Stress can affect all systems of the body — even leading to lower oxygen levels in the blood and body.
If you sometimes feel short of breath when you’re stressed or anxious, you are not alone. This is a common symptom of anxiety.
When your body and mind are under stress the airway between your nose and lung can constrict, which can leave you with unpleasant symptoms like dizziness or rapid heart rate.
The amount of oxygen passed from the lungs to red blood cells — and then carried to the rest of the body — is called the blood oxygen saturation level. Feeling stressed and breathing rapidly can lower your blood oxygen level.
If you experience breathing problems from stress, there are a few ways to naturally increase oxygen levels and leave you feeling calmer.
When you’re breathing normally, your body naturally regulates the amount of oxygen in your blood. But when a situation makes you feel anxious or stressed your body releases stress hormones and engages your fight, flight, or freeze response. This response prepares your body to react to possible danger.
The flight, flight, or freeze response can lead your body to tense, your heart to race, and your respiratory rate to increase. In some cases, you may hyperventilate (breathing very rapidly) or it can become a panic attack.
Breathing in a rapid way means that you’re not getting as much oxygen from the breath, and you’re not breathing out as much carbon dioxide. This can make you feel short of breath.
A 2014 study reported that people who experienced anxiety and depression were more likely to report breathlessness, wheezing, and nighttime respiratory symptoms (breathlessness or chest tightness at night) than people without anxiety or depression.
How can you tell if your oxygen levels are low?
You may have lower oxygen levels if you are noticing the following symptoms:
- shortness of breath
- having trouble catching your breath
- a headache
- a rapid heartbeat
- chest pain
- blue coloring on your face, lips, or nails
- feeling restless
You can also tell if your oxygen is low by measuring your blood oxygen level. A pulse oximeter is a small device that reads your oxygen level when clipped on your fingertip. It shows how well oxygen is reaching the furthest points from your heart, like your toes and fingers.
Most people need an oxygen saturation level of 89% or higher to keep their cells healthy. If you have a respiratory or heart condition, you might be aiming for a different level, so you may wish to work with a doctor to understand what levels are safe for you.
If you’re concerned about your pulse oximeter reading or your symptoms are getting worse, consider contacting your doctor.
Stress isn’t the only potential cause of dropping blood oxygen levels. Other causes include:
Anemia is a condition defined by a lack of healthy red blood cells. Your red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body through your bloodstream. If there is a reduced number of red blood cells, the amount of oxygen in your blood will be lower, causing a low blood oxygen level.
Asthma is a chronic lung disease that causes the airways to narrow which makes it difficult for air to move in and out of your lungs. When this happens, it can affect your oxygen level. People living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can also experience episodes of lower oxygen.
Visiting an elevated location like Colorado can impact how much oxygen your blood can carry through your body. People who live in high-altitude areas may develop more red blood cells to make up for the lower amount of oxygen in the air.
Sleep apnea or sleep meds
Breathing that is too shallow or too slow is called hypoventilation. When this happens your body can’t adequately remove carbon dioxide, which can result in less oxygen in the blood. Conditions like sleep apnea or drug or alcohol poisoning can cause hypoventilation.
Too little movement
A lifestyle with little physical activity may impact your oxygen level. When you move around or exercise your lungs bring oxygen to your blood and your heart pumps the oxygen to the muscles you’re using. Building in more exercise, such as daily walks, may help raise your blood oxygen levels.
Here are two useful breathing exercises that can help increase your blood oxygen levels naturally. Consider using them during times of stress.
1. Diaphragmic breathing
Diaphragmic breathing is also known as “belly breathing.”
Begin by breathing in gently through your nose for about 10 seconds, using your hand on your stomach to feel your belly fill up with air. Then, slowly breathe out through your mouth making sure your exhale is longer than your inhale.
2. Pursed lip breathing
Begin by dropping your shoulder down and closing your eyes. Then, inhale through your nose and out through pursed lips (puckering your lips like you’re going to blow on something).
Stress can affect your body and mind and may leave you feeling short of breath. When there isn’t enough oxygen being passed through your blood, your blood oxygen level may be lower than usual.
Typically, shallow breathing and the body’s stress response drive oxygen levels lower.
If you’re feeling stressed and think you have low oxygen levels, consider telling your symptoms to a doctor who can give you a proper diagnosis and treatment.
If your symptoms are caused by stress or another mental health condition, treatment may involve managing the root of your symptoms with therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or stress-reducing self-care activities.