The triggers and symptoms of anxiety vary widely from person to person, but many people experience shortness of breath when they feel anxious.
Feeling short of breath can make a person feel more anxious. They may suspect that they are having a breathing or heart problem, when in reality, they are noticing a symptom of anxiety.
In this article, we explore the link between anxiety and shortness of breath, which doctors call dyspnea. We also look at other possible causes of shortness of breath.
When a person feels anxious, they tend to feel restless, wound-up, irritable, and unable to concentrate. In some cases, anxiety is linked with panic-like symptoms, which can include:
- shortness of breath or rapid breathing
- increased heart rate
- chest pain
- feelings of impending doom
Anxiety and panic have associations with fear. They can lead to behavioral and physiological changes that prepare the person to defend themselves against a threat.
The brain is wired to react to fearful situations with a fight or flight response. The heart rate increases to pump blood to the organs faster, which readies the muscles for action.
It also causes a person to breathe more quickly to provide more oxygen to the muscles. The result can be shortness of breath.
When a person comes to a doctor with this symptom, they first rule out physical causes, such as breathing problems or heart problems.
Everyone feels anxious from time to time, but for some people, anxiety significantly gets in the way of daily life.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects 3.1% of people in the United States in any given year. It is more common in females than males.
If anxiety or panic is the cause, the doctor may recommend some relaxation methods or breathing techniques.
In some cases, a doctor may recommend medication or therapy to help manage the symptoms.
When a person is experiencing anxiety, it can be difficult to tell whether the anxiety or another health issue is responsible for the symptoms. This can be especially challenging when the symptoms are severe.
Shortness of breath is one symptom that people with anxiety may experience, but not everyone with anxiety has difficulty breathing.
Anxiety can cause a range of physical and psychological symptoms. These include:
- dry mouth
- increased heart rate
- muscle tension
- rapid breathing
- chest pain
- a choking sensation
- a fear of losing control
- agitation — feeling jittery or frustrated
- frightening thoughts, mental images, or memories
- poor concentration
- poor memory
- difficulty speaking
Doctors diagnose GAD using criteria from the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Shortness of breath is not one of these criteria, but it can occur with GAD.
People with panic disorder or panic attacks may experience shortness of breath, as well. It is a symptom that doctors use to diagnose panic disorder.
Panic attacks bring on extreme anxiety symptoms, such as a feeling of doom or a fear of dying. Other symptoms can feel similar to those of a heart attack.
Anyone who suspects that they have anxiety or panic disorder may want to consult a healthcare professional for a diagnosis and treatment.
If a person experiences shortness of breath, there may not be a clear reason, which can cause or worsen anxiety and make breathing more difficult.
To determine the cause of shortness of breath, doctors need to rule out physical causes, such as asthma, lung problems, or heart problems.
Doctors can offer various treatments for anxiety, such as psychotherapy, medications, or a combination.
For short-term relief of anxiety symptoms, including shortness of breath, doctors may prescribe benzodiazepine medications. These include:
These may provide some relief from anxiety symptoms quickly, within about 30 minutes.
However, benzodiazepines can have adverse effects. In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strengthened their warning about benzodiazepines. Using these drugs can lead to physical dependence, and withdrawal can be life threatening. Combining them with alcohol, opioids, and other substances can result in death. It is essential to follow the doctor’s instructions when using these drugs.
More frequently, doctors prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly called SSRIs or antidepressants, for symptoms of anxiety.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be beneficial for many people with anxiety. It aims to help people modify how they think and behave in certain situations, such as those that trigger anxiety.
A person who has CBT may learn that their anxiety is based on false alarms of fear, and the therapy may train them to cope with conditions that cause anxiety instead of avoiding them.
Psychodynamic psychotherapy is also an effective treatment for anxiety. It focuses on the role of personal and relationship conflicts associated with symptoms of anxiety.
This form of therapy harnesses the patient-therapist relationship to help encourage personal reflection, acceptance of difficult feelings, and engagement in new behaviors.
For immediate relief of shortness of breath due to anxiety, people might try diaphragmatic breathing.
Some doctors recommend it to help reduce anxiety, and some people who practice it report that it helps provide emotional balance.
This breathing technique involves contracting the diaphragm, expanding the belly, and deepening inhalation and exhalation.
A study from 2017 demonstrated that 20 sessions of diaphragmatic breathing improved stress and decreased negative emotions in participants. However, none had a diagnosis of anxiety.
Diaphragmatic breathing also plays a role in meditation, some religions, and martial arts, and it is a core component of yoga and tai chi.
Other techniques that may help relieve anxiety and ease breathing include:
- box breathing
- guided imagery
- progressive muscle relaxation
Anyone who may have anxiety or a panic disorder may benefit from discussing their symptoms and treatment options with a doctor.
If breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques do not reestablish regular breathing patterns, the person may need medical attention.
If shortness of breath is frequent or long-lasting, it may stem from another medical condition, such as:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD
- interstitial lung disease
- heart problems
When people experience shortness of breath because of anxiety or panic, it can make them feel more anxious, which can worsen their breathing.
Doctors often recommend relaxation techniques and diaphragmatic breathing to help relieve this anxiety symptom and others.
Some people also benefit from temporarily using medications to control anxiety symptoms. Chronic anxiety and panic may require a combination of medication and psychotherapy.