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What is Hyperventilation Syndrome?

Updated on July 15, 2014

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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