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Anxiety and Hyperventilating (Breathing Too Fast)

Breathing too fast is part of the fight or flight response that pepares our body for action when we are faced with danger.

In an effort to provide the extra oxygen (fuel) that our muscles need to take immediate action we breathe faster to take in more air.

In a truly dangerous situation this is exactly what we need – extra oxygen to keep our muscles supplied as we use it up rapidly in working them hard to fight or flee.

However, if we are breathing faster, drawing more oxygen into our blood, but not using it quickly (fighting or fleeing) – that is we are anxious but not taking any physical action – then our self-protective behaviour actually makes things worse for it disrupts the normal oxygen(O2)-carbon dioxide(CO2) balance in the blood.


In the normal breathing cycle we take in O2 and expel CO2; during exercise we take in O2 faster and expel CO2 faster. Breathing faster without any corresponding increase in action leads to a build up of oxygen in the bloodstream.

When we are breathing too fast (hyperventilating) it can feel as if there is not enough oxygen (which makes us more panicky). However, the reverse is true – we actually have too much oxygen. For although carbon dioxide is a waste gas that we breathe out, we need a certain amount of it in our bloodstream to be able to use up the oxygen we have. When we hyperventilate we end up with an excess of oxygen that we cannot actually use. Hence it can feel like we don't have enough oxygen and cannot breathe.

This is why people who are hyperventilating are often told to breathe into paper bags – to breathe in the CO2 they are breathing out, which redresses the O2-CO2 balance.   (See: Calm Down Using deep Breathing)

(Aside from anxiety and panic, hyperventilating can be caused by some very serious problems such as heart disease or infection and it is extremely important to have any symptoms checked by a medical professional to rule out any physical causes first.)


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When related to anxiety and panic, breathing too fast is an integral part of the fight or flight response and occurs for our self protection. When we aren't in actual danger it still happens and any additional 'panickiness' we feel because of it only adds to our overall anxiety.



Hyperventilation:

"excessive ventilation; specifically: excessive rate and depth of respiration leading to abnormal loss of carbon dioxide from the blood"

(medical Definition)

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ANXIETY SYMPTOMS AND 'FIGHT OR FLEE'

Physical anxiety symptoms result from the body re-directing resources to the major muscle groups (legs / arms / chest) to provide them with an energy boost to prepare us for action (ultimately to fight or flee).

* Our breathing becomes more rapid to get more oxygen for these muscles into the blood.
* Our heartbeat speeds up to get the blood to the muscles quicker.
* Blood is diverted from the brain (making us light-headed and dizzy) and the stomach (causing 'butterflies').
* Energy cannot be wasted processing any half-digested food in our system so we need to get rid of it quickly - either through the mouth (feelings of nausea) or the other end (wanting to go to the toilet).
* Other 'energy-wasting ' systems (unnecessary in time of danger) are shut down eg. saliva production, giving us a dry mouth and difficulty swallowing.
* We sweat more to cool down all this energy production.
* The energy boost to the muscles makes them 'jumpy'/ 'jittery'/ 'jelly-like'/ on-edge ready for action.

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Although relatively harmless when infrequent, bouts of hyperventilating will likely continue until the underlying anxiety problem is resolved.

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