There you are in a stressful situation and suddenly you are experiencing dizziness, numbness & tingling, muscle tension, panic attacks, or even digestive upset. It’s possible you could be breathing too much.
What is overbreathing? Believe it or not, you are breathing in too much oxygen and upsetting the balance with carbon dioxide. This can have serious consequences and may contribute to conditions such as:
- Sleep issues
- Digestive problems
- Chronic fatigue and pain
- Anxiety & Panic Disorders
Four ways to invite calm and relax the breath
There are various ways you can decrease your breathing rate. By practicing with a decreased breathing rate, you can reset the set point of your breathing center over time to be set to normal physiological levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Breathe through pursed lips
This decreases the actual time with which your breath enters and exits your body. If you feel too faint and dizzy doing this, pick a different strategy.
Activate diaphragmatic breathing
You can try starting by lying down and putting a pillow or bolster under your knees. This relaxes the abdominal muscles so you have more access to a diaphragmatic breath. You can try putting a light weight or book on your abdomen and using your breath to raise and lower the book.
Practice keeping your arms raised above your head while breathing
This prevents the chest muscles from being the primary movers of the breath. You can try practicing this for 5-10 minutes a day to help train your diaphragm to move properly.
Breathe low and slow
Focus on bringing your breath into your lower abdomen. You can place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Simply begin by noticing which hand moves the most. If it is the upper hand, can you bring your awareness and attention down just a little bit towards your lower hand? You can always scoot your lower hand up higher if you feel like it is too far down and then move it down incrementally as you practice. Notice if you are “trying” to complete this task. Instead, can you just allow the breath to proceed in this way?
More about breathing: it’s not all about oxygen
It turns out carbon dioxide is crucial in maintaining the acid-base balance of our blood. Overbreathing is when you are breathing out too much carbon dioxide, leading to the blood becoming more basic, or alkaline. When the blood is more alkaline, blood cells grab on more tightly to oxygen and prevent release to the cells. The body’s response is to take a deeper breath to get more oxygen, but that causes you to breathe off more carbon dioxide, creating a dangerous cycle. When people give the advice to take a deep breath when we are stressed out, this actually worsens the problem!
If this is happening on a regular basis, the respiratory centers in the brain stem (1) become set to lower levels of carbon dioxide and then the response to breathe gets triggered every time carbon dioxide levels drop. Deep, rapid breathing will cause carbon dioxide levels to go down even further.
Disclaimer: There are some physiological disorders and medications that can lead to overbreathing. This should be evaluated by your doctor as stopping overbreathing in these situations can be dangerous without correcting the underlying issue.
- We have a respiratory center in our brain that manages the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. There are receptors called chemoreceptors that communicate with the respiratory center to either increase or decrease breathing depending on the levels of these two molecules in the blood. If you are exercising, the cells of the body are utilizing more oxygen and producing more carbon dioxide, so the chemoreceptors signal the breathing center to increase your breathing. By increasing respiration, the body is supplied with the oxygen it needs. When you stop exercising, breathing also slows down, helping the body come back to the normal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
- “Breathing.” The Clinical Handbook of Biofeedback: a Step by Step Guide for Training and Practice with Mindfulness, by Inna Z. Khazan.