Hyperventilation Syndrome and Chronic Illness

Sometimes it’s a very good thing to spend a day cleaning your garage.

In one of our dusty banker boxes up on the top storage shelf, my husband rediscovered this little gem of a book called Breathing Patterns Disorders from several years ago.  “Remember this?  Do you still need this book?”

hyperventilation syndrome

As I’ve shared, it has been a rough week health-wise … but I think I am slowly starting to feel like I can function again … hopefully.

But some of my biggest symptoms continue to be air hunger, palpitations, dizziness, lightheadedness, FATIGUE, muscle twitching and cramping, stiff and achy limbs …  overall hard-to-describe terribleness.

So yes, I can probably use a book like this!

I forgot how reassuring it was to read this book.  Yes, there are much more comprehensive books on health and wellness out there that I could be reading … but Dinah Bradley, a respiratory physiotherapist, keeps it simple yet helpful without being esoteric and overwhelming.  Her book reminds me that when my health begins to crash yet again, before jumping to major, scary, fatal conclusions … I need to ask myself some very rudimentary questions, such as:

What am I eating?

How am I sleeping?

How is my stress?

And how am I breathing?

I’m actually very eager to talk about this phenomenon called Hyperventilation Syndrome.  It’s not a new concept and not exactly a disorder you can go to a regular doctor and ask for some kind of conclusive laboratory test … but the idea of chronic hyperventilation has been around for many years.

So I re-started some of the breathing exercises yesterday, and I was pleasantly surprised at how it helped to ground me a bit more and relax my body.

Here’s a quick description, according to Dinah Bradley’s Breathing Pattern Disorders book:

{Hyperventilation Syndrome} is a breathing pattern disorder in which over-breathing becomes a habit — usually in response to prolonged stress or tension. 

Also according to her book, some possible symptoms of Hyperventilation Syndrome (HVS) include but are not limited to:

  • Breathlessness at rest for no apparent reason
  • Frequent deep sighs or yawns
  • Chest wall pain
  • Palpitations
  • Light headedness and feeling spaced out
  • Tingling or numb lips or extrmeties
  • Gut upsets or irritable bowel syndrome
  • Achy muscles or joints, or tremors
  • Weakness, broken sleep, nightmares
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue

I do realize all these symptoms could look like a very bad case of stress.  But there is indeed a cycle in place and some convincing science behind it, creating very real symptoms.  As I understand, the “cycle” begins with some form of stress as a trigger — it could be an injury, an illness, an emotional trauma, job stress. etc.  Psychological or physical stress then becomes the breeding ground for this concept called over breathing (which is a normal reaction to stress or strain).  But when over breathing becomes abnormally chronic, some very real symptoms emerge. The balance between the oxygen rich air we breathe in and the carbon dioxide rich air we breathe out becomes imbalanced.  Carbon dioxide levels start to drop, adversely affecting many of the body’s systems, including BLOOD FLOW TO THE BRAIN, pH balance of the tissues, the delicate balance of the autonomic nervous system, etc.  All of this puts the body on continuous red alert.  It creates an over abundance of lactic acid and our muscles ache, our metabolism slows down, and we are chronically exhausted.   In addition, our smooth muscles of our blood vessels, airways and gut tighten increasing histamine release, allergic responses, palpitations, air hunger … total terribleness.

So, even though it seems like such a pithy thing against some big symptoms, I’m wondering if checking and correcting our breathing could improve how we feel over time?

Starting yesterday, I’ve been trying to spend a few minutes here and there being more mindful about breathing through my nose using abdominal breaths (no great heaving movements in the chest and shoulders!).  Once I get to the top of my breath, I let go right away, trying to achieve a relaxed pause at the end of the exhale. The goal is to breathe about 12-14 breaths (in and out) per minute.  Dinah Bradley provides this little phrase to help with concentration, “Lips together, jaw relaxed, breathing low and slow.”   The key is to resist the temptation to take huge breaths in as this can decrease carbon dioxide levels and actually be counter productive.   The idea is to breathe deeply (using the diaphragm) but not big.  The book suggests doing a breathing session lying down at first, with a pillow under your head and knees, with your hands clasped behind your head.  In this position, you can breathe slowly in through your nose, making sure your shoulders and upper chest are relaxed, as air expands your waist and causes your stomach to rise or “puff up.”  It’s recommended to try this for 10 minutes per session, and to be aware that you could feel dizzy and a little worse at first as you get used to this.

The book is quite basic, but it has been a much needed reminder to check my breathing.   I also discovered an online questionnaire developed by the author that can help you determine if HVS may be an issue for you.  Another option along these lines, is the Buteyko method that has been known to help a variety of problems like anxiety, chronic fatigue, asthma, sleep disorders.

Honestly, as much as I want to imagine there are easy and simple ways to feel better, I know that it’s never that easy or simple … but small steps can add up, if they are the right steps.  Also, I know some may feel like HVS is just another way to say … your symptoms are in your head, without an organic cause, and just a product of anxiety.  As anyone who has lived with a chronic illness for a long time knows, sometimes it’s difficult to separate the psychological from the physical … and really, these two things naturally overlap, not necessarily making one or the other invalid, but allowing for the possibility for one to affect the other at any time … and this is true for everyone, not just chronic illness sufferers.


So, considering breath is life, I’m thinking it’s important not to just breathe, but breathe right.  I know it all sounds so obvious and simple  … but maybe there’s something to this?   In any case, I’m going to give this an honest-to-goodness try because it seems to be helping.  Hopefully, I’ll continue to feel better as I try to become more aware of this!

Please do comment below if you have any thoughts or questions!

Disclaimer  ~ I am not a medical professional; these are just my personal thoughts.  Please consult your doctor about your symptoms and how breathing exercises can be of help.


3 thoughts on “Hyperventilation Syndrome and Chronic Illness

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