Why Anxious Breathing Causes Symptoms

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

As anyone with anxiety knows it causes a lot of uncomfortable symptoms. One reason is the physical changes that take place in the body which usually result in light-headedness, cold clammy skin, sweating, chest pains and tingling sensations in the fingers and toes. You’ll have noticed I’ve focused on physical symptoms of anxiety. My reason for doing so is that they can all be caused by way we breathe. Anxious breathing is different from other forms because the normal balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body is disrupted. To understand what this means we need to take a side-step and mention something called blood pH.

The pH of any fluid (blood included) refers to the measure of acidity in that fluid. So, the pH of water is 7 and this means it’s neither acid nor alkaline (i.e. it’s neutral). Anything under 7 is acid and anything above is alkaline. Urine, saliva, black coffee, beer and tomato juice are all mildly acidic, whereas baking soda, toothpaste, shampoo and detergent would come into the alkali category.

Back to blood. Normal blood pH is around 7.35 and 7.45. Various things can disrupt what is normally a tightly regulated system. The things we eat, whether we get an infection, how well the kidneys or endocrine system is working are all examples, and so as it happens is breathing. Because rapid breathing occurs during anxiety the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood causes a temporary change in blood pH and this results in those symptoms I mentioned previously.

Anyone who runs, swims, cycles or is physically active also increases their breathing rate but there’s a big difference in how the body deals with this. During exercise the body takes in more oxygen to fuel the muscles but it also expels more carbon dioxide in the process. During anxiety-breathing carbon dioxide is expelled quicker than it is being produced and this leads to something called respiratory alkalosis. All those anxiety symptoms and the sensations of weakness and muscle cramp can all result.

Fortunately with a little time and practice it is easy to put things back on an even keel and start to feel better. Breathing slowly and steadily in through the nose is a good method. Also, try breathing in slowly, holding your breath for a couple of seconds and then slowly breathing out. Continue like this and your anxiety symptoms should start to subside.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.