breathing mechanics enough to alter your breathing chemistry. It means that you have created an imbalance in your body by releasing too much carbon dioxide or taking in too much oxygen by breathing in too quickly or too deeply. While over-breathing takes longer to do so, like hyperventilation, it can trigger a variety of symptoms such as headaches, difficulty concentrating, memory loss, performance anxiety, panic attacks, strong emotional reactions and even asthma attacks to name a few.
I’ve done it myself. Several years ago I took up yoga looking to feel more energized, and less stressed. To my surprise, as my first yoga class progressed and we started to do more deep, regular “yoga breathing”, I started feeling panicked, stiff, and stressed. By the time we were done, I was exhausted! Only later did I come to understand that in an effort to breathe deeply and relax, I’d been a little too enthusiastic – and had been “over-breathing”.
There are two types of “over-breathing”
- Situational over breathing – when a specific event triggers a change in breathing mechanics and chemistry for a certain period of time before returning to normal.
- Chronic over breathing refers to a more constant state of imbalance, usually found in people with chronic pain.
If you are prone to either, don’t panic. You can learn to breathe properly to prevent or control your symptoms. Just remember the following:
- Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth
- Allow the breath to go into the lower part of you lungs (abdominal breathing)
- After you exhale, pause briefly then breathe in again
- Breath easy at a relaxed, regular pace – no slower, faster, or deeper than what is normal for you
If you are trying to control strong emotions or a panic attack. You might find it helpful to hold your tongue on the roof of your mouth for a few minutes. This will force you to slow down your breathing and help you to relax. If you can’t control your symptoms with these easy steps, you might need to breathe in a brown paper bag or lie down. Exercising can also help, mostly if you are a chronic “over-breather”.
If none of the above helps, you may want to consider seeing a Physiotherapist who can help by teaching you proper breathing techniques and exercises. A Physiotherapist can also diagnose and treat any underlying musculo-skeletal conditions. Before selecting a Physiotherapist, ask if they have specific training in the treatment of breathing disorders. And, if the clinic is equipped with a capnograph (a machine used to monitor and analyse breathing disorders). Then…breathe easy!