Why Anxiety Causes Shortness Of Breath
While feeling suddenly short of breath or that you can’t breathe can be alarming, it’s not harmful nor are you in any danger. Again, it is a common anxiety symptom that can be successfully treated.
This article explains the relationship between anxiety and feeling short of breath, and what you can do to get rid of this symptom.
- You uncharacteristically feel short of breath or out of breath.
- You suddenly feel out of breath for no apparent reason.
- You feel short of breath upon mild exertion.
- You feel out of breath most of the time.
- You find yourself gasping for breath, or over-breathing just to try and get sufficient oxygen.
- You find yourself yawning because you often feel out of breath.
- You regularly feel smothered.
- You notice you are constantly gasping for air.
- It often feels like you can’t breathe deep enough.
- It feels like your breathing is labored and heavy.
- You are having difficulty breathing, like you can’t catch your breath.
- 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.
- You have become conscious of your breathing and how you breathe.
- 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.
- It can also seem like you have to force yourself to breathe in fear that if you don't, you'll stop breathing or pass out.
- Or for no apparent reason, you feel out of breath and find yourself doing an unusual amount of yawning in an attempt to catch your breath.
This shortness and out of breath symptom can occur rarely and last only for a few moments, occur frequently, or persist 24x7. For example, you 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 can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself.
Shortness of breath 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.
Feeling short or out of breath can range in intensity from slight and barely noticeable, to moderate, or 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 from moment to moment.
For example, you can feel short of breath most of the time every day, and then, for no apparent reason, suddenly breathe normally for a few hours only for shortness of breath to return.
Or, you can breathe normally most of the time but have periods where you feel short of breath and like you can’t catch your breath.
All of the above combinations and variations are common.
This shortness of breath, 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.
The higher the rating, the more likely it could be contributing to your anxiety symptoms, including shortness of breath symptoms.
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1. The stress response
The stress response causes many body-wide changes that enhance our ability to deal with a threat – to either fight or flee.
Some of these changes include:
- An increase in body stimulation
- An increase in heart rate
- An increase in respiration, and therefore, demand for oxygen
- Tightened muscles, including those in the chest, diaphragm, and abdomen, which can restrict breathing
Any one or combination of the above can cause a shortness of breath, feeling like you can’t catch your breath, and out of breath feelings.
As long as the stress response is active, this symptom and its feelings can persist.
Visit our “Stress Response” article for more information about the many changes caused by the stress response.
High degree stress responses, such as those that occur during anxiety and panic attacks can create dramatic episodes of shortness of breath. Visit our “anxiety attack symptoms” article for more information.
2. Holding your breath
Some anxious people hold or quiet their breathing when they are anxious or stressed. Holding or quieting your breath can cause the shortness of breath and feeling out of breath symptoms.
To many anxious people, stress and anxiety are invisible because they have lived their lives so stressfully and anxiously that they aren’t even aware that their 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.
When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly. When stress responses occur too frequently, however, the body can remain in a state of semi stress response readiness, which we call “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are stimulants.
Hyperstimulation can keep the stress response changes active even though a stress response hasn’t been activated. Shortness of breath, feeling like you can’t catch your breath, and feeling out of breath are common symptoms of hyperstimulation.
4. Being anxious about feeling short of breath
Many anxious people become afraid of feeling short of breath. This fear can trigger more anxiety and stress, which can exacerbate this symptom.
In this case, a vicious cycle can set up where:
- Anxiety activates the stress response
- The stress response causes shortness of breath symptoms
- Being afraid of shortness of breath symptoms creates more anxiety
- More anxiety activates more stress responses
- More stress responses causes more shortness of breath symptoms
And so on.
Fortunately, shortness of breath caused by anxiety and stress isn’t harmful. So, it’s not something we need to be afraid of.
Yes, it can be annoying and bothersome. But it won’t stop you from breathing or getting sufficient air.
Since breathing is an automatic bodily function, you don’t have to worry about not breathing. Even though it might feel as if you are out of breath or that you can’t catch your breath, you’ll always get enough oxygen to breathe. Even if you hold your breath until you pass out, your body will take control of your breathing until you revive.
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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 shortness of breath anxiety symptom is caused by hyperstimulation, it can take a lot longer for the body to recover, and to the point where this feeling out of breath symptom subsides.
Nevertheless, when the body has recovered from hyperstimulation, this anxiety symptom will subside. Therefore, anxiety-caused shortness of breath 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.
You can also try regulating your breathing by using a diaphragmatic breathing technique.
The diaphragm, also known as the thoracic diaphragm, is a dome-shaped sheet of muscle and tendon that separates the chest from the abdomen. It plays a vital role in the process of breathing.
When we breathe in, the diaphragm expands drawing air into the lungs. When we breathe out, the diaphragm contracts (tightens) forcing air out.
Breathing from your diaphragm can regulate your breathing, which can eliminate shortness of breath due to anxiety and stress.
Here is an example of a diaphragmatic breathing technique:
- Relax your body.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach just below the rib cage (where your diaphragm is).
- Breathe in slowly through your nose into your lower lungs first. This should cause the hand over your stomach to move out. Then, fill the top of your lungs with air. This should cause the hand on your chest to move out. Try not to over-fill your lungs, but breathe in until you have sufficient oxygen. Hold for a moment or two.
- Tighten your stomach muscles, then slowly exhale through your mouth or nose by exhaling the air from the top of your lungs first, and then the air in your lower lungs by drawing your stomach muscles in until most of the air from your lungs has been exhaled.
- Repeat until you feel your normal breathing has returned.
The entire breathing cycle can take up to 16 seconds, with 7 seconds of inhaling, 2 seconds of holding, and 7 seconds of exhaling.
Be sure you don’t over breathe, which can cause hyperventilation. You want to be as relaxed as you can so the diaphragmatic breathing technique feels relaxing and comfortable.
If done correctly, diaphragmatic breathing can trigger the body’s built-in tranquilizing effect.
Diaphragmatic breathing can be used anytime to calm the body as it stimulates the vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system – the nervous system responsible for calming the body.
While diaphragmatic breathing can alleviate shortness of breath due to acute anxiety and stress, it might not if the shortness of breath is caused by hyperstimulation (chronic stress). In this case, eliminating hyperstimulation is required to eliminate this symptom.
Below is 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 with anxiety and what seems like unmanageable worry, you might 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 issues with anxiety and its symptoms.
- Heart palpitations
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness
- Numbness and tingling
- Weakness, weak limbs
- Asthma symptoms and anxiety
- Excessive yawning
- Shooting chest pains
You can prevent shortness of breath anxiety symptoms by reducing stress, addressing your anxiety issues so they aren't causing invisible stress, and by healthy stress management practices, such as regular deep relaxation, regular exercise, living a balanced life, getting good rest and sleep, and by eating a healthy diet of whole natural foods.
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.
- For a comprehensive list of Anxiety Disorders Symptoms Signs, Types, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment.
- Anxiety and panic attacks symptoms can be powerful experiences. Find out what they are and how to stop them.
- How to stop an anxiety attack and panic.
- Free online anxiety tests to screen for anxiety. Two minute tests with instant results. Such as:
- Anxiety 101 is a summarized description of anxiety, anxiety disorder, and how to overcome it.
Return to Anxiety Disorders Symptoms article.
anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety and its symptoms, including the Shortness Of Breath, Out Of Breath, and Can't Catch Your Breath Anxiety Symptoms.
1. “Dyspnea in Relation to Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression: A Prospective Population Study.” Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics, Elsevier, 3 Mar. 2006.
2. Berliner, Dominik, et al. “The Differential Diagnosis of Dyspnea.” NCBI PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2016.
3. "Dyspnea and Emotional States in Health and Disease.” Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics, Elsevier, 21 Jan. 2013.
5. Folk, Jim and Folk, Marilyn. “The Stress Response And Anxiety Symptoms.” anxietycentre.com, August 2019.
7. WT, Roth, et al. "Voluntary breath holding in panic and generalized anxiety disorders." Psychosomatic Medicine, Dec. 1998.
8. Fogel, Alan. “Waiting to Exhale.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 27 Sept. 2010.
9. Hannibal, Kara E., and Mark D. Bishop. “Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2014.
10. Folk, Jim and Folk, Marilyn. "Hyperstimulation." anxietycentre.com, Nov. 2019.
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