In today’s post, I’ll talk about an area of increasing interest and research – the relationship between breathing and panic attacks.
Hyperventilation (over-breathing) has long been recognized as a primary symptom of panic. Hyperventilation is defined as taking in more air than is needed for the level of physical activity. So, what is the correlation between over-breathing and panic attacks? This may surprise you, but studies have shown that most people suffering from panic attacks hyperventilate all the time, not just during panic attacks. And they are likely completely unaware of it.
What would make someone take in more air than they need to? One current theory suggests that panic sufferers have an overly sensitive respiratory alarm system that is triggered by carbon dioxide (C02)1. While all of us breathe in oxygen and breathe out C02, individuals with this hypersensitivity over-breathe all of the time in an attempt to avoid triggering their body’s alarm system. This over- breathing causes a persistently low C02 level, which can then trigger an erroneous alarm response. The alarm response is called a panic attack.
It makes perfect sense that the body would have an alarm system related to breathing. Otherwise, we’d be in big trouble. Think about holding your breath. Eventually, you feel distress caused by ‘air hunger’, which is the alarm sensation related to suffocation. When this happens, you respond by taking big gulps of air to ‘turn off the alarm’. It’s a survival mechanism.
Think of panic in the same way. Panic attacks are the body’s way of sounding an alarm, but the alarm system has gone hay-wire, signaling danger way out of proportion to the circumstance. In some people, the alarm that causes panic is triggered by external cues (airplane turbulence, heights, snakes, etc.) and in others, by internal ones (chest tightness, dizziness, etc.).
Freespira is successful at reducing or eliminating panic attacks by training individuals how to correct this underlying respiratory dysfunction. Using real-time feedback, Freespira teaches panic sufferers how to pace breathing and normalize respiratory volume so their body is less likely to trigger their oversensitive alarm system.
In our next post, I’ll summarize both the clinical trial and real-world research about Freespira.
1. Klein DF. False suffocation alarms, spontaneous panics, and related conditions. An integrative hypothesis. Arch Gen Psychiatry 1993;50:306–17. [PubMed: 8466392]