People with heightened anxiety typically hyperventilate – to an extreme if under a panic attack. Hyperventilation – breathing too much for the given physical activity level – can be both an effect of anxiety emotions and also a cause of increased anxiety, a feedback mechanism that can contribute to anxiety spiraling out of control into full blown panic.
Hyperventilation can mess with a proper carbon dioxide-to-oxygen ratio in the blood and to blood acidity. In so doing, hyperventilation can contribute to dizziness, to feelings of unreality, and to fears of going crazy or fears of dying. Each is a common sensation among people undergoing panic attacks. Hyperventilation can indirectly contribute to a raised heart rate and numbness in the extremities and ear lobes, each commonly being further disproportional bodily reactions to inappropriate levels of anxiety.
(An appropriate fear response might be what you need to get out of the way of a car that is speeding in your direction.)
Controlled Breathing – Antidote to Anxiety
Controlled breathing not only short-circuits the fear feedback to which hyperventilation contributions, it also provides bodily feedback that serves to calm the anxious or panicking person. If your bodyily symptoms tell you that you are OK, that helps you to feel normal rather than anxious. And controlled breathing can be practiced anywhere and it is inexpensive.
If controlled breathing is that important, how is it achieved? For some people with a prolonged or chronically heightened sense of anxiety, a degree of hyperventilation may be a "normal" (or felt to be normal) breathing pattern. And controlled breathing may easier said than done when you are in a panic attack.
In other words, the process begins with a will to progress and succeed. If you prefer being angry and subject to panic attacks, you may not be motivated to focus on breathing or disciplined enough to practice controlled breathing exercises. And there are people who feel their panic and anxiety serve them better than calm and peace.
But for those with at least a will to try, begin by testing yourself to see if you hyperventilate when your body is in its normal state of calm. Before testing, be sure you are fully at rest. In other words, be sure you have not just practiced, cleaned house, walked up a flight of stairs, or the like.
Test Yourself for Hyperventilation
Denise Beckfield in Master Your Panic Attack and Take Back Your Life suggests that, when fully at rest, take a watch or clock and find out how many breathing cycles you take in a full minute. Inhaling once and exhaling once is one cycle. Try not to alter how you would breathe because you are conscious of doing so. Sometimes a friend or family member can help. More than one attempt to count breaths can help get it right.
If you breathe more than thirteen times a minute at rest, you may be a candidate for hyperventilation (unless you have a lung problem like emphysema), especially if you know you have a heightened sense of anxiety or are subject to inexplicable panic attacks.
How to Breathe in Deep and Controlled Manner
If you do hyperventilate or are subject to panic attacks, you need to identify when your breathing mostly uses the upper portion of your lungs in the typical fashion of people in a sedentary lifestyle … and when you breathe deeply from the bottom to the top of your lungs. In the latter case, the muscles of your diaphragm under your lungs makes your stomach area rise and fall. Not so with shallow breathing at the top of your lungs.
Your controlled breathing practice needs to use deep breathing from your diaphragm. And because deep breathing uses more of your lungs than shallow breathing, you can breathe more slowly to get the same amount of oxygen.
To practice, sit comfortably or lie down, holding your hands over your stomach area to measure the up-and-down movements of your diaphragm. A clock with a second hand nearby may help. Inhale slowly enough to fill your lungs while counting to four in fashion of "one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, …" to approximate four seconds. The exhale to the count of four in the same fashion. Inhaling and exhaling should take at least four seconds each. Practice this method of breathing for four minutes.
Next, Beckfield suggests setting two separate times a day for this practice. This will help you develop a habit. This needs to increase to about four times a day for two to six weeks. The goal is to make slow, controlled breathing ingrained in your brain so that it becomes easier and automatically automatic, so easier to practice during a panic attack or whenever you feel anxious. Meanwhile, do your best to breathe slowly and deeply while under a panic attack.
Breathing like this for panic attacks helps. Be sure also to combine deep and slow breathing with rational thoughts that will help you calm down.