Take a Breather: Hyperventilation & Health

When I sit down to discuss money matters with my husband something very curious happens to me: I go from involved to devolved faster than you can say “credit card debt”. I am not put off by the numbers—I have a degree in math—but I share with most Americans some anxiety about the subject of money. Until recently, I thought I was just stupid when it came to finances; but I now realize that there is at least one sound reason for my dullness: when I’m anxious, I hyperventilate.

It is clinically proven that people with chronic anxiety are more prone to hyperventilation. But new theories suggest that anxiety may be better described as a series of events which begins when stress is introduced. What follows is muscle constriction in the upper body—the chest, neck, head—making breathing more difficult, and increasing the feelings of fear and tension. When a person hyperventilates, or overbreathes, the levels of carbon dioxide drop sharply in the blood, constricting the arteries, particularly the large ones going to the brain. This, in turn, reduces the blood flow which further causes reduced oxygen to the rest of the body.

It is the brain which is most influenced by deprivation of oxygen. For me, I follow common patterns, like losing concentration or irrationally searching for ‘safe’ ideas among the more challenging ones of the larger subject at hand. Other reports indicate that overbreathers experience a sense of doom, or feelings of unreality; in severe cases, a person might even visually or auditorally hallucinate.

Increasingly, researchers are finding indications that controlling one’s breathing can have an effect on controlling one’s anxiety. Although it is difficult to detect except in the most severe cases, there are clues that can signal a person’s tendency to overbreathe. In my own case one signal that I noticed immediately is that my chest, and not my belly, moves more when I breathe. Counting the number of breaths in a relaxed minute might be another self-guide (over 15 may indicate a tendency to overbreathe).

Luckily, in most cases, you don’t need a medical specialist to solve this problem. Although many of these breathing habits can start as early as childhood, thus establishing patterns of muscular contraction and respitory development, you can retrain yourself with simple exercises. One of the easiest ideas employs the concept of belly- breathing. Shallow chest breathing limits the amount of oxygen entering the blood, but slow, deep belly-breathing relaxes the system and, with the increase of oxygen, has a profound calming effect.

A couple of simple exercises from Chi Kung can help you learn to belly-breathe.

Obviously, controlling one’s breathing cannot resolve all sources of anxiety. However, changing this basic body pattern has the benefit of increasing one’s own feeling of control. And I know that the next time I sit down to discuss finances with my husband, I’m going to ‘go in breathing’.

Debbie Shayne

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