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When Anxiety Causes Shortness of Breath

Kristin Hall, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 11/16/2021

Has your anxiety ever gotten so intense that you feel short of breath? It’s actually a fairly common symptom experienced by people with anxiety disorders.

If you're one of those people, know that you aren’t alone. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, more than 40 million American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder.

No doubt, it can be scary when you can’t take a deep breath, which can then make your anxiety worse. But hopefully knowing that it’s not an uncommon symptom helps ease your nerves. 

Keep reading to learn more about shortness of breath and anxiety. 

Has your anxiety ever gotten so intense that you feel short of breath? It’s actually a fairly common symptom experienced by people with anxiety disorders.

If you're one of those people, know that you aren’t alone. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, more than 40 million American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder.

No doubt, it can be scary when you can’t take a deep breath, which can then make your anxiety worse. But hopefully knowing that it’s not an uncommon symptom helps ease your nerves. 

Keep reading to learn more about shortness of breath and anxiety. 

Symptoms of Anxiety, Including Shortness of Breath 

Physical symptoms of anxiety are not uncommon. Though, not everyone experiences all of the same physical signs (if any). 

One study suggested a close tie between anxiety and respiratory symptoms—including shortness of breath. 

Shortness of breath can present itself in a variety of ways, such as wheezing, inability to take a deep breath or feeling a tightness in your chest.

Another study that focused on people who have panic attacks (which is a type of anxiety), found that shortness of breath may be linked to the body’s fight or flight response. There may also be a genetic or hormonal component to it.

Shortness of breath isn’t the only symptom associated with anxiety. Other symptoms of anxiety  include:

  • Irritability 

  • Fatigue

  • Feeling on-edge

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Muscle tension 

  • Chest tightness or chest pain

  • Trouble concentration 

When it comes to panic disorder and having a panic attack, other signs (along with shortness of breath) include:

  • Sweating

  • Trembling

  • Heart palpitations 

  • Feelings of doom and being out of control 

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How to Deal with Shortness of Breath

The best way to deal with anxiety-induced shortness of breath is to try and treat your anxiety. 

One immediate way to address shortness of breath is diaphragmatic breathing (also known as deep breathing). Research shows that this type of breath work can potentially reduce stress in the moment.

It’s also been found that deep breathing can assist parts of the body (such as the amygdala) that help regulate emotional well being.

So, how do you do it? Follow these steps:

  1. Lie flat on your back with your knees bent and with a pillow under your head. Place a hand on your chest and another on your belly.

  2. Slowly, breathe in through your nose. The goal is to feel your stomach push out against your hand. 

  3. Exhale through pursed lips, tightening your stomach muscles as you do and allowing them to fall inward. 

  4. Repeat this for about five to 10 minutes, with a goal of three to four times a day. 

For more breathing techniques, check out this guide from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. 

Breathing exercises aren’t the only way to deal with an anxiety attack. Here are a few more things that have been found to be successful: 

  • Try Meditation: A 2013 study suggested that 20 minutes of mindful meditation could lower anxiety by decreasing brain activity overall. The goal during meditation is awareness and acceptance. These days, there are a variety of apps that can help take you through guided meditation.  

  • Get Some Exercise: A review of studies found that working out may lower levels of stress and anxiety. The recommendation is for adults to get 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity each week.

  • Talk to a Therapist: Online or in-person therapy can help you process feelings of anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often recommended for those dealing with anxiety disorders. Through CBT, patients learn to identify patterns that may lead to anxiety, as well as work on skills to address anxiety directly.

  • Consider Medication: A healthcare professional can suggest prescription medication to help manage anxiety. Common medications prescribed for anxiety disorders are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), beta blockers and benzodiazepines.

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Shortness of Breath and Anxiety

Shortness of breath is not an unusual symptom of an anxiety attack. Unfortunately, feeling like you can’t take a deep breath can make you feel even more anxious than you already do. 

Luckily, there are ways to address this specific symptom. In the moment, practicing deep breathing (also known as diaphragmatic breathing) can help return your breathing patterns to normal and can lower your anxiety. 

In addition to this, getting a grasp on your anxiety can ensure those feelings of shortness of breath don’t become the norm. 

To manage your anxiety, the first step is to speak with a mental health professional and try online counseling. From there, you can learn relaxation techniques and figure out treatment options that may work for you.

12 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Facts & Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics
  2. Leander, M., Lampa, E., Rask-Andersen, A., (2014). Impact of anxiety and depression on respiratory symptoms. Respiratory Medicine. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0954611114003187
  3. Johnson, P., Federici, L., Shekhar, A., (2014). Etiology, Triggers, and Neurochemical Circuits Associated with Unexpected, Expected, and Laboratory-Induced Panic Attacks. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4252820/
  4. Anxiety Disorders. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders
  5. Ma,X., Yue, Z., Gong, Z., (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455070/
  6. Farb, N., Anderson, A., Segal, Z., (2012, March 14). The Mindful Brain and Emotion Regulation in Mood Disorders. Can J Psychiatry, 57(2): 70-77. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3303604/
  7. Diaphragmatic Breathing. Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9445-diaphragmatic-breathing
  8. Zeidan, F., Martucci, K., Kraft, R., et al. (2013, May 21). Neural correlates of mindfulness meditation-related anxiety relief. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 751-759. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/scan/article/9/6/751/1664700
  9. Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress (2019). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation
  10. Anderson, E., Shivakumar, G. (2013). Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety. Frontiers in Psychiatry. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/
  11. How Much Exercise Do I Need? Medline Plus. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/howmuchexercisedoineed.html
  12. What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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