Why Anxiety Can Make You Feel Out Of Breath
Medically reviewed by: Rae Harwood, M.A. (Counselling), B.N., EdD (Counselling Psychology).
Last updated: April 14, 2019
Feeling Out Of Breath, Can't Catch Your Breath anxiety symptoms common descriptions:
- You suddenly feel out of breath for no apparent reason.
- You feel short of breath upon mild exertion.
- It feels like your breathing is shallow, and even if you force yourself to breathe deeply, it still feels like you are short or out of breath.
- Even though your doctor said your peak flow and oxygen levels are normal, you still feel out of breath or that your breath is too shallow, or that you can’t catch your breath.
- It feels like you have to force yourself to breathe deeply just to get sufficient oxygen.
- It feels like you have to over-breathe because your normal breathing makes you feel out of breath or that you can’t catch your breath.
- It feels like your normal breathing patterns aren’t sufficient to give you a normal breath.
- You constantly feel out of breath or that you aren’t getting sufficient oxygen.
- It feels like you can’t catch your breath no matter what you do.
- Even mild physical exertion, such as getting up and walking to another room, causes you to feel out of breath or that you can’t catch your breath.
This out of breath symptom can occur rarely and last only for a few moments, occur frequently, or persist indefinitely. For example, you may feel out of breath once in a while and not that often, feel out of breath off and on, or feel out of breath or that you can’t catch your breath all the time.
This out of breath symptom may precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself.
This can precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and elevated stress, or occur ‘out of the blue’ and for no apparent reason.
This out of breath symptom can range in intensity from slight and barely noticeable, to moderate, to severe. It can also come in waves, where it’s strong one moment and eases off the next.
This symptom can change from day to day, and/or from moment to moment.
All of the above combinations and variations are common.
This out of breath or can’t catch your breath symptom can seem more pronounced and troublesome when undistracted or when trying to rest or go to sleep.
This symptom is often referred to as Dyspnea: is a clinical term for the sensation of breathlessness or shortness of breath experienced by both normal subjects and patients with diseases affecting the respiratory system.
What causes the feeling out of breath anxiety symptoms?
We recommend all new, changing, persistent, and returning anxiety symptoms be discussed with your doctor as some medical conditions and medications can cause anxiety-like symptoms, including this anxiety symptom. If your doctor concludes your symptoms are solely anxiety-related, you can be confident there isn't a medical cause. Generally, doctors can easily determine the difference between anxiety symptoms and those caused by a medical condition.
Doctors aren't infallible, however. If you are uncertain about your doctor’s diagnosis, you can seek a second or more opinions. But if all opinions agree, you can be assured anxiety is the cause of this symptom.
When this anxiety symptom is caused by stress, including anxiety-caused stress, there are many contributing factors. The three most common are:
1. Stress changes our breathing patterns.
When the body is stressed, such as when we sense danger, the body produces a stress response, which releases stress hormones into the bloodstream where they travel to targeted spots to bring about specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes that enhance the body’s ability to deal with the threat—to either fight with or flee from it. This survival reaction is the reason why it’s often referred to as the fight or flight response, the emergency response, or the fight, flight, or freeze response (some people freeze when they are afraid like a “deer caught in headlights”).
An increase in respiration is one of the changes the stress response brings about. Increased respiration causes the heart to beat faster causing an increase in demand for oxygen. An increase in demand for oxygen causes a change in breathing pattern: from a relaxed breathing pattern to a rapid shallow breathing pattern (unless you are physically exerting the body with activities such as running, fighting, swimming, etc.).
When you combine these factors - increased respiration, increased heartrate, a change in breathing pattern, and having to take in more oxygen – it can feel as if you are out of breath and/or that you can’t catch your breath.
In addition to these changes, stress hormones are stimulants. When released into the bloodstream, they can cause the heart to beat harder and faster than normal, as well. All of these changes can make it seem like you are out of breath or that you can’t catch your breath. This feeling can be more pronounced when under physical exertion or when trying to rest or go to sleep.
2. Stress hormones cause muscles to tighten.
There are numerous muscle groups in the chest and rib cage areas—including the diaphragm, which contracts, moves, and relaxes—that allow us to breathe (their combination of actions allow us to draw air in and force air out of the lungs). Stress hormones cause muscles to tighten, including these muscle groups, which can make breathing more difficult. For example, many people say that it feels like they have a tight band around their chest when they are fearful or stressed. Tight chest and rib cage muscles cause this “tight band” feeling.
As stress hormone stimulation increases, so can muscle tension and related problems, including making it seem more difficult to catch your breath.
Moreover, the shortness of breath caused by tight diaphragm muscles can make you try to breathe quicker to get sufficient air, which can exacerbate the “out of breath” and “can’t catch your breath” symptoms.
Chronic stress (stress-response hyperstimulation), such as that caused by overly apprehensive behavior, can cause these types of feelings to persist even though you may not feel anxious or stressed at the time.
3. When some people are stressed and anxious, they tend to hold or quiet their breathing until the stress or reason for their anxiousness has passed. Holding or quieting your breath can cause the feeling of being out of breath.
To many anxious personalities, stress and anxiety are invisible because they have lived their lives so stressfully and anxiously that they aren’t even aware that their chronically elevated levels of stress and anxiety are abnormal and unhealthy. Consequently, they don’t recognize when they hold their breath, and therefore, don’t make the connection between holding their breath and the feeling of being out of breath.
While these types of breathing symptoms can be uncomfortable, they aren’t harmful. Since breathing is an automatic bodily function, you don’t have to worry about not breathing. Yes, it might feel as if you are out of breath or that you can’t catch your breath, but you’ll always get enough oxygen to breathe. Even if you hold your breath until you pass out, your body will take control over of your breathing until you revive.
How to get rid of the feeling out of breath anxiety symptoms?
When feeling out of breath is caused by apprehensive behavior and the accompanying stress response changes, calming yourself down will bring an end to the stress response and its changes. As your body recovers from the active stress response, the feeling out of breath anxiety symptom should subside. Keep in mind that it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. But this is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.
When the feeling out of breath anxiety symptom is caused by chronic stress, such as from overly apprehensive behavior, it may take a lot more time for the body to calm down and recover, and to the point where this feeling out of breath symptom subsides.
Nevertheless, when the body has recovered from the adverse effects of chronic stress (which we call stress-response hyperstimulation – also often referred to as “hyperarousal”) this anxiety symptom will subside. Therefore, this feeling out of breath anxiety symptom needn’t be a cause for concern.
You can speed up the recovery process by reducing your stress, practicing relaxed breathing, increasing your rest, getting regular light to moderate exercise, getting good sleep, and not worrying about this anxiety symptom. Yes, feeling out of breath or that you can’t catch your breath can be bothersome and even annoying. But again, it isn’t harmful and will disappear when your body recovers from the effects of chronic stress.
Play the clip below for Jim Folk's commentary about the anxiety symptom feeling out of breath, can't catch your breath, or breathlessness.. Jim Folk is the president of anxietycentre.com.
Feeling out of breath is a common symptom of anxiety. Jim Folk experienced all of the anxiety symptoms mentioned at this website, with many to severe degrees during his 12 year struggle with anxiety disorder, including feeling out of breath or can't catch your breath.
If you are having difficulty containing your worry, you may want to connect with one of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists. Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome what seems like unmanageable worry.
For a more detailed explanation about anxiety symptoms, including feeling out of breath or that you can’t catch your breath, why symptoms can persist long after the stress response has ended, common barriers to recovery and symptom elimination, and more recovery strategies and tips, we have many chapters that address this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
Anxiety attacks can be powerful and overwhelming experiences. But there is help available. We encourage you to explore our website for a comprehensive understanding of anxiety, anxiety symptoms and signs, the various anxiety disorders, and how to overcome them.
For more information about our Anxiety Counseling option; our Available Anxiety Therapists; to Book An Appointment with one of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists; information about Anxiety Attacks Symptoms and Treatment; the signs and symptoms of panic attacks disorder; our anxiety Recovery Support area; information about the many Anxiety disorders; and our Anxiety 101 section; click on the appropriate link or graphic below:
OUT OF BREATH ANXIETY SYMPTOM REFERENCES:
1. “Dyspnea in Relation to Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression: A Prospective Population Study.” Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics, Elsevier, 3 Mar. 2006, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0954611106000473.
2. Berliner, Dominik, et al. “The Differential Diagnosis of Dyspnea.” NCBI PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5247680/.
3. Dyspnea and Emotional States in Health and Disease.” Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics, Elsevier, 21 Jan. 2013, www.sciencedirect.com/science/
4. Selye H. Endocrine reactions during stress. Anesthesia & Analgesia. 1956;35:182–193. [PubMed]
5. "Understanding the Stress Response - Harvard Health." Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.
6. "Stress." University of Maryland Medical Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2016.
7. WT, Roth, et al. "Voluntary breath holding in panic and generalized anxiety disorders." Psychosomatic Medicine, Dec. 1998, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9847025
8. Fogel, Alan. “Waiting to Exhale.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 27 Sept. 2010, www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/body-sense/201009/waiting-exhale.
Return to our anxiety symptoms page.