Conventional wisdom touts the many benefits of deep breathing to prevent or reduce anxiety and panic attacks. The National Institute of Stress and Anxiety states, "Some experts consider deep breathing to be the most important step anxiety sufferers can take in reducing symptoms and promoting overall health." But, a new treatment, called capnometry-assisted respiratory training, or CART, may show just the opposite; that taking shallow breaths helps to alleviate the feeling of suffocating or hyperventilating during panic attacks.
Hyperventilation occurs when you breathe rapidly and deeply because this type of breathing quickly releases a large amount of carbon dioxide. This can cause dizziness, numbness, tingling and the feeling of suffocating. Because you feel you can't breathe, you take quick and deep breaths, making the problem worse rather than better.
Capnometry-assisted respiratory training, or CART, helps anxiety sufferers learn to take shallow breaths. A capnometer measures carbon dioxide levels, heart rate, oxygen levels and breathing levels and provides immediate feedback to the patient, teaching them to breathe properly (shallowly) in order to regulate levels of carbon dioxide.
A study reported in the October, 2010 issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, showed this method of treatment to be more effective than cognitive therapy in reducing feelings of panic. This may be because as you experience a panic attack and begin to breathe deeply, your level of carbon dioxide sharply decreases, causing hyperventilation and causing you to panic more. The study involved 41 patients, some of whom receive cognitive behavior therapy and some received CART. Both groups received therapy twice a day.
Participants from both groups experienced a decrease in panic symptoms such as heart palpitations, trembling and panic-driven thoughts. However, the group using CART also had a reduction in feelings of suffocation, hyperventilating, dizziness and shortness of breath. The capnometer is used during training sessions but once the training is complete, the patient is able to self-regulate their breathing and reduce the number and intensity of panic attacks.
This study followed patients for one month, during their training with the capnometer. Further studies are being completed to test how this treatment works long-term.
"New Breathing Therapy Reduces Panic And Anxiety By Reversing Hyperventilation" , 2010, Dec 21, Christopher Fisher, PhD., The Behavioral Medicine Report
"Respiratory and Cognitive Mediators of Treatment Change in Panic Disorder: Evidence for Intervention Specificity", 2010, Oct, Meuret AE, Rosenfield D, Seidel A, Bhaskara L, Hofmann SG, Journal of Clinical Psychology
"To Stave off Panic Attacks, Don't Take a Deep Breath", 2010, Dec 26, Stephanie Pappas, NBCNews.com