Exploring, understanding and managing the symptoms of hyperventilation

Have you ever heard of hyperventilation? Most likely! An acute hyperventilation attack can be very frightening.

Iris de Kock
Speech therapist, breathing and vocal coach

Back to the basics

Have you ever heard of hyperventilation? Most likely! An acute hyperventilation attack can be very frightening. It’s characterized by rapid, shallow, and audible breathing; nasal breathing is often nowhere to be found. Those experiencing it may encounter symptoms such as dizziness, shortness of breath, palpitations, sweating, chest tightness, tingling in the hands, or even feelings of fainting. It's certainly no picnic! But have you ever wondered how this happens? Let’s explore in this blog!

Hyper (over) ventilation (breathing)

Hyperventilation literally means 'overbreathing'. During a hyperventilation attack, the body expels too much carbon dioxide (CO2) through too rapid breathing, which alters the blood’s acidity. Normally, blood has a pH value between 7.35 and 7.45. Less CO2 means less acidic blood. You could liken it to the blood having a 'fever' during hyperventilation, explaining the symptoms experienced during an attack. Additionally, decreased CO2-levels prompt blood vessels to constrict, diminishing the supply of oxygen to tissues and organs, resulting in a sensation of breathlessness.

How to stop hyperventilation

A hyperventilation attack can be alleviated by breathing less, despite the sensation of breathlessness. This may seem paradoxical, but try the following exercise: inhale, exhale, and hold your breath for two counts. Repeat this several times until it feels comfortable. Gradually extend the breath holds to a maximum of ten counts. Then, step by step decrease back to two counts. Practice this technique beforehand and employ it during an attack. However, this exercise isn't only effective for hyperventilation! For instance, during an ice bath, this exercise can also help calm the body. Slow breathing induces a state of relaxation by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest state).

Move your ass!

Experiencing hyperventilation but not keen on the exercise above? Move! Go for a brisk walk, jump, run up and down stairs, do squats, or tense your muscles by pressing your hands firmly together. Physical activity prompts your body to produce more CO2, which helps rebalance the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Still not finding relief? Sometimes, seeking distraction can also be helpful: take a sip of water, step outside, read aloud, or engage in a Sudoku puzzle. The most important is to discover what works best for you!

Chronic hyperventilation

Many people are familiar with the concept of acute hyperventilation, which often occurs due to anxiety or stress. However, there's also a condition known as chronic hyperventilation. This issue often goes unresolved simply because it's not always diagnosed. Symptoms are frequently recognized but not attributed to breathing patterns. With chronic hyperventilation, individuals consistently breathe too fast, too deeply, and too much. As a result, an imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs. The onset of symptoms varies depending on how the body reacts to the decrease in carbon dioxide. Those who experience chronic hyperventilation are at an increased risk of experiencing acute hyperventilation attacks.

Discover your breathing frequency

How often do you breathe in a minute? Typically, the average rate in a normal breathing pattern falls around 12 to 15 breaths per minute. However, this is just a guideline, so there’s no need to worry if your rate is slightly above or below. Let’s measure together! Sit upright and follow your normal breathing. Set a timer for one minute. During this time, count your breaths. Note that one inhalation plus one exhalation counts as one breath. For consistency, you might want to repeat this measurement for a week at different times of the day: morning, afternoon, and evening. Then, calculate the average for the week. That will give you your respiratory rate.

Interested in learning more? Stay tuned for my upcoming blogs where I’ll delve deeper into the fascinating world of breathing!

Enjoy the cold,

Iris de Kock

Speech therapist, breathing and vocal coach

Follow me on: @iris.dekock