Today we will discuss chronic hyperventilation (overbreathing), a very damaging pattern of breathing, and ways to deal with it. It happens that a major branch of classic yoga is pranayama, a discipline dedicated to breath-training.
But isn’t breathing automatic? When you fall asleep or even are knocked unconscious, you continue breathing. There is no need to understand
how you breathe because it is regulated by primitive parts of the brain at its very deepest levels, even without guidance from higher parts of the brain.
However, breathing can also be controlled by higher areas of the brain, including the most advanced cortical areas. And pranayama, tactical breathing, and some modern research on chronic hyperventilation all suggest that learning new breathing patterns, and especially turning them into ingrained habits, can help us to be more resilient in stressful situations and to shed symptoms that are due to faulty patterns of breathing.
What kind of symptoms are we talking about?
The answer to this question is most readily found in papers on the effects of chronic hyperventilation. The symptoms are incredibly diverse, and are often viewed as “in your head”, “neurotic” or “due to anxiety”. These patients go from one doctor after another and rarely get real relief.
A good short list of the symptoms can be found in a paper by L.C. Lum, Table 1. They include symptoms of diseases of the heart, lungs, intestines, nervous system as well as psychological symptoms, e.g. anxiety, tension, etc.
How can such a variety of symptoms result from something as simple as a pattern of breathing? It does, indeed, seem to treat breath control as a kind of cure-all. But the linkage of this array of symptoms and overbreathing makes sense because this kind of breathing results in a rapid drop of blood carbon dioxide by 50%, and carbon dioxide rapidly and dramatically changes the activity of nerve tissue. (If you are interested in technical details, see this article by R.A. Cluff. Be sure to click link to the complete article.)
What You Should Do If You Think You May Be Hyperventilating?
The two links mentioned in the first sentence of this post provide several useful ways to change your breathing pattern to increase your resilience. They can give you relief on the spot. However, to make longer term changes, you will have to practice regularly for some time.
If you want to go beyond those options, and get some coaching and support from others, many programs are available. Try looking into yoga studios, checking whether they have courses that emphasize pranayama or at least give it some priority. Pranayama is based on almost 3000 years of varying and practicing breath patterns and carefully observing their effects. So it is the most thorough breath control discipline.
Papworth hospital in Cambridge, England has a method of retraining hyperventilators that succeeds in a very large proportion of cases, but Papworth is not easily accessible for most of us, and their technique involves inpatient training.
First they show the patient that they can reproduce their symptoms by rapid, shallow breathing from the chest. Then they train them twice daily to do slow, diaphragmatic deep breathing, until their breathing rate is around six times per minute, which tends to be about one third of their original rate.
To help you try out diaphragmatic breathing, watch this video, then practice regularly. There are many more videos teaching diaphragmatic breathing on Youtube done by teachers of Yoga, Pilates, Hand Therapy, Physical Therapy, and more. Obviously, if you want personal training, it is widely available.
The Papworth method also includes a version of progressive relaxation training. Relaxation training instruction is widely available for free on You Tube. Unfortunately, most of the videos have serious errors that are incompatible with the core concepts of Progressive Relaxation, which appears to be the method they are striving to demonstrate.
The central goal of Progressive Relaxation is for people to really learn the difference between tension and relaxation. To do so, they have to train themselves to recognize increases in bodily tension as clearly as they recognize sights and sounds.
Most of the free videos demonstrate exercises that are inconsistent with learning to sense tension. For example, they have people tighten muscles as hard as possible without damaging themselves. That makes sensations of pain and strain that get in the way of observing ordinary tension.
We will explain other details of Progressive Relaxation in future posts. For now, here is an audio you can use for deep relaxation.