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The Wall Street Journal: Help for Hyperventilating

A new treatment that helps people with panic disorder to normalize their breathing works better to reduce panic symptoms and hyperventilation than traditional cognitive therapy, says SMU psychologist Alicia E. Meuret.

Shirley S. Wang, a health reporter for The Wall Street Jounal, interviewed the SMU psychology department’s Meuret for an article about her research findings that the feeling of suffocation that comes with panic attacks can be alleviated by breathing less — not more.

The Feb. 8 article “Help for Hyperventilating” tells readers that deep breathing reduces carbon dioxide in the system, which in turn increases hyperventilation — that scary feeling of suffocating.

The findings, “Respiratory and cognitive mediators of treatment change in panic disorder: Evidence for intervention specificity,” appeared in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Meuret, who developed CART, is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at SMU and co-directs the department’s Stress, Anxiety and Chronic Disease Research Program.

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The study pitted CART against a conventional cognitive therapy treatment, or CT. Traditional CT teaches patients techniques aimed at helping them change and reverse catastrophic thoughts in order to reduce fear and panic.

In the CART-CT study, 41 patients were assigned to complete either a CART or CT treatment program for panic disorder and agoraphobia, a fear of being trapped with no means of escape or help.


By Shirley S. Wang The Wall Street Journal 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. In the throes of a panic attack, sufferers experience symptoms like heart racing, profuse sweating and feelings of suffocation. They may think they are having a heart attack or believe they will faint or die. It’s unclear if hyperventilation is a cause or a consequence of panic attacks. Some 10% to 15% of the U.S. population experience occasional panic attacks, usually during a stressful situation, but about 2% develop panic disorder, in which people become so anxious about having attacks that they begin avoiding situations for fear for having one, according to anxiety expert David Barlow, a psychology and psychiatry professor at Boston University. Only about two-thirds of patients respond to current treatments, says Dr. Barlow. These include medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and cognitive-behavioral therapy. The latter teaches sufferers to refrain from thinking catastrophic thoughts when they experience the physiological symptoms and to accustom themselves to the sensations to show that they aren’t harmful.

Read the full story.