Symptoms of Panic = High, Shallow, Fast Breathing

If you have ever experienced real fear or panic in your life you will be aware that you are breathing becomes more like a pant – much quicker and deeper.  So why has it long been the advice from Yogi’s that we need to breath DEEPLY in order to become more relaxed when in our experience, the opposite experience is true – in our very deepest moments of relaxation in class we note that our breath is shallow – in fact, hardly noticeable – the very opposite of “DEEP” where the body is breathing itself very effortlessly indeed.

The reason why it’s important not to over breath is that we are stimulated to take a breath in the presence of carbon dioxide.  This is why you are given a paper bag to breath into if you are having a panic attack – it is so that you will take in LESS oxygen and MORE carbon dioxide by taking in recycled exhalations from the paper bag (and not oxygen from the air). This prevent hyperventilation at least temporarily.  The advice to take a deep breath when a person is panicking is the very opposite of what I would advise in these circumstances!  Whilst they may feel that stretching out the breathing apparatus feels nice for a moment, unfortunately it encourages them to stay in a hyperventilating state.  Instead, in all circumstances, not just these, calming and slowing the breath down is the ideal fix to increasing calm in the mind.

It can be very unhelpful when a Yoga Teacher suggests that we breath in healthy oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide as a toxic waste.  In fact carbon dioxide is our very best friend since without it we have no stimulus to breath and less oxygen in the brain and tissues.  To prevent hyperventilation as a common habit for exhausted and panicky people, there is a need to slow the breath rate down and to breath from the right place (the nose) using the right part of the lungs (the bottom).  If you feel exhausted when you wake up in the morning, it will help you to train yourself to use your breathing apparatus more effectively.

Misinformed Yogis Teach Abdominal Breathing

The problem with mis informed Yogi’s teaching belly breathing is that they are training their students to OVER-breath which increases the arterial Carbon Dioxide and decreases Cerebral blood flow which increases an anxious state.  What is also seen in patients with Panic Disorder is recent sighing (even during panic free periods) as well as chronic hyperventilation (over breathing); instability of breath rate all of which cause large reductions in CBF and overall circulating blood oxygen levels.  This is why you will never hear me say “take a deep breath in” or “breath in, blowing the belly up with air like a balloon” as this encourages too much uptake of oxygen and decreases the level of CO2 in the body which has detrimental affects on the oxygenation level in the tissues.

Change Breathing Patters to combat anxiety and depression

Here Patrick McKeown is talking about how Buteyko Breathing Techniques and fixing Sleep Apnoea helps to control depression, anxiety and panic disorder.  He also mention that carbon dioxide hypersensitivity which can lead to feelings of suffocation leading to hyperventilation and reduce blood flow to the brain, increasing neural excitation.

Don’t Get Hot Under the Collar

An interesting fact: It is harder to breath when it’s too hot outside and this is because we need to be able to warm the air as we breath.  Often a panic attack will happen in the presence of feeling “hot and bothered” and make it harder to take in air which brings on the need to gulp air in.  So keeping cool and resisting the urge to gulp in air will help stave off panic.

Normal Breathing Mechanism & Panic Disorder

Breathing is based on the physics principle that gasses travel from an area of high pressure to an area of low pressure. The pleural cavity surrounding the lungs is surrounded by two visceral membranes and is 4 pressure less than the outside air.  If you had a punctured lung the outside and pleural cavity would have become the same pressure and your lungs would be collapsed as a result.  During normal breathing two key muscles contract – the Diaphragm goes DOWN as it contracts, the intercostal muscles squeeze together so that the rib cage can rise and the thoracic cavity increases to allow the lungs to expand.  Lungs should be balloon like things – easy to inflate.  Certain conditions cause the lungs to behave like a thicker balloon which is much harder to blow up – for instance, in the case of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).

As the lungs expand a decrease in pressure by 1mmHg occurs which allows gas to flow in, warmed by the body. Normal breathing is a passive process.  The diaphragm moves up to it’s resting place the the intercostal muscles relax so that the rib care returns to a smaller cavity as you expire.  Almost all the best oxygen exchange work happens much lower in the lungs so we need to get the diaphragm working correctly in order to get the lungs to work at their most efficient.

During panic and anxiety attacks, the breathing becomes high up in the chest, causing the neck and shoulders to tense unnecessarily.  Unfortunately it is now becoming more common for modern people to use predominantly chest breathing has negative affects not only on the oxygen levels available to the tissues but also on keeping us at an equilibrium mentally.


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