High Inhaled Carbon Dioxide Levels Related to Panicby Karen Vieira, MBA, PhD | December 11, 2007
There is new research suggesting that panic and anxiety attacks may be brought on by a few, shallow breaths of stale air. The theory goes that breathing excess carbon dioxide is responsible for anxious feelings and feelings of panic. If this theory were true wouldn’t all of us experience unusual levels of panic when out of breath even if we were not already prone to anxiety attacks?
A study performed by the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands had participants inhale carbon dioxide-rich air. As researchers increased the levels of carbon dioxide inhaled the study volunteers showed an increase in feelings of panic and anxiety. The problem with this study is there is a big difference between panic and anxiety attacks and the occasional feelings of panic or anxiousness. We all experience normal feelings of panic or anxiety but this does not translate in everyone to a disorder. Sufferers of panic attacks will surely tell you that they do not feel a minor increase in anxiety. They suffer from irrational anxiety and panic that can be debilitating and cause major disruptions of their lives. While it may hold true that increased carbon dioxide can bring on feelings of suffocation like lightheadedness and shortness of breath this does not mean that this is a direct contributing factor of the panic and anxiety disorders suffered by millions of people. While this study may provide a small piece of a puzzle needed to better tailor medications for asthma and emphysema patients who suffer from feeling of suffocation due to their disease it has little bearing on anxiety and panic attack sufferers.
Interestingly there was another study at Florida State University showing that a fear response induced by carbon dioxide was a very strong predictor of future panic attacks (though not for panic disorder or other anxiety disorders) in normal subjects followed for 2 years.
As with most medical studies there are lessons to be gleaned from the results. There is nothing groundbreaking here but there is a small lesson for people who do not suffer from anxiety disorder. When any of us feel stressed or anxious there is nothing wrong with stopping and taking a moment to catch our breath. A few cleansing breaths are always a good first step to calming the mind and body and regrouping. Giving the body an extra dose of oxygen helps all functions and is also great to slow thinking and focus. This is good advice for everyone but unfortunately for panic attack sufferers seems to be more of the same. The same, meaning that they can exert some kind of control over irrational fears and anxiety just through breathing or thinking clearly. If only that were true and effective they could skip all the prescription drug experiments and breathe their way out.
N. Schmidt, J. Maner, M. Zvolensky. Reactivity to challenge with carbon dioxide as a prospective predictor of panic attacks. Psychiatry Research, Volume 151, Issue 1-2, Pages 173-176
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