If you feel like you’ve had trouble breathing lately, your anxiety may be the cause.
With all we’re facing in the world, it would be hard for any of us to feel calm all the time. If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, it may just be your body’s natural response to stress.
Everyone’s anxiety manifests differently. Your shortness of breath may come through with waves of intense anxiety, which can last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. It may also cycle on and off throughout the day.
However it’s impacting you, know that you’re not alone. Shortness of breath can be a symptom of anxiety, and there are ways to help you manage it in the moment.
Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, can feel downright scary or confusing. So, the first thing to know is that shortness of breath associated with anxiety usually goes away on its own.
The symptoms may persist until you feel relaxed again. You can experience:
- a lump in your throat
- trouble taking a full breath
- chest tightness
- the feeling of a weight on your chest
- a quicker rate of breathing (hyperventilation)
When you start thinking about something that makes you feel anxious, the fire alarm in your brain (aka the amygdala) sends out an emergency signal. It’s the same ancient system that used to warn your ancestors that hungry lions were nearby.
The trouble is, in modern times, your reptilian brain can’t comprehend the difference between a stressful conversation with your boss and a predator that wants to eat you.
This primal mechanism treats both threats the same way.
When this fight, flight, or freeze response is activated, all your defense systems engage on high alert. Adrenaline starts coursing through your veins, all nonessential systems shut down, and your breathing becomes quicker and shallower.
This is because your breathing rate is regulated by adrenaline as well as direct nerve activation on your diaphragm and the chemical receptors in your brain that detect higher levels of carbon dioxide and less oxygen.
This physiological response is why you feel shortness of breath, or air hungry. It’s your body preparing you to face a threat.
How can you tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety?
It’s accompanied by other symptoms of anxiety. These include:
- feelings of fear, dread, or panic
- racing thoughts
- rapid heart rate
- tightness in the chest
- trembling or shaking
- upset stomach
As you’ve likely already discovered, it can be difficult to “logic” your way out of an anxiety or panic attack in the body.
Your system may need a reset. There are many techniques that can help activate your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as your rest-and-digest state.
Theoretically, this happens through stimulation of the vagus nerve, according to a
Diaphragmatic breathing, otherwise called belly breathing, can help you feel more relaxed and signal your body to ease up on the panic button.
If possible, try this exercise.
- Lie on the ground or sit up with your back against a wall.
- Soften your brow, loosen your jaw, roll your shoulders down your back, and relax your gaze or close your eyes.
- Place your right hand over your low belly.
- Place your left hand over your heart.
- Imagine you have a balloon underneath your right hand that you’re trying to fill up. Take an inhale through your nose for while mentally counting to 4, hold it while counting to 4, then exhale out of your mouth while counting to 8.
- Repeat at least 8 times or as many times as needed.
Shortness of breath may be the result of irrational thoughts or an anxious thought spiral.
If this is your case, 2015 research shows that a 50-minute walk outside can help reduce anxiety and rumination. If you can’t go for a hike or even get outside at all, don’t worry — you can do this technique indoors, too.
You may find it helpful to get outside and consciously redirect your focus with the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique. Here’s how to do it:
- 5: Focus on 5 things you can see.
- 4: Name 4 things you can touch.
- 3: Tune in to 3 things you can hear.
- 2: Find 2 things you can smell.
- 1: Notice 1 thing you can taste.
Cold water may help reset or “shock” your nervous system.
- hop into a cold shower
- submerge your face in a bowl of ice for a few seconds
- hold an ice cube
Progressive muscle relaxation
Time and again, research has shown that progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) can help the anxiety that accompanies many health conditions.
PMR involves tensing specific parts of your body, holding that tension for three to five rounds of breath, then releasing the muscles.
You may find it helpful to start on the lower half of your body, then “progress” upwards. Try going in this order:
- hands and arms
- neck and shoulders
When you’re anxious, physical activity can help increase blood flow and oxygen throughout your body.
If possible, try these exercises:
- doing jumping jacks
- taking a quick walk around the block
- jumping rope
- doing yoga, like a few Sun Salutations
Research from 2018 shows that high intensity exercise is better for anxiety than low intensity.
With so much going on in our lives, it can be easy to brush off relaxation or self-help techniques until you’re in crisis. But like any disaster-preparedness plan, the tough moments are easier to get through when you’ve practiced a few times.
Meditation may help you detach from your thoughts and remain focused in the present moment. If you can, spend some time each morning observing your thoughts, as if they are clouds going by in the sky.
Research from 2019 shows that meditation can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Anxiety can sometimes signal that you might need to adjust something in your life. Journaling about your feelings may help you identify what that is and process your feelings about it.
Turning off digital noise
One 2021 study found that watching 2 hours of pandemic-related news per day can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression.
If possible, limit the amount of time you spend on news and social media platforms. Set a timer for 30 minutes, then shut them off. You can also let loved ones know that you’d rather not talk about distressing topics in the news.
Making lifestyle adjustments
You may wish to infuse your everyday routine with relaxation techniques and self-care. Pencil them into your calendar, the same way you’d keep any other appointment.
To help feel your best, try:
- getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night
- eating a diet of nutrient-dense, whole foods
- engaging in hobbies you find enjoyable
- exercising at least five times per week
- spending time with your loved ones
Anxiety aside, shortness of breath can stem from a broad range of health conditions.
Some of these include:
- common cold or flu
- respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia or COVID-19
- lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- heart disease
- low blood pressure
Shortness of breath can also be caused by:
- changes in altitude
- exposure to carbon monoxide
- high-intensity exercise
- a sedentary lifestyle
- tight clothes
If your shortness of breath is accompanied by other symptoms beyond anxiety or this condition becomes chronic (lasting 4 weeks or more), consider reaching out to a healthcare professional to rule out other conditions.
While shortness of breath from anxiety is uncomfortable, it’s usually harmless. When you no longer feel threatened, your breathing should return back to its usual depth and rhythm.
If your anxiety symptoms are interfering with your day-to-day life, you may find it helpful to reach out to a mental health professional. They will be able to:
- evaluate your symptoms
- make a diagnosis
- come up with a treatment plan
- provide resources
- suggest medications, if necessary
Wondering if what you’re experiencing might be an anxiety disorder? You can check out our anxiety quiz to find out.
When you’re feeling anxious, shortness of breath can make you feel even worse.
Incorporating relaxation strategies into your day can help ease your symptoms and may even help catch them before they start.