Anxiety and Breathing

Happy Learners Banner

Anxiety and Breathing

Anxiety may be all in the mind but it can have very real physical symptoms that compound the mental anguish being experienced. It may seem that these body responses to anxiety are out of our control but their is good evidence that we can learn ways to manage many of these physical symptoms through breathing techniques.

What are the physical symptoms of hightened anxiety?

When we are feeling very anxious we may experience one or more of the following unpleasant physical symptoms:

  • feeling light-headed and nauseous
  • hot and sweaty
  • tingling in the feet and hands
  • having a dry mouth
  • palpatations of the heart

Experiencing these symptoms can then make us feel more anxious.

What causes these physical symptom during anxiety?

The main reason we experience these symptoms during anxiety is due to changes in our breathing. When we feel anxious we tend to breathe more rapidly and this causes a temporary change in the pH of the blood called respiratory alkalosis.

During normal breathing we take in oxygen that is used by the body and we breathe out carbon dioxide, as a waste product.

  • When our breathing is relaxed the amount of oxygen coming in is balanced with the amount of carbon dioxide coming out.
  • When we exercise the breathing rate increases, as the body demands more oxygen, and we do our best to get rid of the carbon dioxide and stay in balance. Eventually though our muscles produce more carbon dioxide than we can handle and we become tired.
  • When we are anxious and our breathing rate increases our blood absorbs much more oxygen than the body needs. At the same time we are rapidly breathing out carbon dioxide. This change makes our blood more alkaline giving us the unpleasant physical affects.

What can we do to reduce these symptoms?

The ill-effects of respiratory alkalosis are quickly solved by reducing the breathing rate to normal. Taking a few deep and slow breaths can really help but often people rejects this simple advice.

How do you support a child to breathe normally?

  • Getting them to breathe inside a paper bag lowers the available oxygen and reduces the respiratory alkalosis. If no bag is available try to get the child to cup their hands over their nose and mouth.
  • Getting the child to breathe only through their nose will slow the breathing rate a little.
  • Use a distraction technique to focus the child's attention on a task such as counting slowly, spelling their name or observation games like I spy. See the resources on the self-calming strategies page for more ideas.