Overbreathing (hyperventilation)

Article by Dr. A McDonald

Overbreathing (medical name ‘hyperventilation’) means a habit of breathing incorrectly and excessively. It can result from emotional stress and can cause tension or anxiety.

Overbreathing upsets the chemistry of the body and can lead to many physical and emotional symptoms. Frequent sighing, yawning or swallowing air can add to the problem.


Dizziness, being lightheaded, feeling faint; headaches; tension in your head; trouble thinking clearly; being easily tired; ringing in the ears; blurred vision; dry mouth; a lump in the throat; sweating; shortness of breath; heart beating faster; palpitations; chest pain; shaking hands; numbness or tingling of hands, feet or face; aches and pains in your limbs; bloated stomach; vomiting; pains in stomach; diarrhoea; passing wind n; agitation. You can learn better breathing habits which will reduce many of these symptoms. However, it is not always easy to change habits and it may take some time. The programmes outlined below have been useful to other people with problems.


Step 1 Breathe as slowly as you can using your stomach and not your chest. Breathe through your nose only if possible; in while counting 5 to yourself and then out while counting 5 to yourself

Step 2 Sit in a quiet place where you will not be interrupted, and breathe like this for 5 minutes several times a day. Most people find this quite uncomfortable at first until the body is used to it.

Step 3 When you can do this easily then lengthen the time spent each day. Start to practise slow breathing when sitting quietly, for example watching TV or on a bus. Practice by speaking more slowly or by reading out loud.

Step 4 Eventually you will be able to breathe slowly all the time unless upset or frightened by something. Prepare for such times by breathing slowly beforehand and afterwards.

Step 5 Rebreathing. If you find it difficult to start the above exercises or if you cannot control your breathing in certain situations, hold a paper bag (big enough for a loaf of bread) over your mouth and nose. Breathe as deeply as you like but only breathe the air inside the bag. You will begin to feel better after a few minutes of this. (It is not safe to use a plastic bag!)

Step 6 Sighing, yawning or swallowing air. If you become aware of any of these habits try to take a single ordinary breath instead or hold your breath for five seconds. Relaxation, yoga and meditation will all help you to slow your breathing.