Hyperventilation And Panic Attacks

About 60% of attacks are accompanied by hyperventilation and many panickers breaths incorrectly even while relaxed.

The most important thing to understand about hyperventilation is that although it can feel as if you don’t have enough oxygen, the opposite is true. It is a symptom of too much oxygen.

With hyperventilation, your body has too much oxygen. To use this oxygen (to extract it from your blood), your body needs a certain amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2).

When you hyperventilate, you do not give your body long enough to retain CO2, and so your body cannot use the oxygen you have. This causes you to feel as if you are short of air, when actually you have too much. This is why the following techniques work to get rid of hyperventilation.

Some hyperventilation and panic attack symptoms are:

Light headiness
Shortness of breath
Heart palpitations
Chest pains
Dry mouth
Clammy hands
Difficulty swallowing
Getting Rid of Hyperventilation

Anyone who hyperventilates will find that symptoms of over-excitedness or panic will occur. So how can you learn to breathe more evenly and naturally?

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Hold your breath. Holding your breath for as long as you comfortably can will prevent the dissipation of carbon dioxide. If you hold your breath for a period of between 10 and 15 seconds and repeat this a few times that will be sufficient to calm hyperventilation quickly. Breathe in and out of a paper bag. This will cause you to re-inhale the carbon dioxide that you exhaled. Naturally there are many times when this would be inappropriate and may appear a little strange.

Third, you can perform vigorous exercise while breathing in and out through your nose. A brisk walk or jog while breathing through the nose will counter hyperventilation. Regular exercise will decrease general stress levels decreasing the chance of panic attacks. If you find that your breathing pattern is irregular or uncomfortable a lot of the time, the best way to ‘reset’ it is by exercising. Start off gradually and check with your doctor if you are not used to exercise.

Finally you can practice a special type of breathing, not into your chest but deep into your tummy or diaphragm which is below your chest. The important thing here is that the out breath must be longer that the in breath. This causes stimulation of the part of your nervous system responsible for relaxation. This is a basic law of biology and if you breathe in this way then your body will have no choice but to relax.

It may take a few minutes but the body will respond regardless of what your mind is thinking. Experience this now. Sit down and close your eyes for a little while. Just become aware of your breathing…and breathe in to the count of seven… and breathe out to the count of eleven. You can hold for a couple of seconds at the bottom of the out breath if that’s comfortable for you.

It may be a little difficult at first, but doing this regularly causes your general anxiety level to come down. You may also find that you begin to breathe this way automatically if you feel anxious. Regular relaxation actually starts to inhibit the production of stress hormones in the body so it actually becomes harder and harder to panic. As you become more generally relaxed the ‘baseline’ of arousal from which you are starting lowers. It actually becomes harder to get stressed!

Hyperventilation responds very well to this technique. If you practice this daily, hyperventilating can cease to be a problem very quickly. It can also give you much more control over panic attacks.

You are hopefully coming to understand that panic attack symptoms are natural physiological reactions. Next, how a panic attack causes the brain to behave in a certain way…

The Brain and Panic Attacks – ‘Emotional Hijacking’

When you have a panic attack, or become very anxious your emotional response can actually bypass your ‘thinking brain’. The red dot in the diagram is the amygdala, which is involved with creating a ‘faster than thought’ panic attack. It is very difficult, or impossible, to think clearly when highly emotional because the part of the brain you think with is inhibited.

This is a very primitive part of your brain, designed for survival, rather than problem solving in complex situations.

The most common comment from people who have panic attacks is ‘It’s totally irrational’, which is quite right. It’s not the rational part of the brain that deals with panic attacks. This is why people often find it hard to make decisions during a panic attack.

This response has been termed an ‘emotional hijacking’ by Daniel Goleman, who wrote the best selling book ‘Emotional Intelligence’. By this, he means that your thinking, planning rational mind is hijacked by your emotional response.

The first sign that your panic attacks have gone may be when you notice you can’t have them any more. This is because something fundamental will have changed in the way the mind responds.

Other Self Help Techniques for Getting Rid of Panic Attacks…

Scaling Panic Attacks Down

The first technique is this: if you experience anxious or panicky sensations, you can rate their intensity from 1 to 10, full-blown panic being 10 and deep relaxation being 1. So, for example, if you are in a situation and begin to feel uneasy you could say to yourself ‘I am now at a scale 5′. If you began to feel worse you might say inwardly ‘I am now at a scale 6′. As you begin to feel better, you can count yourself back down to a 2 or a 1.

By scaling anxiety in this way, you are doing three things.

You are ‘putting a fence’ around the experience so the limits are clear. After all, it’s impossible for panic to go up indefinitely…it has to level off.

You are using the thinking part of the brain. In order to stop and think about where you are on a scale of anxiety you have to use the neo-cortex; the part which is not so concerned with emotion but more with thinking (see emotional hijacking).

For the time it takes for you to grade the panic you are less ‘in’ the panic attack and more outside it… like an observer. This dilutes the emotional content. You can get some better data on how long the panic attack lasts, how intense it is etc. This gives you more control. Although it can feel that panic attacks go on for ever, they can actually only continue for short periods – they are short-term survival responses.

The simple rule is that by giving the thinking brain a task we diminish the experience of unpleasant emotion.

It’s good to use a pen and paper to scale anxiety because then you can see how things are improving. It also gives you something to do during a panic attack although people sometimes find it a little difficult to write as the brain is concentrating on larger movements at these times, rather than fine ones.

Be AWARE of Panic Attacks

The next technique with which I would like to arm you is the AWARE technique.

So the ‘A’ in aware stands for ‘Accept the anxiety. Decide just to go with the experience. Fighting anxiety, getting angry or scared just fuels the fire, you know a panic attack is a perfectly natural response, so although it can be frustrating, there is nothing to be afraid of.

The ‘W’ in aware is for ‘Watch the anxiety’ Observe it without judging it to be good or bad. Remember – you are more than just your anxiety.

The next ‘A’ in ‘aware is for ‘Act normal’. Behave normally and continue doing what you intended to do. Breathe normally focusing on extending the out breath, If you run from the situation your immediate anxiety will of course decrease but this may lead to an increase in future anxiety.

Staying in the situation helps ‘decondition’ the panic response as your mind gets the message that it is not really threatening. This is why people often say that the first few minutes of public speaking are the worst. If you continue for longer than a few minutes then the mind gets the message that it’s not really that threatening.

The ‘R’ in ‘aware’ is for ‘Repeat the steps’. Continue accepting your anxiety, watching it and acting normal until it goes down to a comfortable level.

And finally the ‘E’ in ‘aware’ is for ‘Expect the best’. What you fear may never happen. You will surprise yourself by the effective way you handle situations when using the ‘AWARE’ technique.

Of course, getting rid of all anxiety is not desirable, or even possible, but getting rid of panic attacks is.

The Next Step

The next step in getting rid of anxiety or panic attacks for good is to re-educate the unconscious mind so that it understands that the situations that currently trigger your panic attacks are not actually dangerous.