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Anxiety and Hyperventilation

Anxiety & Hyperventilation

Haemoglobin is a chemical compound found in blood cells. Its role is to transport oxygen from the lungs to the body, and to take carbon dioxide from the body to the lungs. Oxygen is needed by the body to survive. Carbon dioxide is a waste product produced in the body, and is eliminated from the body through the lungs. The rate of breathing affects the rate at which carbon dioxide is eliminated. The amount of oxygen taken into the body is not affected by the rate of breathing, because under normal circumstances, we inhale four times as much oxygen as we need. Breathing more than we need to, or hyperventilating, does not increase the amount of oxygen in the blood. What hyperventilating does is reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood.

It is the reduced level of carbon dioxide in the blood that causes symptoms in panic attacks, not a reduction in oxygen levels, as many people think.

Symptoms of hyperventilation:

Symptoms that occur early on may include:




Body feels different or unreal

Things around you seem unreal


Increased heart rate

Tingling, “pins and needles” or numbness in hands, feet or face

Muscle stiffness

Sweating hands

Dry mouth or throat

Symptoms that may occur later on include:



A feeling of restricted breathing

Chest pain, constriction or tenderness

Muscle paralysis

Increasing apprehension or fear

One of the most distressing sensations caused by hyperventilation is a feeling that you cannot get enough air. This can trick you into breathing even harder or faster, which will just make the symptoms worse.

When individuals hyperventilate, they use more energy than they need to. This may cause other symptoms:

Feeling hot or flushed


Feeling tired

Muscle fatigue, especially chest muscles

Looking at the lists of physical sensations produced by hyperventilation, there is some overlap with symptoms commonly reported in panic attacks. It is also easy to see how individuals might mistake the sensations produced by hyperventilation as signs of some serious physical illness. When individuals do this, their anxiety increases, they hyperventilate more, and thus worsen or prolong their symptoms.

It is important to remember that hyperventilation produces physical sensations that are unpleasant (and for some, frightening) but they are not dangerous. The physical sensations produced may be experienced as physically unpleasant, but will not harm you. When you stop hyperventilating (or when your body’s protective mechanisms step in), the sensations will go away.

Another requirement for survival is that the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body are balanced. The body has a number of protective mechanisms that prevent this relationship from becoming too unbalanced. When hyperventilation occurs for a while, the body takes steps to correct it. There are many examples of protective mechanisms in the body that maintain the body’s function. For example, there is a protective mechanism that maintains blood pressure at a stable level, thus preventing people from fainting every time they stand up. Other protective mechanisms exist to regulate eating, sleep and temperature. These mechanisms are in-built, durable, and generally automatic.

Breathing has automatic and voluntary control. That is, when you are not thinking about it, your body maintains your breathing rate. When you want to, you can change your breathing rate, for example, holding your breath under water.

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