We're all really bad at breathing and it's probably making us crazy

A few years ago I was walking home from work (along the beach at sunset, in summer – it was really beautiful) and I started feeling like I was going to die imminently.

I felt strangely light – no mean feat for me at nearly six feet tall, and my body suddenly felt very…otherly. It was as though it was someone else’s body that I’d slipped into but hadn’t quite figured out how to control. My heart was racing, my limbs were numb, the scene around me was unconvincing. Was I real? Was anybody else? No-one was noticing me; I felt like Patrick Swayze in Ghost. I had to reach out and touch the promenade railing to make sure I was still solid. I was. That would have made for a much more interesting blog post though.

I made it home – fast, scared for absolutely no reason, and after that I guess I started to feel normal again. In the following weeks I experienced several more weird episodes, including one in which I was convinced I was in the midst of anaphylactic shock because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t swallow. You know how that is, when you become so aware of your big weird tongue all stuck in your mouth forever, and you lose the basic capacity to swallow? I hope it’s not just me. Unfortunately it happened at work, in a very quiet open plan office surrounded by my colleagues, and I was forced to politely refrain from clutching at my throat rasping for air and an ambulance, which is what I wanted to do. Instead I strode out briskly and kept walking until I’d distracted myself enough to make a phone call for a lift home.

I’m not a hypochondriac or a particularly nervous person – it takes a lot for me to ever get round to booking a GP appointment because I prefer the fail-safe method of ‘waiting until it goes away’, which has generally worked well for me so far. But because I’d never experienced these kinds of symptoms before, and they were particularly unpleasant ones, I bit the bullet and went. I had an electrocardiogram to check for an irregular heart beat (I’d been experiencing heart palpitations) but luckily my results came back normal. There was nothing obviously wrong with me. The doctor told me, ‘you sound like a very stressed young woman’, and suggested I go home to Google anxiety. This, apart from making me feel a bit foolish, was quite baffling because I thought I was a particularly relaxed young woman. In fact I’ve been criticised throughout my life for being too relaxed.

Why was I suddenly experiencing symptoms of anxiety?

Hindsight, that wily old witch, has since made things clearer to me. I think what it was, is that my body knew I was struggling before my mind did. The way I typically cope with stressful situations in life is to wave it all off, plough on, laugh at it, make plans, find distractions, tell myself it’ll all be fine. I pretend I’m okay, and I really believe myself, and I think the people around me do too.

Just because your mind isn’t flicking through a never-ending show-reel of your life’s failures and losses, it doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing anxiety. The brain is a devious creature. I have a feeling my brain presents me with a reality that’s remarkably different to what’s actually going on behind the scenes. I imagine my brain a bit like a dinner party in a massive country manor house. Everything in the dining room upstairs is very serene, luxurious, civilised. There are well-dressed people tittering at one another’s witty anecdotes; mountains of food on chintzy china, several layers of silver cutlery and a pianist playing Mozart in the corner. Nobody notices the sheen of sweat on the butler’s forehead, or the way he keeps glancing at the door. He catches a guest’s eye and bows his head subserviently with a tight smile. Unbeknownst to everybody but the butler, the kitchen in the depths of the house is in a state of utter chaos. The scullery maid’s crying in the corner, the cook’s about to have an aneurysm, there’s a small fire starting on the hob and a trapped pigeon flapping about, shitting all over the three-tier blancmange.

My point, I think, is that I live in blissful ignorance of the other reality. There’s the rosy, cloudy, civilised front-of-house parlour reality in which I chill out on a paisley chaise lounge all day, and there’s the fiery chaotic, potentially deadly downstairs reality that I mostly avoid – until my body decides enough’s enough and if I’m not going to face things by my own volition then it’s going to force me to face things via various horrible bodily sensations.

Anyway, at the time of my alleged anxiety attacks my sister was practising as a respiratory physiotherapist. She’s really interested in breathing (obviously) and the role it plays psychologically. I told her about my symptoms and she in turn told me about something called hyperventilation syndrome (HVS) that she’d been reading up on in some scientific journals, and which she’d encountered with some of her patients.

Hyperventilation syndrome is basically when you breathe too much

Breathing is so important. I’ve always found it really boring to even think about, which is why I’m so surprised now about how interesting it actually is.

Breathing too much can lead to various physiological changes all over the body, including a decrease in carbon dioxide pressure in the alveoli (not a type of pasta) and arteries, a rise in arterial pH (respiratory alkalosis), constriction of cerebral arteries and increased production of lactic and pyruvial acid.

I have no idea what most of this means because I copied it from an NHS Derbyshire pamphlet and can’t be bothered to research it right now – but I have asked my sister to write a guest post for this blog which will explain more about what HVS actually is in a clear, relatable way. I never would have passed my science GCSEs if it wasn’t for my sister, her guitar and her incredible science-related-song writing capabilities. Yes, at 16 I studied via song.

Here are the symptoms associated with HVS:

Respiratory symptoms:

  • breathlessness
  • tightness around the chest
  • fast breathing
  • frequent sighing

Tetanic symptoms:

  • tingling (e.g. in fingers, arms, mouth)
  • muscle stiffness
  • trembling in hands

Cerebral symptoms:

  • dizziness
  • blurred vision
  • faintness
  • headaches

Cardiac symptoms:

  • palpitations
  • tachycardia (rapid heart beat)

Temperature symptoms:

  • cold hands or feet shivering
  • warm feeling in the head

Gastrointestinal symptoms:

  • sickness
  • abdominal pain

Unfortunately, one of the problems faced by many people with HVS is that their symptoms can lead to further anxiety. Sometimes, people with HVS fear that their symptoms are a sign of serious illness. Other people become very anxious that they are going to collapse. This can particularly occur when outside the home. Other people become very stressed and frustrated with their symptoms. All these reactions can lead, accidently, to making the symptoms of HVS worse than they originally were.

When I discovered HVS, I felt so relieved. It was a physical thing I could actually work on. There are breathing exercises you can do to reverse the physiological effects of HVS, and thus stop feeling like Patrick Swayze from Ghost all the time.

Breathing is a huge part of yoga. It’s actually one of the eight arms and considered just as important as the physical postures. It’s called pranyama in Sanskrit, from ‘prana’ meaning life force (particularly as the breath), and ‘ayāma’, to extend or draw out. Our whole body is connected. Breathing is as much about letting go as it is about control.

I think what I was doing on my weird out of body beach walk home, was trying to breathe. I wanted to regain control of my body and I thought that to do that I had to breathe more but actually it was the opposite. I had to let my body do what my body knows how to do. This is what yoga can teach us – to release control, to surrender ourselves a little.

It’s better, probably, to accept emotional pain. Don’t be so afraid of it that you push it into the allegorical servant’s kitchen of your mind. It matters, and it won’t disappear, but the body and the brain are remarkably resilient. Trust yourself, in essence. And stop breathing so much.

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