Brown paper bag

Does breathing into a bag help with panic attacks?

When you experience a panic attack, the stereotypical activity to suggest is breathing into a paper bag. But does it help? If so, how? This article will explain all.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden rush of anxiety, accompanied by physical symptoms. When experiencing a panic attack, you may find that:

  • You feel like you cannot get enough air
  • Your heart beats rapidly
  • You start sweating
  • You start trembling
  • You feel sick and dizzy

You may also experience a range of other symptoms including tingling in your limbs and ringing in your ears. The attack can last anywhere from a few minutes up to twenty minutes or longer.

What does breathing into a bag do?

If you think back to your high school biology class, humans breathe in oxygen and breathe our carbon dioxide. We take air into our lungs, filter out the oxygen that we need to live, and then send the harmful carbon dioxide out the other way.

If you were to breathe in a sealed room, you would slowly suffocate because you would continually breathe in the oxygen and replace it with carbon dioxide. Eventually, the air would be all carbon dioxide and no oxygen, leading you to being unable to breathe.

At first glance, then, breathing into a bag sounds like a bad idea.

With each breath, you will expel the carbon dioxide as normal. However, because there is a bag covering your mouth, when you breathe in again, you will take this carbon dioxide back into your lungs, instead of a nice gulp of oxygen-rich air.

It turns out, however, that this is precisely the benefit we need.

What is happening when I am panicking?

A panic attack is most notable for the rapid shallow breathing you experience. This is called hyperventilation. You feel like you cannot get enough air, so you begin to breathe faster.

Unfortunately, this is a trap. What is happening when you begin to hyperventilate is that you are getting too much air. This excess is what causes other symptoms associated with panic attacks. What does "too much air" mean? When we breathe rapidly, we reduce the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our system. While too much CO2 is dangerous, so is too

As the symptoms increase, you panic even more, causing you to breathe even faster, which increases the symptoms. It is a cycle we find ourselves spiralling down.

How does breathing into a bag help?

When we breathe into a bag, we end up breathing in carbon dioxide rather than oxygen. Normally, this would be bad for us. However, because during a panic attack we are not taking enough carbon dioxide in, restoring the balance of carbon is useful.

As the oxygen in the air is replaced by carbon dioxide, the level of oxygen we take into our body with each breath reduces and the amount of carbon dixocide increases. This then reduces the symptoms of panic and helps us to calm down.

Conclusion

Breathing into a bag does help when you are experiencing a panic attack. This is because panic is counterintuitive: we think that we cannot get enough air, but in reality, we are getting too much. Breathing in and out of the bag helps restore this balance.

Metadata

Published 13 March 2017. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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