Asked his recipe for long life, my wife’s father would respond “Keep breathing.” He kept to his advice into his tenth decade. But even the best things in life taken to excess brings their penalties. Overbreathing brings about the greatest degree of avoidable distress and unnecessary complaint in modern communities. Overbreathing can evoke complaints that mimic almost every functional disorder from headache to diarrhoea. Its tell-tale symptoms include the sense of being unable to get enough air in, pins and needles in fingers and toes, dizziness, a choking sensation in the throat, panic attacks, pain in the chest and palpitations. When its victims turn to doctors, they get caught up in a system that searches for disease, unintentionally making patients of the healthy. Almost every specialist can find a reason to investigate some condition they own. Its sufferers stagnate, treated with irrelevant remedies, some potentially harmful, profiting everybody but the patient. An ear, nose and throat surgeon once remarked to me that the person, who could treat one of the commonest intractable complaints he sees, post-nasal discharge, would make a fortune. After I discovered that the cause of my attacks lay in attacks of hyperventilation starting during my sleep, he would not countenance the possibility. The fact that I cured myself did not convince him.
Many years ago I wrote a letter to the Medical Journal of Australia about how common the hyperventilation disorder is and how easily treated. Doctors from around the country wrote to me delighted that somebody else had come to the same discovery. Beyond their grateful patients, nobody would believe them either. Most sufferers need no more than the advice about how to resume normal breathing. Time has hardened professional resistance to its recognition. In recent years no journal to which I have written will publish my letters. I can only inform others through the effort of self-publication (see Chap.11, “The Breath of Life” in “Welcome to the Loony Bin“).
In medico-legal work I came across the illuminating exception to the value of breathing control. I found many overbreathers among patients sent for the medico-legal assessment of claims about disorder caused by work, stress, harassment and discrimination. Some asked for my opinion. Told that their solicitor would eventually see it in my report, some wanted to know immediately. I advised them to arrange for their doctor to telephone me. None did. Unlike their assessors, their advocates and the courts, they know enough to hang on to the advantage that complaint gives them.