How to Treat Hyperventilation Syndrome

A woman laying on the ground, trying to calm down and take deep breaths

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In treating hyperventilation syndrome, the most essential component of the plan is calm. While breathing more (faster and deeper) can be brought on by several health conditions, true hyperventilation syndrome is the result of anxiety or a panic attack.

Over-breathing triggers a decrease in carbon dioxide levels in the blood, which is why the person might also feel light-headed or dizzy, or experience feelings of tingling or numbness in the arms or around the mouth. For these and other reasons, hyperventilation can be scary for the person it's affecting, as well as for the person trying to help treat it, only increasing the sense of panic and worsening the situation.

If you think that someone's hyperventilation is due to stress or a similar reaction, the following steps can help. That said if the patient is complaining of chest pain that doesn't go away, especially with a history of heart disease, call 911.

Set the Tone

Patients with hyperventilation syndrome may have anxiety disorders that cause erratic or dangerous behavior. Mostly, they're just scared.

Use an even voice and demeanor to address the patient. If you are calm, it will be easier for the person experiencing over-breathing to feel calm, too.

Look for Certain Symptoms

Do your best to determine if the person is actually suffering from hyperventilation syndrome. There are many causes of shortness of breath that can lead to breathing patterns that are similar. Some common symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome include:

  • Numbness and tingling in the fingers and lips
  • Spasms in the hands and feet
  • Tense feeling
  • Tightness around the mouth

If you are in doubt as to whether or not someone is experiencing a medical emergency, err on the side of caution and call for medical help.

Guide Their Breathing

If the patient has experienced hyperventilation syndrome before, he or she may a few go-to relaxation strategies to help achieve calm and restore normal breathing patterns, such as guided imagery and deep breathing exercises.

For your part, you can encourage the person to breathe slowly and deeply. One trick: Ask the individual to hold his or her breath for as long as possible, then exhale and hold another breath. Repeat this exercise together until the patient begins to feel less anxious.

A few more easy breathing exercises to try to reduce stress and restore proper breath control:

  • Alternative nostril breathing
  • Counted breathing
  • Mindful diaphragmatic breathing
  • Visualization breathing

Avoid the "Paper Bag" Trick

Never urge someone to breathe into a paper bag. While it was once thought that re-breathing exhaled air could help restore lost carbon dioxide, there is no evidence that it actually works in the case of hyperventilation syndrome. In fact, it can cause dangerously low oxygen levels.

Know When to See a Doctor

If the patient is having difficulty managing his symptoms, you may encourage him to visit his healthcare professional who can reevaluate his overall treatment plan, which may include a combination of cognitive therapy, stress reduction techniques, and medication (anxiolytics, antidepressants, lithium).

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