- What Causes Anxiety?
- How Anxiety Affects Breathing
- Understanding Panic Attacks and Breathlessness
- Other Causes of Shortness of Breath
- Techniques to Manage Anxiety-Related Shortness of Breath
- Don’t Let Anxiety-Induced Shortness of Breath Take Over
- Shortness of breath can happen for various reasons in a person's life, many of them not being life-threatening, including anxiety.
- When the brain detects an issue, it prompts action, including the "fight or flight" response, increased heart rate, and boosted adrenaline and cortisol release.
- Sometimes symptoms of anxiety can escalate, resulting in a frightening and overwhelming experience called a panic attack.
- Other causes of shortness of breath include asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), anemia, and smoking.
- Natural ways to mitigate anxiety-related shortness of breath include breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, tai chi, positive affirmations, progressive muscle relaxation, grounding, journaling, and walking.
Breathing is something that is an involuntary part of everyday life. Most people don’t even think about the action, no different than how they don’t think about blinking their eyes. But when something disrupts our regular breathing patterns, it can be a scary and disorienting experience.
Shortness of breath can happen for various reasons in a person’s life, many of them not being life-threatening. However, some may wonder if there are deeper psychological causes for shortness of breath, such as anxiety, panic attacks, or stress – and if so, can they be managed effectively?
To answer that question, it’s first essential to understand the actual causes of anxiety and how they manifest in the body and mind.
What Causes Anxiety?
Anxiety is a complex and multifaceted emotion that can stem from various factors. Whether genetic, psychological, environmental, or physiological, anxiety can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies.
As humans, we’re wired to react to anxiety with our fight-or-flight response, which can result in various reactions depending on the individual. From heart palpitations and rapid breathing to sweaty palms and racing thoughts, anxiety is a force to be reckoned with that requires careful attention and management.
When navigating everyday life, this becomes even more complex. The constant change of an evolving body and mind and the hormones that go along with that can cause even more confusion, frustration, and fear.
Some of the causes of anxiety can include:
- Our Genetic Predisposition: It is not uncommon for anxiety disorders to run in families. Some individuals may be more susceptible to them than others due to their unique brain chemistry. This can lead to an imbalance of neurotransmitters that intensify feelings of unease and worry.
- Stress: Stress in all its forms is one of the leading causes of anxiety and can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, or race. Stress can come from a variety of sources, such as work, relationships, finances, and even the environment we live in.
- Traumatic Life Experiences: Past trauma, including abuse, neglect, violence, or other adverse events, can often lead to feelings of anxiety and fear that can persist long after the event has passed.
- Underlying Medical Conditions: There are a variety of medical conditions that can trigger anxious feelings and reactions within the body. From heart disease to thyroid disorders and even chronic health conditions, these underlying factors can contribute to the onset of anxiety.
- Substance Abuse: Excessive consumption of a substance can exacerbate pre-existing anxiety symptoms and induce intense physical and emotional distress. Unfortunately, this is common in drug or alcohol abuse, where individuals may experience a sense of dread and suspicion that can be challenging to overcome without specialized medical attention.
How Anxiety Affects Breathing
The human body is a remarkable system that operates independently and fixes itself when necessary. When the brain detects an issue, it immediately dispatches messages to the body, prompting it to initiate action. Among these messages is the “fight or flight” response, a biological response that increases our heart rate and assists us in responding to emergencies.
As part of this fight or flight response, hormones like adrenaline and cortisol flood different parts of your body, boosting energy and focus. To ensure you’re getting enough oxygen to fuel this response, your breathing rate also increases.
However, when stress levels become overwhelming, this can cause your breathing to become uneven, leading to a condition known as hyperventilation. Simply put, your body is trying its best to keep you safe and ready for anything, but sometimes it needs some help to find balance.
Understanding Panic Attacks and Breathlessness
Sometimes, the symptoms of anxiety can escalate, resulting in a frightening and overwhelming experience called a panic attack. These episodes of terror can often last for minutes and rarely up to an hour, leaving the person affected feeling intense fear and distress, similar to the feeling of a heart attack.
A variety of physical symptoms accompanies panic attacks and can exacerbate breathing difficulties in a few different ways:
During a panic attack, rapid and shallow breathing can trigger a domino effect of distress. Carbon dioxide levels decrease, creating a sensation of chest pain or suffocation that fuels further anxiety. It’s a scary cycle that can leave sufferers feeling trapped and helpless.
Having one panic attack may increase the risk of experiencing further episodes and can have a psychological impact. Any future feelings of stress can trigger anticipatory anxiety, a fear of experiencing a panic attack again.
This can cause overwhelming thoughts and intense breathing patterns, leading to a suffocating feeling. It’s important to address panic attacks and their potential long-term effects on mental health, as recurrent and unexpected episodes, along with persistent concern or behavioral changes, could be indicative of a panic disorder, which may require specialized treatment.
First-time panic attacks can be a confusing and stressful experience, with heightened physical and emotional levels of anxiety that may be mistaken for other conditions. It’s common for people to turn to the internet instead of medical advice to find answers, but misdiagnoses can only add to anxiety. It’s important to seek professional help and learn coping strategies to manage panic attacks and reduce stress levels.
Other Causes of Shortness of Breath
While anxiety can directly be associated with shortness of breath, there are also several causes why someone might feel like they aren’t getting the air they need.
Some of these causes can include:
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that can be triggered by a number of different reasons, including allergies and air pollution, as well as cold air or exercise. During an asthma attack, an individual’s airways narrow due to inflammation, leading to difficulty breathing.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, encompasses various progressive lung conditions, such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that obstruct airflow and make breathing difficult.. People with COPD often experience symptoms like chronic bronchitis and emphysema, which can lead to fatigue, coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
Anemia can result from blood loss, diet, or other medical conditions. When there aren’t enough oxygen-carrying red blood cells in the body, breathing can become difficult, and you may feel short of breath. This can be dangerous if left untreated.
People who smoke cigarettes expose their lungs to various destructive chemicals such as carbon monoxide, tar, and nicotine. These substances can cause lung disease and lead to airway constriction, which can reduce respiratory function.
Techniques to Manage Anxiety-Related Shortness of Breath
While shortness of breath can be caused by a range of physical and psychological issues, there are several techniques that can be used to help manage anxiety-related shortness of breath:
Deep Breathing Exercises
A proven method for reducing anxiety and restoring the body to a normal state of calmness is by following deep breathing exercises. Deep breathing is the process of taking slow, long breaths in, holding for a short period of time, and then breathing out in the same way.
This type of breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of the body’s fight-or-flight response. Doing this activity regularly helps to reduce stress and restore the body to a calm state, similar to when you’re digesting food or falling asleep.
Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques
Implementing mindfulness and relaxation techniques can help to eliminate shortness of breath caused by anxiety, effectively reducing stress levels and enhancing overall well-being. Incorporating yoga, meditation, tai chi, positive affirmations, and progressive muscle relaxation are grounding techniques that help decelerate the body’s reaction to stressful situations, ultimately promoting peace and tranquility.
Professional Help and Support
When struggling with anxiety-related shortness of breath, breaking the cycle can be challenging. However, seeking professional anxiety treatment from a medical expert or qualified therapist can offer helpful guidance on managing breathing difficulties, including psychotherapy, breathing techniques, and cognitive behavioral therapy. They will help provide you with invaluable tips and exercises that aid in reducing stress levels and regaining control of your breathing.
Don’t Let Anxiety-Induced Shortness of Breath Take Over
Breathlessness caused by anxiety is a daunting experience that can prevent you from thoroughly enjoying life. Fortunately, there are ways to manage these anxious episodes, often triggered by our body’s natural response to stress.
By proactively addressing your health and seeking help from a professional as needed, you can tackle any underlying issues and find a path toward healing. So don’t let anxiety hold you back – take control of your well-being today.
Frequently Asked Questions
It’s important to determine if your shortness of breath is related to anxiety or an underlying medical condition like asthma or COPD. If it is related to anxiety, there may not be any serious concerns, but to be sure, speak with your medical provider. When in doubt and struggling to breathe, dial 911 or go to the ER immediately.
The duration of your shortness of breath episode will vary from person to person. If it has advanced to a panic attack, this can last for minutes or up to an hour. If you’re experiencing prolonged shortness of breath, seek medical treatment right away.
There are several ways to mitigate shortness of breath from anxiety:
- Breathing exercises
- Relaxation techniques
- Tai chi
- Positive affirmations
- Progressive muscle relaxation
 Williams, T., & Carel, H. (n.d.). Breathlessness: From Bodily Symptom to Existential Experience. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK535717/
 Panic attacks & panic disorder. Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Retrieved April 3, 2023, from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/4451-panic-attack-panic-disorder
 Folk, J. (2022, December 26). Shortness of breath – anxiety symptoms. AnxietyCentre.com. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from https://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-disorders/symptoms/shortness-of-breath-anxiety/
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