February 9, 2011
By SHIRLEY S. WANG
Researchers are developing a new therapy for panic attacks by turning the current treatment for one of the most uncomfortable symptoms—hyperventilation—on its head.
Instead of urging sufferers to take long, deep breaths when they feel they can't breathe, as many were taught for years, researchers from Southern Methodist University say a more effective strategy is to take slower, shallow breaths. . .
Part of the therapy often involves teaching patients to calm themselves down by taking slow, deep breaths or by breathing into a paper bag.
"It makes perfect sense, the lay suggestion that says take a deep breath," says Alicia Meuret, a professor at SMU in Dallas, who is spearheading efforts to develop the new treatment. And some people do find deep breaths helpful, she says.
But hyperventilation is actually a state of "overbreathing." When people breathe faster or more deeply than normal, they breathe off too much of their carbon dioxide, leading to unpleasant symptoms including anxiety and panic, and at the same time leading the body to restrict the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain.
"They feel like they're suffocating when in fact they feel that way because they have too much air," says Dr. Meuret.
Based on that this understanding of breathing physiology, Dr. Meuret and her colleagues reasoned that breathing less — thus boosting carbon dioxide — should reduce hyperventilation and the anxiety-producing sensations that go along with it.
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