Don't Panic and Take a Deep Breath? Bad Idea!

Keep calm, don't panic and take a deep breath ... you're about to learn that the age-old advice to stop yourself from panicking, namely taking deep breaths, is actually wrong.

Turns out, taking a deep breath for people people who are prone to panic attacks is actually a bad idea. Oops!

Panicking people are often told to calm down and "take a deep breath," Meuret said. But for someone hyperventilating during a panic attack, deep breathing is a bad idea. That's because hyperventilation happens when people breathe so quickly and deeply that they expel an unusually high amount of carbon dioxide, which in turn causes symptoms like dizziness and numbness. Those symptoms tend to make people feel like they're suffocating, so they breathe quicker and deeper, further exacerbating the problem.

"It's not because they have a lack of oxygen, it's because they're exhaling too much air," Meuret said, adding, "'Take a deep breath' is not a helpful instruction."


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usually a person is guiding and miming the method of slowing the breathing down while they say "take a deep breath" too. It's not just saying the words
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Yeah, actually, in order to slow your heart down and control your brain, you exhale as slowly as possible. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and breathe out as slowly as yo possibly can through your mouth. This ain't rocket science.
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As your carbon dioxide level increases up to a certain (relatively-low) point, so does your relaxation.

Source: Anxiety experiments conducted by Joseph Wolpe, Phd in "The Practice of Behavior Therapy, 4ed"

So yes, holding that breath for as long as you possibly can, and then exhaling as slowly as you possibly can, (and repeating if possible) does work.
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I learned that lesson the hard way, and I've had panic attacks before, just not by hyperventilation. I thought I was going crazy on top of panicking. Ended up in the emergency room only to find out that I had taken in too much oxygen. That was an "interesting" evening.
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Indeed, the deep breath is supposed to be a slow, controlled breath, similar to what's taught in voice training - not a deep, quick breath. Somebody got their instructions mixed up. :)
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