What is Hyperventilation Syndrome?

Panic Attack and Hyperventilation

Have you ever thought either you were losing control or maybe going crazy? Your chest hurt, and you felt like you were suffocating. It got so bad you went to a doctor or an emergency room and told them you were having a heart attack. They did an EKG and it was normal. Now what?

You may have been having symptoms of a hyperventilation syndrome, probably the most memorable set of physical symptoms of a panic attack. The good news is that this can be treated effectively, but the first step is understanding what exactly is going on in your body.

What is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is part of an anxiety problem psychologists call panic disorder. In a panic attack - seemingly out of the blue - your body seems to have gone out of control. A sense of suffocation, chest pain, trembling, a rapid heart beat, cold clammy hands, agitation, flushed skin, all combine with a host of other symptoms, to make you feel like you are going to die, or lose control.

While you are not aware of it, your body had been breathing short, rapid breaths in order to deal with something stressful. In the process you get too much oxygen, (or actually too little carbon dioxide) but, and here's the rub, you start to feel like you are not getting enough air. This process is called the hyperventilation syndrome.

There are cells whose job it is to detect when your oxygen and carbon dioxide are out of balance. They can tell you something is wrong, but they cannot tell you whether you have too little or too much oxygen or CO2. So it sends the signal - "do something!!" and since you feel the sense of suffocation, you struggle to get more oxygen, which makes it worse. You need more carbon dioxide and not more oxygen.


Suffocation, Chest Pain, Rapid Heart Beat

Persons who experience a hyperventilation syndrome (Panic Attack) are noted to have many of these symptoms:

  • a sensation of suffocation or smothering;
  • a rapid heart beat or chest pain;
  • anxiety or fear over losing control or going crazy;
  • dizziness and fainting;
  • shortness of breath;
  • numbness or tingling sensations;
  • sweating;
  • cold, clammy hands;
  • nausea or stomach ache;
  • trembling or shaking.

Hyperventilation can occur in conjunction with other psychiatric disorders. Persons who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms often experience a panic attack when their trauma is triggered, or as part of a flashback. Also Panic Disorder, in the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic manual is noted as occurring with and without Agoraphobia, which is a fear of being in open places or crowds.

Treatments for A Panic Attack

There is good news if you have a hyperventilation problem or panic attack. There are several effective treatments that can manage the symptoms and decrease or eliminate the number of attacks. Many people find that several of the anxiety medications available by prescription are highly effective and take effect quickly. The downside of taking these medications is that many of them are highly addictive, and also reliance upon them creates a dependency that often aggravates the sense of helplessness.

Several therapies are also effective, and are more likely to build a sense that the patient has control of the problem. Distraction techniques are useful, as are progressive relaxation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, self hypnosis, systematic desensitization and breathing exercizes. A panic attack, especially when accompanied by agoraphobia, is sometimes treated with virtual reality video game-like exposure therapy.

Panic Disorder is the name psychologists give to patients who are prone to having a panic attack.

Photo credit, don't panic by Jim Linwood.

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What is Hyperventilation Syndrome?: Comments Welcome 7 comments

andy moment 4 years ago

I have often wondered what the hyperventilation syndrome is caused by, and thanks to your post I have a better idea, sound like, instead of suffocation it is too much oxygen.


Virgina Bryan 4 years ago

Hello Sir! I've encountered the panic attacks while leafing through a book entitled "10 Things to do Before I die" by Daniel Ehrenhaft. It's quite funny how the symptoms showed up abruptly, and I would like to ask if there are certain causes of panics attacks? Is it because there is something wrong with the body? or is it triggered by events experienced?


Rade 4 years ago

There are times when I get to think about my father’s death and when I reached to the point of thinking that I’ll experience that soon, I started to feel going crazy and I experienced some of the symptoms of Panic attack. I just want to know if emotions can be one of the trigger factor for panic attack?


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authorfriendly 4 years ago from Charleston, SC Author

Ms. Bryan

Usually the hyperventilation syndrome that is part of panic attacks occurs as a phsyical reaction to the state of your body when you have too much anxiety built up, specifically the short rapid breaths that are common in the fight flight response.


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authorfriendly 4 years ago from Charleston, SC Author

it sounds more like something you could deal with is bereavement work, but the fear of dying is so universal that it seems unlikely it can even be considered a phobia. The emotion of anxiety is the one most closely related to the hyperventilation syndrome


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meloncauli 4 years ago from UK

Good hub. I have found with many people that distraction often doesn't help as it's putting off the inevitable - addressing the root anxiety problem that causes the panic attacks in the first place.


Julee 4 years ago

Doesn anyone have it while falling asleep??

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