How you can unlearn hyperventilation with mindfulness


HYPERVENTILATION IS A FAMILIAR phenomenon to a growing number of people around the world. Due to an intense stress trigger the breathing speeds up and turns into the frightening experience of hyperventilation. Medically it’s not a serious condition that needs treatment, but emotionally it can have a devastating impact. In this article I will examine the causes of hyperventilation and how some simple but highly effective mindfulness exercises can help you get rid of it for good.

If you suffer from hyperventilation, this might be the most important article of your life

So if you have hyperventilation and you are willing to help yourself and prevent those suffocating attacks from bothering you in the future, read this article with full attention. It will only take you a few minutes, but it might change your life for the better.

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I used to suffer from hyperventilation

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Hi, my name is Marisa Garau and I have suffered from hyperventilation – regularly while flying through turbulence, and once at the top of a rope jungle gym when exercising with my personal trainer. But because I practise mindfulness I was well equipped to quickly get these attacks under control. What I’ve learned is that hyperventilation might occur, but that it’s not a big deal. Still, you need to know what to do in case of emergency. And what not to do, such as doing breathing exercises which is the worst possible choice. You’ll read all about how I succeeded to conquer my hyperventilation in this article. But first let me tell you a bit about my journey and mindfulness.

Final crash
I was 37 when burnout struck, forcing me to quit my precious and well-paying advertising career. If you think burnout is pretty bad… well, in my case it was only one of the many disorders that I had developed in the years before that final crash. My ever-growing medical history included thyroid disorder (which is an autoimmune disorder), a dangerous eye disease that needed three major and painful surgeries, muscle cramps, HSP and serious depression that made me spent more than a year on a psychologist’s couch.

I discovered that stress was caused by my very own mind

Only after my burnout I understood that the chronic stress I, day in day out, suffered from, was being conceived by my very own mind – not by events or circumstances in the world around me. Before I learned about this truth, I thought I was simply a victim of unfortunate circumstances, and quitting my own agency seemed the natural solution. But after I had been spending a few months at home, without work and apparently without stress, I quickly developed new stress about my own life:

  • that I was a complete loser

  • that I was good for nothing

  • that my successful life was over

The best crisis I ever had
Despite the fact that I had hit rock bottom, this emotional crisis was the best that happened to me. Thanks to new stress creeping into my life again, I suddenly realised that it was me causing my own stress, not my work or my relations.

Only then I realised that I had to throw myself into a complete make-over process. And so I signed up for the standard, 8-week mindfulness training course in Amsterdam.

Anxiety is triggered by your out-of-control thinking process

There I learned that stress is being caused by your uncontrolled thinking process which continuously dishes up negative stories to keep you frightened, angry and depressed. Your mind doesn’t do this on purpose – it only wants to protect you by warning you of potential danger. It’s a logical approach, but unfortunately your mind doesn’t distinguish real and not-so-real danger.

Real danger is life-threatening, but in our civilisation life-threatening danger hardly ever occurs
All the other so-called danger is from a purely emotional order:

  • the fear of losing your job

  • the fear of losing your partner

  • the fear of bringing up your children in the wrong way

  • the fear of falling ill

  • the fear of letting your parents down

  • the fear of arriving at work late

  • the fear of making a fool of yourself at a party

  • the fear of missing out on that all-important promotion

  • the fear of finding that the croissants are sold out

These are all ‘dangers’ your mind warns you of, which drains you from your precious energy every time you mindlessly allow yourself to be drawn into the content of these senseless thoughts.

A stress-addicted mind causes chronic stress

Due to listening to all those fear-inducing stories that your mind tells you, you have become addicted to worrying and stressing out and it now has become a habit. This is how chronic stress is conceived, and a staggering 28% of the world population suffer from it. Stress and anxiety are the two biggest causes of sick leave. It costs the US about 35 billion USD a year and the UK £6 billion a year.

For sure you are not the only one who finds themselves worrying rather than sleeping at night. But naturally it would be a lot healthier to tackle this problem once and for all.

Mindfulness has totally changed my life – I can now cope with anything, including hyperventilation

After I had learned to apply mindfulness, I started to reduce my chronic stress exercise by exercise, and now my life has changed totally. I used to be upset, anxious, stressed, down and discontent… but now I enjoy a completely relaxed life. I do everything I like – without ever thinking I’m a loser or tumbling into depression again.

I survived two migrations, turbulence, storms and an earthquake
In the past years I have moved twice and I have migrated to the end of the world twice. I have been forced to say goodbye to beloved friends and pets. I have endured intense turbulence on our long trips from Europe to New Zealand. I have climbed one of the highest volcanoes in New Zealand without trembling knees. I have sailed through big storms. And I have survived an earthquake. Pretty stressful events that would totally freak most of us out, right? But, believe to or not, with mindfulness you can simply endure all this with a clear mind and a calm heart.

Professionally I have also become a new person
I can now take on and complete enormously intense projects. Since I started to practise mindfulness in 2006, I have written two internationally published bestsellers on mindfulness plus a historic novel of 120,000 words – this article is only 3,500 words :-))) I develop practical e-programmes and write heaps of articles for my website about my unorthodox approach of mindfulness. I’m a regular contributor of websites such as Men’s Health, Weight Watchers and Marie Claire and I’m frequently invited to share my expertise at webinars about stress, anxiety and related subjects.

This is what mindfulness can do for you
My former self would never have believed this if it would have had the opportunity to look into the future! But this is what mindfulness can do for you – changing your life for the better if you are committed to make it work. It worked for me. And it will work for you – mark my words!

But let’s return to the subject of this article: hyperventilation and how mindfulness will help you get a grip on it.

How can hyperventilation occur?

While breathing the lungs take in oxygen and emit carbon dioxin. When this process is sped up, by breathing too quickly or too deeply, the body takes in more oxygen then it is able to emit carbon dioxin. The blood which transports these gasses, then reaches a higher acidity level. This process is called hypocapnia, also called hyperventilation.

A higher acidity level in the blood is physiologically nothing to worry about it occurs now and then. Your body can easily handle it. But emotionally hyperventilation is extremely frightening that suggests the experience of choking.

Watch the video – but don't bother about the 'solutions' because these don't work
Watch a clear video here, but don't listen to the remedies because these are old solutions and do not work. Instead, read on in your own tempo and learn the 4 highly effective steps you can take when an attack of hyperventilation overwhelms you.

The symptoms

When I experienced a hyperventilation attack at the top of the jungle gym I felt extremely dizzy and shaky, while my fear during turbulence on an intercontinental flight made my legs shake uncontrollably. When I tried to stand up, I found myself paralysed and my legs refused to carry my weight. I was literary paralysed by fear.

Hyperventilation can cause the following symptoms:

  • a feeling of suffocation

  • dizziness

  • tingling extremities

  • pain in the chest

  • muscle cramps

  • faintness

  • anxiety

The causes of hyperventilation: anxiety and stress

But what exactly is the root of hyperventilation? In rare cases it’s a physical disorder which causes the blood to have a constantly high acidity level. This is being treated with medication. But in all other cases hyperventilation is caused by anxiety and stress. And while this might seem disappointing to you, in fact it’s good news!

Now you're in control
Mindfulness is the most effective, natural and future-proof method to cut unhealthy stress from your life… for the rest of your life. It means that from the moment you start practising mindfulness, you are working to control stress and anxiety, and you’re actually dismantling your hyperventilation.

Mindfulness always works against both stress and hyperventilation

But most people who experience an attack of hyperventilation won’t even be aware of stress. Stress can easily have turned into a habit, and then it's hard to acknowledge it as the real cause.

But let's be practical… do you have to know the exact reason why hyperventilation strikes? Isn’t it enough to know what to do to break an attack? After that you can think about the real causes and work on preventing hyperventilation.

What exactly is mindfulness?

Mindfulness makes you aware that you have ‘two personalities’:

  1. your wise self (which represents your heart)

  2. your not-so-wise mind, also called ego (which represents to your brain)

Your wise self embodies all those wonderful characteristics you were born with, such as trust, patience, non-judging, compassion, acceptance, generosity – all these gems our found in the wisdom of your heart.

Your not-so-wise ego or thinking mind represents all those characteristics that serve a variety of frustrations on a daily basis, like impatience, judgements, expectations, envy, and the urge to resist reality. These are the traits that live in our super-intelligent human brain but somehow are not very clever at all :-)

Being human means having a thinking mind and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, it must be controlled to prevent us from constantly struggling with ourselves and others.

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Download my new ebook for free. You'll learn all about mindfulness and how it's the best way to grow self-confidence and prevent attacks of hyperventilation – not just for now, but for the rest of your life. 

Trust: the key to conquer hyperventilation

Most psychologists are convinced that we have a whole range of human feelings, but I think we only have two:

  • distrust

  • trust

These are the two basic feelings from which all other feelings sprout. As you might have noticed, the two basic feelings correspond with your not-so-wise mind and your wise heart. With a lack of trust you’ll experience anxiety, judgements, expectations, envy and lonely egocentrism.

If you have trust you can let go of ego-driven characteristics
This is how it works:

  • If you trust your husband/wife, you won’t have to be jealous.

  • If you trust that you’ve left your home in time, you won’t have to be afraid that you’ll be late for work.

  • If you trust your friend to stick to his commitment, you won’t have to check on him.

  • If you trust that everyone works and develops in their own tempo, you won’t have to be impatient.

  • If you trust that there’s enough for everyone (enough money, opportunities, love) you won’t have to be a Scrooge and you can be generous instead.

  • If you trust that your coworkers do their part of the job, you won’t be disappointed or feel let down.

  • If you trust that you have your hyperventilation under control, you won’t have to feel frightened.

With trust you can wipe all those annoying, limiting and frightening ego-reactions from your life.

Responding consciously versus mindlessly reacting

During my hyperventilation attacks I was able to see quite clearly that they were being caused by fear. But when I started to examine this fear, I found that lack of self-confidence was the actual problem.

  1. Flying through a field of heavy turbulence I didn’t trust that the plane would be able to handle the pressure and I thought we were going to crash. This thought caused extreme fear and I was convinced I wouldn't be able to control myself. And so I had a hyperventilation attack.

  2. When at the top of the rope jungle gym I thought I was going to fall and I feared for my life. This thought caused extreme fear and I was convinced I wouldn't be able to control myself. And so I had a hyperventilation attack.

If frightening thoughts wander through your mind without your knowledge, they can subconsciously generate intense reactions and dominate your life.

Awareness is the key
But as soon as you become aware of these undermining thoughts, you suddenly have a choice:

  • do I believe the alarming content of this thought?

  • or… am I going to have a good, hard look at this thought before mindlessly reacting to its alarming content?

Fear is not very clever
When you are still very much dominated by your thinking mind or ego, this will now quickly try to make you believe that your fear is always justified. It’s what I believed before practising mindfulness. Turbulence in my opinion was super dangerous and life threatening for sure! Of course I was completely and utterly right about that!!

Only with mindfulness I started to read about turbulence and learned that planes can stand three times the maximum turbulence ever measured on earth. Take for instance those small planes that fly through tornados to measure air pressure and stuff. They don’t always crash, right? Even better: a crash with such a plane has never actually happened.

Some people are scared of spiders. Most of us will laugh heartily about their fear, but for them that fear is real. To them, spiders are extremely scary and life threatening, seriously!

And so all these thinking and not so clever minds of all us people, you and me included, chatter and chatter and chatter, freely indoctrinating us only because we are too afraid to have a good, honest look at our fear and find that actually it is all a big bunch of BS – pardon my French :-)

As soon as you have the courage to examine your fear, it will dissolve immediately

You can’t lose non-examined fear because you’re too afraid to have a look at it. It’s like a scary noise coming from the attic in the middle of the night. You are too afraid to have a look, because it might be a ghost! Or a monster! And so, each night, you’re shaking in your bed when you hear that sound.

See your fear for what it really is
However, if you would you practise mindfulness, you would grab your huge flashlight, calmly ascend the stairs to the attic, and then shine your big light in every corner and nook of the attic. You would pretty quickly find that that scary noise you thought was coming from a restless ghost or violent monster, would in reality be a mum mouse who’s just in search of food to feed her family. Totally explainable and nothing to be afraid of.

You can now stop worrying
As soon as you muster the courage to examine your fear, you’ll discover that you were worried for nothing. Even if you would find a real ghost, that would be less scary than fantasising about it. In fact, you would have taken away 50% of your fear, because you would at least have eliminated the added fear caused by some random assumptions.

The emotional impact of fearing the fear

I have worked with many clients who suffered from anxiety disorders, and I have noticed that fear consists of two components:

  • the original fear (e.g. for spiders)

  • the fear of experiencing the original fear again

The panic attacks most of my clients suffered from were caused for 50% or even less by a certain event or circumstance in their lives, such as turbulence, spiders, heights, speaking in public, etc. The other 50% of their fear was generated by the fear of becoming fearful again.

As soon as you examine the root of your fear with the help of mindfulness, you can immediately ditch that 50% extra fear of experiencing the original fear again.

It's easy to dismantle your fear
If you can take away 50% of the sum of both fears (the original fear + the fear to experience the original fear again), you’re left with only half the fear that you were used to live with. You’re left with only the clean, original fear. That’s a massive gain already.

The original, bare fear is easily examined and my clients unlearn that fear within just a few sessions. This also liberates them from nasty panic attacks that are caused not by the original fear, but by the fear to experience the original fear again, the ‘extra’ fear so to speak. Needless to say that those clients are very pleased with my approach :-)

How can you deal with your hyperventilation today?

In this article I have addressed the phenomenon of hyperventilation, its symptoms and its causes. If you suffer from hyperventilation, I have no doubt that you already knew all this. But what you didn’t know, is:

  • that your thinking mind tries to talk you into all kinds of miserable scenarios in order to protect you against life-threatening dangers

  • that life-threatening dangers nowadays are more often imaginary than real

  • that you have to become super critical of the non-sensical but persistent chit chat of your ego in order not to have yourself stressed out for nothing

  • and that you can learn to distinguish original fear and fear of experiencing the original fear again with the help of mindfulness

The most future-proof solution to deal with and, ultimately, unlearn hyperventilation is to examine your original fear and dismantle it. This is a process that you can do on your own, or with my help in a series of sessions that focus solely your issue.

But for now and in order to break an attack of hyperventilation right when it starts to kick in, I have developed a handy 4-step-plan for you.

A highly practical mindfulness approach to make hyperventilation a thing of the past… forever

There are 4 simple steps you can take when you feel you are about to hyperventilate. Try these right when it happens to you. You’ll notice that these steps can break the attack or make it less intense.

Step 1: accept what is happening

Something has happened what frightened you and now you find yourself breathing fast and shallowly. This is going to be a hyperventilation attack! Your thinking mind gets into overdrive right away and starts to scream:
  • No!! Not now!! I can’t handle it!
  • I’ll be short of breath! I might suffocate!
  • I’m sooo making a fool of myself!
  • Why is this happening?
  • Why am I such a loser?
  • Why is this always happening to me?

In order to stop this silly chatter of your thinking mind, your wise self now turns to a most powerful weapon: acceptance.

Now you are going to fully and consciously accept that you’re having a hyperventilation attack. And so your wise self says things like:

  • Alright, alright, yes, I’m hyperventilating. So what? Is that forbidden, or what?
  • It is happening anyway, whether I panic about it or not.
  • I now stop resisting and stressing out.
  • I accept that this is going on right now.
Step 2: allow for space

By accepting this situation you allow your thoughts and feelings much needed space, so that you can breathe a bit more easily. You now tell yourself:
  • Hyperventilation is no fun, but today I allow it to be here with me.
  • I refuse to have myself stressed out about it, it’s not worth it anyway.
  • Today it’s totally fine that I’m hyperventilating.
  • I’m now allowing this phenomenon all the space it needs.
  • I allow my hyperventilation to be here, right now.

Step 3: practise trust

Your attack starts to lose momentum because you no longer allow your thinking mind to blow panicky energy into the attack. Now that you have eliminated the fear of the original fear, by refusing to believe your panicky thoughts, you are creating space for trust – the antidote to distrust and fear. Now you tell yourself:
  • I trust that this will work out fine.
  • I trust that I will feel calm again soon.
  • I trust that there wasn’t much going on anyway.

Step 4: practise self-confidence

If the attack is still lingering, tell yourself that you’re strong enough to get through it. And no, this is not some half-baked advice: the reality is that you have always survived every attack, right? Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this :-) And so we both know that you can handle an attack perfectly well. So you tell yourself:
  • This is very annoying and yes I’m frightened, but I also know that I can handle this.
  • I have always survived these attacks, so I know I’m strong enough to survive this one as well.
  • I trust that it will stop soon and I’ll feel better again.

Can you see that this is a totally different approach from anything you’ve tried before? Usually you would completely believed the senseless chitchat of your ego or thinking mind, which would drive you nuts with all kinds of disaster scenarios and humiliating judgements while in an attack. Or you would resort to breathing exercises or breathing into a bag, focussing even more on the breath and intensifying your hyperventilation.

A different, effective and sustainable approach that works

Now, rather than allowing your ego to call you a loser, your turn to your wise self to take control and apply trust in your inner strengths to conquer this attack.

The healing art of encouraging self-talk
I solemnly promise you that this will work for you. Negative self-talk is extremely undermining and condemns you to blindly circle around in the same issues over and over again. But as soon as you learn to apply mindfulness and master the healing art of sensible and encouraging self-talk, you can break free from that vicious circle of original fear and the fear of experiencing the original fear.

You can deal with anything
This way you break the power of your thinking mind and finally can start thinking for yourself. You’ll soon see how strong you are within you and that you can deal with anything. You’ll also understand that it was your not-so-clever thinking mind which bothered you with all its negative chatter and diminished your self-confidence with each attack.

Now you know what to do
With these 4 steps you have an effective answer to your disposal in case of a hyperventilation attack. You will be able to quickly extinguish the first sparks of the attack, as well as stopping yourself from panicking if it happens again. Now you know what to do: confront your thinking mind with a critical attitude and allow yourself space and trust.

Happy practising!
Marisa x

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Download my new ebook for free and learn how to control the frightening chatter of the thinking mind, so that you can start building self-confidence and prevent getting overwhelmed by the fear of hyperventilation. 

Marisa Garau