Hyperventilation and Anxiety

One symptom of anxiety may be hyperventilation which is characterised by excessive, intense or fast heavy breathing.

In reality, hyperventilation, or overbreathing, is the body’s way of adapting in risk situations and can also be experienced when exercising.

When we are in danger or if we are exercising, hyperventilation helps to increase the amount of oxygen that the body needs, but hyperventilation and the excess of oxygen in a stressful or anxious situation may lead to a series of internal feelings like drowning, blurry vision, increased heart rate, suffocation, etc. These feelings highly contribute to feelings of anxiety.

Hyperventilation can be easily controlled with breathing techniques and one of the best techniques is called abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing.

What is diaphragmatic breathing?

All breathing involves an intake of oxygen (inhaling) and expelling carbon dioxide (exhaling), but the lungs do not have the necessary muscles alone.

Diaphragmatic breathing mainly uses the muscle found at the bottom of the lungs called the diaphragm. This muscle works to separate the chest and abdomen.

When we inhale, the diaphragm descends and opens up more space in the chest cavity which allows the lungs to completely fill with air.

When we exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its original position, so when we breathe with our diaphragm our breathing is fuller because it increases the capacity to bring a large amount of air to the lower area of the lungs. This is where there is a greater capacity. The effects of this airflow also improve blood flow to the heart when the diaphragm contracts.

This is the most effective breathing method because it consumes less O2 and energy and works for better airflow.

This is how small children breathe but as time passes their habits change. This change in breathing is generally produced as a way to adapt to stress (states of sadness and nervousness lead to fast and superficial breathing) because diaphragmatic breathing involves the abdomen extending (we can see our stomach more clearly) and without realising it we start to breathe with our chest, resulting in forced and poor breathing.

Studies have shown that this breathing oxygenates the blood more effectively and reduces muscle tension because it carries a greater amount of air to the lungs. This is a slower and deeper form of breathing that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. It may also be known more commonly as a form of relaxation and if practised regularly can lead to eliminating symptoms of anxiety.

Also, it is a style of breathing more slowly and deeply that stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system or what is commonly known as the relaxation response which breathing contributes to eliminating the symptoms of anxiety if you constantly practice it.


How to breathe deeply

When learning, it can be helpful to lie down on your back and later you can switch to a seated position, standing up or even walking. This process will help you to start and gradually incorporate it into your daily life.

  1. Lie down on your back on a flat surface or bed with your knees bent. You can use pillows to hold your head or knees up. Bring your hands to your chest by placing one on your upper chest and the other over your diaphragm. This will help you to feel how your body moves as you breathe.
  2. Before starting, try to empty out all of the air in your lungs and do this a few times. This will automatically increase your need to take deeper breaths. It is recommended to breathe air in through your nose and breathe it out through your mouth. However, you should breathe in the way you feel most comfortable like breathing in and out through your nose.
  3. Inhale slowly so that you can feel the air entering as your hand that is on top of the diaphragm moves outward and the hand over your chest is still. The more that your diaphragm extends and the deeper you breathe the more your stomach will expand outward.
  4. Hold your breath in for three or four seconds. As you hold your breath in let your stomach relax and when you feel the need to let the air out contract your stomach muscles inward and your stomach will “deflate” and the hand will lower with it. The other hand over your chest should not move. As you exhale, move your diaphragm towards your lungs to empty out all of the air.
  5. Hold your breath again for a few seconds without breathing in and feel how your body is relaxing. When you feel the need to breathe inhale deeply and slowly once again filling the lungs with air as your abdomen expands.
  6. Important: To relax with your breathing it is important to control how fast you breathe and the amount of air you breathe in. It is always important to breathe at a slow and paused pace. If you are breathing in too deeply and too quickly you may feel slightly dizzy (produced by hyperventilation or too much oxygen in the blood). If this happens, rest some minutes until you feel better and continue afterward to adapt your pace.

In any case, it is important to keep in mind that it is not necessary to breathe a lot of air in but rather to let it reach the deepest part of your lungs.

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