Shortness of breath is a common symptom of anxiety. Certain situations can trigger anxiety, which can cause shortness of breath. Feeling short of breath can also make a person feel more anxious.

They may suspect that they are having a breathing or heart problem when they notice 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.

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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 reacts to fearful situations with a fight-or-flight response. The heart rate increases to pump blood to the organs faster, readying 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.

Learn about other causes of shortness of breath.

When experiencing anxiety, it can be difficult to tell whether 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, including:

Anxiety disorders

If a person experiences persistent or severe feelings of anxiety, a doctor may diagnose them with a specific anxiety disorder. These include:

Learn more in our dedicated anxiety hub.

Doctors can offer various treatments for anxiety, such as medications, psychotherapy, 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 within about 30 minutes.

However, benzodiazepines can have adverse effects. In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strengthened its warning about benzodiazepines. 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 a doctor’s instructions when using these drugs.

Doctors may also prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, commonly called SSRIs or antidepressants, for anxiety symptoms.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may benefit many people with anxiety. It aims to help people modify how they think and s, such as those that trigger anxiety.

During CBT, a person may learn their anxiety focuses on false alarms of fear, and the therapy may train them to cope with conditions that cause anxiety instead of avoiding them.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy

Psychodynamic psychotherapy is also an effective treatment for anxiety. It focuses on the role of interpersonal and familial 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.

People may benefit from using at-home relaxation methods to reduce anxious feelings and improve breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing

For immediate relief of shortness of breath due to anxiety, people might try diaphragmatic breathing.

To perform diaphragmatic breathing:

  • lay down comfortably on a flat surface
  • place one hand on the diaphragm, above the stomach and just below the ribs
  • place the other hand in the middle of the chest
  • breathe in slowly through the nose, allowing the diaphragm to expand
  • the lower hand should raise while the upper hand remains still
  • contract the abdominal muscles and exhale slowly
  • repeat

Some doctors recommend it to help reduce anxiety, and some people who practice it report that it helps provide emotional balance. A 2017 study demonstrates that 20 sessions of diaphragmatic breathing improves stress and decreases negative emotions in participants. However, the participants did not have a diagnosis of anxiety.

Pursed lip breathing

Pursed lip breathing can slow a person’s breathing and relieve shortness of breath. The practice focuses on making each breath more intentional.

To perform pursed lip breathing:

  • sit or stand comfortably
  • breath in through the nose for 2 seconds
  • purse the lips tightly
  • exhale slowly through pursed lips for 4 seconds
  • repeat

Discover more breathing techniques here.


Mindfulness is a broad term that covers many practices. Typically, it involves methods of focusing attention in states of calm concentration.

Mindfulness practices can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, stress, depression, and other mental health conditions. People can practice mindfulness meditation at home to reduce anxiety.

The following steps can help a person start mindfulness meditation:

  • sit, stand, or lie comfortably
  • focus attention on the present moment and the current physical sensations and emotions
  • concentrate on the natural flow of breathing
  • if breathing is shallow, breathe slowly through the nose and exhale slowly through the mouth
  • focus on how emotions and the physical senses change with time

Learn more about mindfulness meditation here.

Anyone who may have an anxiety or 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:

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, and other, anxiety symptoms.

Some people also benefit from temporarily using medications to control their anxiety symptoms. Chronic anxiety and panic may require a combination of medication and psychotherapy.