The breathing pattern of 399 patients with hyperventilation syndrome (HVS) and/or with anxiety disorders and that of 347 normal controls was investigated during a 5 min period of quiet breathing and after a 3 min period of voluntary hyperventilation. The diagnosis of HVS was based on the presence of several suggestive complaints occurring in the context of stress, and reproduced by voluntary hyperventilation. Organic diseases as a cause of the symptoms were excluded. The anxiety disorders were diagnosed by means of an abbreviated version of the Anxiety Disorders Interview Schedule (ADIS). There was a large overlap between the two diagnoses. Simply breathing via a mouthpiece and pneumotachograph made end-tidal CO2 fractional concentration (FET,CO2) decrease progressively both in hyperventilators and in patients with anxiety disorders, but not in normals. At the start of the measurement the FET,CO2 was not different between patients and healthy subjects. In patients < or = 28 yrs, the decrease of FET,CO2 resulted from a higher tidal volume, and in patients > or = 29 years from an increase in frequency. After voluntary hyperventilation, the recovery of FET,CO2, was delayed in patients, due to a slower normalization of respiratory frequency in females and in older males, and of tidal volume in younger males, and also due to less frequent end-expiratory pauses. When breathing was recorded first by means of inductive plethysmography (Respitrace), the progressive decline of FET,CO2 seen in patients was not observed: from the onset of the recording, FET,CO2 was reduced in patients. It did not change further when, immediately afterwards, the subject switched to mouthpiece breathing. The finding that breathing through a mouthpiece induces hyperventilation in patients and that recovery of FET,CO2 is delayed after voluntary hyperventilation, suggests that the respiratory control system is less resistant to challenges (mouthpiece or voluntary hyperventilation) in those patients. On the other hand, the lower values of FET,CO2 measured during recording by means of a Respitrace probably result from a challenge, prior to the recordings, induced by the fitting of the measuring device to the patient. This unsteadiness of breathing characterizes patients with hyperventilation syndrome and those with anxiety disorders, but is not sufficiently sensitive to be used for individual diagnosis.