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Why Anxiety Causes Shortness of Breath And What To Do

Marilyn Folk BScN medical reviewer
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: April 3, 2019


Shortness of Breath Anxiety Symptoms

Shortness of Breath Anxiety Symptoms description:

The shortness of breath anxiety symptoms are often described as:

This shortness of breath symptom can come and go rarely, occur frequently, or persist indefinitely. For example, you may feel a shortness of breath once in a while and not that often, feel it off and on, or feel it all the time.

This shortness of breath symptom may precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself.

This shortness of breath symptom 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 shortness of breath symptom can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. It can also come in waves, where it’s strong one moment and eases off the next.

This shortness of breath symptom can change from day to day, and/or from moment to moment.

All of the above combinations and variations are common.

This shortness of breath symptom can seem more disconcerting 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.[1]

What causes the shortness of breath anxiety symptoms?

Medical Advisory

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.

Behaving anxiously activates the stress response.[2] The stress response immediately causes specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the body that enhance the body's ability to deal with a threat—to either fight with or flee from it—which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response.[3]

Part of the stress response changes include increasing heart rate, respiration, and tightening the body’s muscles so that it is better equipped to deal with a threat. These changes can cause a shortness of breath feeling.

When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the stress response brings about. When stress responses occur too frequently and/or dramatically, however, the body has a more difficult time recovering, which can result in the body remaining in a state of semi stress response readiness.[4] We call this state stress-response hyperstimulation, since stress hormones are stimulants.

A body that becomes stress-response hyperstimulated can exhibit similar sensations and symptoms to that of an active stress response. This shortness of breath symptom is an example of how the body can experience symptoms simply from being overly stressed.

How to get rid of the shortness of breath anxiety symptoms?

When this feeling 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 the body recovers from the active stress response, this shortness of breath feeling 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 this shortness of breath feeling is caused by adverse effects of chronic stress, it may take a lot longer for the body to recover and for this symptom to subside.

Nevertheless, when the body has recovered from the adverse effects of chronic stress, this shortness of breath feeling will abate. Therefore, anxiety-caused shortness of breath symptoms needn’t be a cause for concern. While bothersome, and even annoying, this symptom will diminish as your body’s stress is reduced.

You can accelerate the recovery process by reducing your stress, practicing relaxed breathing, increasing your rest, regular light to moderate exercise, getting good sleep, and not worrying about this shortness of breath anxiety symptom. When your body has recovered from the effects of chronic stress, this shortness of breath anxiety symptom will subside.

For a more detailed explanation about anxiety symptoms including the shortness of breath anxiety symptoms, why anxiety 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.

To hear Jim Folk's commentary on a similar symptom, visit our "Out Of Breath, Can't Catch Your Breath" anxiety symptom.


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.

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Additional Resources:

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. Selye H. Endocrine reactions during stress. Anesthesia & Analgesia. 1956;35:182–193. [PubMed]

3. "Understanding the Stress Response - Harvard Health." Harvard Health. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2016.

4. Kinlein, Scott A., et al. “Dysregulated Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis Function Contributes to Altered Endocrine and Neurobehavioral Responses to Acute Stress.” Frontiers In Psychiatry, 13 Mar. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4358064/

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