How Breathing Retraining Can Calm Anxious Feelings and Stress

"Hyperventilation has often been labeled--stigmatized is perhaps a better term--as anxiety state. I would emphatically disagree with this. Anxiety, in my experience, has usually been the product, not the prime cause. Emotional upset has been the most frequent trigger which has set off the chain of symptoms; the anxiety state seems to have most frequently been engendered by doctors who have failed to recognize the profound biochemical disturbance just outlined. Unfortunately when his many investigations prove negative the patient is left with the belief that he is suffering from something which is beyond modern medical science, or he may begin to question his own sanity. Are these not sufficient grounds for chronic anxiety? ~Dr. Claude Lum, Hyperventilation: The Tip and the Iceberg, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 1975 (Full text PDF below right) 


Most classes and support groups for people in the grips of anxiousness and stress focus on mental strategies and cognitive behavioral therapy.  We offer complementary non-medical/non-psychological tools addressing the physical aspect of breathing control.

Poor breathing habits may contribute to nerve over-excitability.  Many people who experience anxiousness are hyperventilating.  In layman's terms, that means they are over-breathing -- often taking in more than two times as much air per minute as people who are not having the same experiences.

The goals of breathing retraining include relaxing and stabilizing the breathing pattern with the intention of:

  • Moving toward restoration of proper function of the nervous system
  • Leaving fight-or-flight mode if it's not appropriate
  • Reducing heart and breathing rates
  • Relaxing muscles 

Breathing retraining can be very effective for anxiousness, hyperventilation attacks and stress management.


What's Going On In Your Body When You're Feeling Anxious

Many of us learned in school that we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.  What we didn't learn is that carbon dioxide, which is produced by the body, is extremely important as a regulator of many systems and if we exhale too much we're in trouble.

The level of carbon dioxide in our blood regulates how wide our blood vessels are open -- that is, how well blood circulates -- and how much oxygen is released from the bloodstream to organs and the brain that rely on it as fuel.ery 1 mmHg drop of arterial CO2 reduces blood flow to the brain by 2%,   according to a study by Haugh et al in 1980 cited in the book Multidisciplinary Approaches to Breathing Pattern Disorders.

-->    "Lower carbon dioxide within the blood causes a constriction of the carotid artery, the main blood vessel going to the brain," says a passage in Anxiety Free by Patrick McKeown of Ireland, the world's most famous Buteyko Breathing educator.  "The extent of constriction depends on genetic predisposition but has been estimated by Gibbs (1982) to be as much as 50% for those with anxiety and panic attacks.  This finding also supported by Ball & Shekhar (1997)."

  -->   "Breathing too much makes the human brain abnormally excited due to reduced CO2 concentrations. As a result, the brain gets literally out of control due to appearance of spontaneous and asynchronous ('self-generated') thoughts," say Balestrino and Somjen in a 1988 study.  "The brain, by regulating breathing, controls its own excitability."

How To Address Chronic Over-Breathing

At Breathing Retraining Center we advise the following strategy:


The Buteyko Breathing Technique and other breathing-retraining strategies we teach are an alternative approach and are not the practice of medicine, psychology, or a form of psychotherapy, nor are they a substitute for seeking medical or psychological advice from an appropriate professional health-care provider. We want to make the important distinction between using the Buteyko Breathing Technique and other breathing-retraining strategies for health and well-being and the practice of medicine, psychology or any other licensed health-care profession.


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“Mind and breath have the same source. Hence breath is controlled when mind is controlled and mind, when breath is controlled. Breath is the gross form of the mind.” Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi, 1965


”The removal of outside stimuli and the suspension of the breath within the nostrils controls the mind, and the transcendentalist becomes free from desire, fear and anger, and the one who is always in this state is certainly liberated.” Bhagavad-Gita

"Hyperventilation leads to spontaneous and asynchronous firing of cortical neurons." Huttunen et al, 1999

Hyperventilation The Tip And The Iceberg.pdf Hyperventilation The Tip And The Iceberg.pdf
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 Published Scientific Studies

Breathing retraining: effect on anxiety and depression scores in behavioral breathlessness.  Tweeddale PM, Rowbottom I., McHardy GJ, Journal of Psychosomatic Research 1994 Jan 38(1): 11-21

Respiratory rehabilitation: a physiotherapy approach to the control of asthma symptoms and anxiety. Laurino RA, Barnabe, V., Saraiva-Romanholo BM, Stelmach R, Cukier A, Nunes Mdo P. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2012 Nov, 67(11): 1291-7

An Overview of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Therapies for Anxiety and Depressive Disorders: Supplement to Efficacy of Complementary and Alternative Medicine Therapies for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Williams JW, Gierisch JM, McDuffie J., Strauss JL, Nagi A. Washington (DC): Department of Veterans Affairs; 2011 Aug. VA Evidence-based Synthesis Program Reports

plus more on the References page