Many people have familiarized breathing into a paper bag as an indicator for hyperventilation in several films. In CBS’s sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory” Sheldon Cooper is seen breathing into the brown bag as an attempt to lower his anxiety. In actuality, this practice is deemed unsafe and does more harm than good.
There are several television shows and films that have shown this ‘aid’ for hyperventilation. Usually the character who uses the paper bag technique is most likely portrayed as a nerd. Specifically, in the episode “The Zarnecki Incursion” Sheldon’s panic attack was caused by his “World of Warcraft” account being hacked into and “picked clean like a carcass in the desert sun” (Lorre, C., Prady, B., & Molaro, S., 2011). As a result, he has called the police. The officer’s only response when he arrives to Sheldon’s apartment is to give him a paper bag in hopes that the object would calm him down.
For a long time, even doctors believed this practice was okay. One doctor recommended to “take 6 to 12 easy, natural breaths, with a small paper bag held over your mouth and nose. Then remove the bag from your nose and mouth and take easy natural breaths” (Blahd, 2017). O’Connor from New York Times verdicts that “The idea behind it is to increase carbon dioxide levels. Hyperventilation causes the body to expel too much carbon dioxide, and “rebreathing” exhaled air helps restore that lost gas” (O’Connor, 2008). Several new medical studies, however, deem this practice as unnecessary and also dangerous.
Two experiments were done by Van den Hout, Boek, van der Molen, Jansen, and Griez.
The initial experiment included 12 regular test subjects who were familiar with the rebreathing rationale. The test subjects had the tasks of heaving strenuously, and then to either “rebreathe” or start breathing regularly. The scientists noticed that this caused CO2 levels to elevate at a faster rate, and the test subjects’ symptoms also went away prematurely in the rebreathing part.
The second experiment was similar to the first experiment, except the scientists made the subjects assume that they were breathing into a semi-closed tube. One time during the experiment, the tube was actually opened. The CO2 was reinstated dissimilarly in the two situations. The second experiment did not show the symptoms going away prematurely like it did in the rebreathing situation.
The outcomes of the integrated experiments propose that the patients who believed they were getting a treatment similar to the paper bag concept had the same CO2 levels as the paper bag test subjects. Awareness and placebo effect are the factors that play a role as to if breathing into a paper bag works for the user. There is also a dangerous notation to heaving into a paper bag. According to Brouhard:
“Breathing into a paper bag restricts the fresh air you are able to get. Without fresh air, too little oxygen is in the air you’re inhaling. So, breathing into a paper bag dangerously lowers the amount of oxygen in your bloodstream. There have been several documented cases of heart attack patients incorrectly thinking they had hyperventilation syndrome and fatally worsening their heart attacks by breathing into a paper bag.” (Brouhard, 2017)
In conclusion contrary to the popular press, breathing into a lunch bag is not a cure for hyperventilation or panic attacks, and is rather dangerous. Breathing slowly and staying calm would help more than heaving continuously. Multiple studies have shown this and concluded that the rationale is just a silly and low-cost way to deal with the syndrome.