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Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Has your anxiety ever gotten so intense that you feel short of breath? It’s actually a fairly common symptom experienced by people with anxiety disorders.
If you're one of those people, know that you aren’t alone. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, more than 40 million American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder.
No doubt, it can be scary when you can’t take a deep breath or get enough air, which can then make your anxiety worse. But hopefully knowing that it’s not an uncommon symptom helps ease your nerves.
Keep reading to learn more about shortness of breath and anxiety.
Physical symptoms of anxiety are not uncommon. Though, not everyone experiences all of the same physical signs (if any).
One study published in the journal, Respiratory Medicine, suggested a close tie between anxiety and respiratory symptoms—including difficulty breathing.
Shortness of breath can present itself in a variety of ways, such as wheezing, inability to take a deep breath or feeling a tightness in your chest.
Another study published in the journal, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, that focused on people who have panic attacks (which is a type of anxiety), found that breathlessness may be linked to the body’s fight or flight response. There may also be a genetic or hormonal component to it.
However, shortness of breath could be attributed to other medical conditions, such as heart arrhythmia, pneumonia, anaphylaxis, asthma or COPD. Shortness of breath can also be one symptom of a heart attack, which is why many people experiencing severe anxiety may worry that they are experiencing a heart attack.
Therefore, the best way to tell if your shortness of breath is caused by anxiety or a different medical issue is to look for other symptoms of anxiety, such as:
When it comes to panic disorder and having a panic attack, other signs (along with shortness of breath) include:
Heart palpitations/increased heart rate
Feelings of doom and being out of control
If you are experiencing shortness of breath with some of the above symptoms, you may be experiencing severe anxiety or a panic attack. On the other hand, if you are experiencing shortness of breath with other symptoms of a heart attack, such as pain in your arm, chest pain or chest tightness, seek medical care immediately.
The best way to deal with anxiety-induced shortness of breath is to try and treat your anxiety.
One immediate way to address shortness of breath is diaphragmatic breathing (also known as deep breathing). Research published in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology, shows that this type of breath work can potentially reduce stress in the moment.
It’s also been found that deep breathing can assist parts of the body (such as the amygdala) that help regulate emotional well-being, according to an article published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.
So, how do you do it? Follow these steps from the Cleveland Clinic:
Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and with a pillow under your head. Place a hand on your chest and another on your belly.
Slowly, breathe in through your nose. The goal is to feel your stomach push out against your hand.
Exhale through pursed lips, tightening your stomach muscles as you do and allowing them to fall inward.
Repeat this for about five to 10 minutes, with a goal of three to four times a day.
For more breathing techniques, check out this guide from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Breathing exercises aren’t the only way to deal with an anxiety attack. Here are a few more things that have been found to be successful:
Try Meditation: A 2013 study published in the journal, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, suggested that 20 minutes of mindful meditation could lower anxiety by decreasing brain activity overall. The goal during meditation is awareness and acceptance, according to the American Psychological Association. These days, there are a variety of apps that can help take you through guided meditation.
Get Some Exercise: A review of studies published in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology, found that working out may lower levels of stress and anxiety. The recommendation from the National Library of Medicine is for adults to get 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week.
Talk to a Therapist: In-person or online therapy can help you process feelings of anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often recommended for those dealing with anxiety disorders. Through CBT, patients learn to identify patterns that may lead to anxiety, as well as work on skills to address anxiety directly, according to the American Psychological Association.
Consider Medication: A healthcare professional can suggest prescription medication to help manage anxiety. Common medications prescribed for anxiety disorders are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), beta blockers and benzodiazepines, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
If you feel that you are facing breathing problems but have ruled out anxiety or a panic attack, it is important to evaluate yourself for other health conditions that can cause shortness of breath. If you have a lung disease such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you may not get enough oxygen, and thus feel breathless, according to the website COPD.
Additionally, according to the Cleveland Clinic, one of the main symptoms of high blood pressure is shortness of breath.
Be sure to discuss all current medical conditions with your healthcare provider, including heart problems and lung conditions, in order to narrow down the causes of shortness of breath.
Shortness of breath is not an unusual symptom of an anxiety attack. Unfortunately, feeling like you can’t take a deep breath can make you feel even more anxious than you already do.
Luckily, there are ways to address this specific symptom. In the moment, practicing deep breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) can help return your breathing patterns to normal and can lower your anxiety.
In addition to this, getting a grasp on your anxiety can ensure those feelings of shortness of breath don’t become the norm.
To manage your anxiety, one of the first steps is to speak with a mental health professional and try online counseling. From there, you can learn relaxation techniques and figure out treatment options that may work for you.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.