What Is Hyperventilation? Simple explanation + Symptoms & Tips

Letting Go And Break Through Negative Thoughts

What exactly is hyperventilation ?

If you’ve ever experienced a hyperventilation attack, you probably know how bad it can be.

It’s like you lose all sense of reality.

Wondering why you’re hyperventilating?

Do you want to know what the causes of this are?

Are you looking for solutions to not have to go through this experience anymore?

In this article you will learn what hyperventilation is exactly and how to recognize the most important symptoms in order to prevent it from getting worse.

Purpose of this article:  in this article you will learn everything about hyperventilation. On the basis of some medical information you learn why exactly you hyperventilate. The underlying causes are discussed in detail and I give a brief overview of the symptoms. Read through to the end to know what to do in case of hyperventilation.

Hyperventilation unraveled: what is hyperventilation?

Before I explain to you exactly what hyperventilation is, I first want to talk about breathing.

You breathe automatically. It is one of the body processes that you do not think about on a daily basis. Breathing is just there.

Perhaps you’ve never even wondered how breathing works and what exactly happens when you breathe. To better understand hyperventilation, it is important that you know how to breathe in a healthy way and why you breathe exactly. Read along!

Every time you breathe, you take in oxygen-rich air and give  off carbon dioxide-rich air (CO2)  . Through your nose and mouth, this oxygen-rich air reaches your lungs through your windpipe.

These are protected by your ribs. Between your ribs are muscles that, together with your abs, make your chest bigger or smaller. Below your ribs is the diaphragm.

The diaphragm rises as your abs contract. This way you breathe in and out naturally.

The air you breathe contains oxygen. This oxygen-rich air enters the trachea when you inhale. At the end of the trachea are two bronchi, one to each lung. At the end of each lung are alveoli.

Oxygen passes through the walls of these alveoli into small capillaries. The hemoglobin of the red blood cells then takes in oxygen-rich air and carries it to all the cells of your body.

These cells contain glucose. Oxygen is used to burn glucose. This releases energy that allows your body to function. This combustion produces carbon dioxide and water. These substances, dissolved in the blood, return to the lungs from which you exhale.

If you breathe naturally, this whole process goes without a hitch. If you breathe in the wrong way, you can hyperventilate.

If you’re wondering what exactly goes wrong when you hyperventilate, read on carefully.

Under normal circumstances, your breathing adapts to your body activity. For example, if you are reading a book, you take a deep breath. If you exercise intensively, you will breathe faster.

When you hyperventilate, you breathe too fast and too deeply. By the way, hyperventilation literally means ‘to breathe too much’.

Especially when you are anxious or tense, you will breathe faster. Often you don’t breathe from your belly, but from your chest.

Just because you exhale too much air, the percentage of carbon dioxide in your blood decreases.

In addition, the bond between oxygen and hemoglobin is strengthened. As a result, the oxygen is less easily transported through your body. Your body senses that something is wrong and starts to defend itself.

This defense manifests itself in the typical symptoms of hyperventilation. You will learn more about which these are in this article.

There are medical standards for determining the respiratory rate. An adult person breathes at rest about 8 to 20 times per minute. In hyperventilation, the respiratory rate is usually higher than 20 times per minute.

I hope you now understand better what exactly causes hyperventilation.

The true cause of hyperventilation is a physical reaction to incorrect breathing.

But … why exactly are you breathing wrong?

To answer this question, I would like to introduce you to the underlying causes of hyperventilation.

Causes of hyperventilation

Hyperventilation can have both physical and psychological causes.

#1 Anxiety attacks or panic attacks

The most obvious causes of hyperventilation are anxiety attacks and panic attacks.

Suppose you have claustrophobia (a frantic fear of small and closed spaces). Because you have a meeting on the top floor of an office building, you decide to take the elevator anyway.

Suddenly you hear a strange noise and the elevator stops between two floors. You become so anxious that you have a panic attack . You break out in a sweat, your heart starts beating faster and you get the feeling that you are short of breath.

In response to this, you begin to breathe faster and deeper. This intensifies your tight feeling and can make you hyperventilate.

#2 Overwhelming emotions

Overwhelming emotions can also trigger hyperventilation.

These can be feelings of fear, but also intense feelings of sadness can lead to a hyperventilation attack.

Even positive emotions can cause hyperventilation. If you are surprised by, for example, a marriage proposal, you can feel so overwhelmed that you feel like you are short of breath.

As a natural response to overwhelming emotions, you often breathe too quickly and deeply and you may hyperventilate.

#3 Heavy physical exertion

Heavy physical exertion can also promote a hyperventilation attack.

When you perform heavy physical exertion, your body needs more oxygen.

As a natural reaction to this, you breathe faster and deeper and you can have a hyperventilation attack.

#4 Lung Disease

People who suffer from lung disease can start to breathe incorrectly.

They do this because there is no other option or because they have too much pain when they breathe in a normal way. This can also lead to hyperventilation.

The most common lung conditions in which hyperventilation can occur are COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease ), asthma or emphysema .

#4 Other physical conditions

Other conditions can also induce hyperventilation.

For example, people who have suffered a head injury or are taking strong medications may be more susceptible to hyperventilation. Hyperventilation also occurs regularly in some diabetic patients.

#5 Pregnancy


As the uterus grows, you may have trouble breathing calmly. This is because the diaphragm has less room to expand the lungs.

This can give you the feeling that your lungs are not filling enough with air.

The result of this is that you will inhale faster and deeper. And this way of breathing can lead to hyperventilation.

#6 Hyperventilation at high altitude

At high altitudes, the air pressure and oxygen level decrease.

Mountain climbers often get hyperventilation if they climb too high. They always have to breathe faster and deeper to get oxygen-rich air.

Hyperventilation mainly has to do with your breathing.

Just before you start to hyperventilate, you usually get the feeling that you are short of breath. However, hyperventilation can also cause many other symptoms.

Symptoms of hyperventilation

There are two forms of hyperventilation: acute hyperventilation and chronic hyperventilation.

These two forms of hyperventilation do not always give the same symptoms. In this section I will introduce you to the symptoms of acute hyperventilation.

The specific symptoms of chronic hyperventilation can be found in my article ‘ Chronic Hyperventilation? 4 Exercises To Do ‘.

Common symptoms of acute hyperventilation:

  • A general stuffy feeling
  • shortness of breath
  • Palpitations, accelerated heart rate and chest pain
  • Excessive sweating
  • A cramped feeling around the mouth
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Nausea and bloating
  • Tingling or a cramped feeling in your hands or feet
  • Cold hands and feet
  • A weak feeling in your knees and legs
  • Yawn often
  • Your vision will deteriorate and sounds may sound different
  • A feeling of unreality
  • You may feel like you are going to pass out
  • Getting the idea that you’re going crazy
  • Fear of dying

These symptoms can last for 20 to 30 minutes and be very intense.

Do you want to know more about the symptoms of hyperventilation? I would like to refer you to my article ’17 Hyperventilation Symptoms That Often Occur ‘.

Because these symptoms can be very intense, they are often confused with the symptoms of various physical conditions.

For example, palpitations, breathlessness and sweating can give you the feeling that you are going to have a heart attack. Dizziness and a light-headed feeling can make you think of a stroke.

Just because you fear a physical condition, the symptoms of hyperventilation can get even worse. That is why it is important to know what you can do in case of hyperventilation.

What to do in case of hyperventilation? 8 tips

Tip 1: Tackling the causes

Hyperventilation has everything to do with your breathing. Breathing too deep or too fast can be caused by fear, stress and tension.

It is therefore important to tackle these causes to prevent hyperventilation.

You can deal with anxiety and stress in different ways:

Tip 2: Learn to breathe correctly

Respiratory gymnastics is the perfect way to prevent hyperventilation. With this you learn to breathe in the right way: slowly, superficially and from your belly.

There are several exercises to learn to breathe correctly. I think one of the best ways is Dr. Andrew Weil ‘s breathing method .

Will you follow along?

Step 1:  Sit on a chair and try to breathe with only your stomach. Place your hands on your stomach so that you feel your own breathing.

Step 2:  Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts. You feel your belly swell.

Step 3:  Try to hold your breath for 7 counts.

Step 4:  Exhale through your mouth for 8 counts.

This way you breathe much calmer. The balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide remains in balance so that you can prevent hyperventilation.

Tip 3: Stay calm

If you feel a hyperventilation attack coming on, try to stay calm. Watch your breathing: breathe in and out slowly.

Although it sometimes seems that way, realize that a hyperventilation attack is not a precursor to a physical condition.

Tip 4: Distract your attention

The more you focus on your hyperventilation, the more likely you are to have a seizure.

If you feel certain symptoms coming on, try to focus on other things as much as possible.

You can focus on certain things you see. You might as well distract your attention by reading aloud or counting.

It doesn’t really matter what you do. As long as you don’t focus on an impending hyperventilation attack.

Tip 5: Try meditation techniques

Meditation techniques such as yoga or tai chi pay a lot of attention to correct breathing.

These meditation techniques also make you calmer, reducing the chance of hyperventilation.

In addition, physical efforts are also made and these contribute to your general condition.

Tip 6: Look for the fresh air

Exercising in the open air is not only very relaxing but also gives you the feeling that you can breathe better.

Make sure that you do not exercise too intensively or inhale too deeply. If you are already prone to hyperventilation, strenuous efforts or deep breathing in and out can contribute to this.

Another advantage of exercising in the open air is that it distracts you from your hyperventilation.

Tip 7: Breathe in the exhaled air again

The bag trick probably immediately comes to mind when you think of hyperventilating.

If you inhale your exhaled air again, you will indeed restore the carbon dioxide balance in your blood. However, the use of a plastic bag can also have a negative effect.

If you close your airflow too much, you will not get any more oxygen. This can only really get you stuffy.

If you feel a hyperventilation attack coming on, it’s better to make a shell of your hands. When you breathe in this, you also take in carbon dioxide, but you also take in oxygen.

Tip 8: A healthy lifestyle

If you often suffer from hyperventilation, consider your lifestyle. You probably know that a healthy lifestyle reduces anxiety, stress and tension.

Exercising in the open air in a responsible way is good for your general health. But you can also feel a lot better with a balanced and healthy diet.

The better you feel, the less likely you are for hyperventilation to take over.

Did you know that coffee, alcohol and narcotics can also trigger a hyperventilation attack?

You have every interest in living a healthier life if you want to prevent hyperventilation.

I hope this article has helped you understand hyperventilation a little better.

What are your experiences with hyperventilation? Let us know in a comment below!


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