Imagine this: You’re in a situation that makes you anxious, and you start feeling uncomfortable. You’re sweating, and you can feel your hands shake. Then, you notice it’s hard to breathe. No matter how much you try, it feels like you can’t get a good breath of air. It feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest, restricting your breathing.
Have you ever felt this way? If so, you may have experienced something called shortness of breath, a common symptom of anxiety. Although shortness of breath is usually harmless when caused by anxiety, it can be extremely uncomfortable and even painful.
In this article, we’ll walk through what you need to know about shortness of breath and anxiety, as well as plenty of tips and tools to help you manage this disturbing symptom.
What Does Shortness of Breath Feel Like?
Shortness of breath is a symptom that comes along with a number of different health conditions, including anxiety. Sometimes, shortness of breath is harmless (and usually is when caused by anxiety), but it can also be a sign of a serious underlying health condition.
When people are short of breath, they feel like they can’t get enough air into their lungs, no matter how hard they try. They might feel their chest tightening, or feel like they are suffocating. Some of the most common signs of shortness of breath are:
- Chest tightening
- Feeling like you need “more” air or breathe more quickly to get enough air
- Feeling a weight on your chest
- Feeling like you can’t take a full breath
Shortness of breath can be extremely uncomfortable, but when anxiety-related, it’s usually not dangerous.
Shortness of breath vs. hyperventilating
When learning about anxiety, you may have heard the term “hyperventilating.” Is this the same thing as shortness of breath?
In simple terms, no, shortness of breath (called dyspnea in the medical field) and hyperventilation aren’t exactly the same thing — although they’re intricately related.
Hyperventilation is overbreathing. When someone hyperventilates, they take quick, shallow breaths. This causes a sensation of being short of breath for the person who is hyperventilating. Experiencing shortness of breath can also make someone feel more anxious and panicked, which can cause them to hyperventilate even more.
Symptoms of Anxiety and Shortness of Breath
Both shortness of breath and hyperventilating are common symptoms of an anxiety attack. They can feel incredibly scary in the moment, but usually, these symptoms aren’t dangerous.
Our bodies are designed to be prepared for, and fight off, danger. Our ancient ancestors needed fear to alert them when there was a predator or another hazard nearby.
When we’re faced with danger, the human body (more specifically, the central nervous system) releases the stress response. This leads to many important changes in our bodies: we breathe faster to allow more oxygen to flow, our pupils dilate, and our heart beats faster to pump more blood out to extremities. This puts us into fight/flight/freeze mode, which helped keep our ancestors safer from predator attacks.
The stress response isn’t a problem in itself. As mentioned before, this response was designed to save your life. The problem is that, in modern times, you’re usually not running from a dangerous predator when you feel shortness of breath and other anxiety symptoms. But your brain can’t tell the difference between a real, life-threatening danger and a personal anxiety trigger.
If your shortness of breath is due to anxiety, then it’s probably accompanied by other anxiety symptoms.
Other symptoms of anxiety include:
- Excessive worry and fear
- Worries that are disproportionate to the triggering event
- Feeling restless or wound up
- Muscle tension
- Problems with falling or staying asleep
- Taking steps to avoid something you fear (if you have a specific phobia)
If you have shortness of breath without any of these other symptoms, then it may be due to another cause.
What Causes Shortness of Breath?
We’ve already explained how anxiety and panic attacks can cause your body to start hyperventilating or feeling short of breath. While shortness of breath isn’t usually dangerous when an anxiety symptom, it’s important to know that shortness of breath can also be caused by other, more serious, health conditions.
Some other common causes of shortness of breath include:
- Strenuous exercise
- Altitude changes
- Asthma or allergies
- Poor air quality
- Lung disease
- Extreme temperatures
- Heart disease
- Tight clothes
- Carbon monoxide exposure
These are just some examples of serious illnesses that can cause shortness of breath; there are many more.
There’s no way to determine whether your shortness of breath is due to anxiety or an underlying health condition unless you see a medical professional. If you’re feeling short of breath frequently, talk to your healthcare provider. They can rule out these other causes and tell you if anxiety is what is causing these symptoms.
Preventing Shortness of Breath from Anxiety
Later, we’ll walk through some exercises you can use to manage your anxiety symptoms in the moment. But it’s also important to make lifestyle changes so you can prevent anxiety symptoms, like shortness of breath, from coming on to begin with.
Just like physical health, mental health must be taken care of on a daily basis. Think proactively about your mental health before it may become a crisis. Taking the following preventative measures will allow you to live a lifestyle that supports your mental health. Ideally, when you start living a healthy lifestyle, you’ll begin experiencing less anxiety symptoms — including shortness of breath.
Get regular exercise
Physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. Find fun, nourishing ways to move your body on a daily basis. If you’re not a gym lover, that’s okay. There are plenty of ways you can get enough exercise, from taking a dance class to going on a brisk walk.
Exercise releases endorphins, a brain chemical that boosts mood. This can be a great protective factor against future anxiety attacks.
Get plenty of restful sleep
Being sleep-deprived puts you at risk for a wide array of mental health problems, including worsening your anxiety. Experts say most healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of restful sleep every night. If you don’t feel like you’re getting that, consider changing your sleep habits and environment.
It’s important to build – and stay connected to – a strong social support system. Who are the people you can count on? Who do you trust to support you during your mental health recovery? Make a list of these people, and stay in touch with them.
If you don’t feel like you have close connections in your life, consider ways to build a stronger support network. This network can be made up of different types of people, including friends, family, colleagues, and mental health professionals.
Know your triggers
If you live with anxiety, it’s likely there are certain places, people, and things that trigger your symptoms or make them worse. Being aware of these triggers can help you prepare to deal with them when you know they’re going to be present.
For example, maybe you live with social anxiety, and large gatherings of people trigger your symptoms. If you know you have a party to go to soon, review and strengthen your coping skills. Make a plan for how you will manage your anxiety symptoms, including shortness of breath. Be prepared for how you’re going to deal with shortness of breath if it happens during the party.
Sometimes, avoiding your triggers may be helpful — but not always. Avoidance can be, in and of itself, a symptom of anxiety — and can make anxiety worse down the line. Talk to a mental health professional about which triggers you should avoid, and which you should learn how to cope with.
Limit your inputs
Studies have found that people feel more anxious and stressed when they spend a lot of time reading the news, especially since the pandemic.
Although it’s important to stay informed about the world’s events, try to limit your inputs. Don’t be afraid to take time away from the news if you feel like it’s upsetting you. Consume news and any other types of media in small doses.
See a therapist
Lastly, seeing a mental health therapist regularly can help prevent an anxiety crisis. A therapist can help you explore (and deal with) your anxiety triggers as well as teach you coping skills that you can use when you’re having a crisis.
Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean anything is “wrong with you.” People see therapists for many different reasons. And psychotherapy, particularly a type of therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), is one of the best treatments available for anxiety. By seeing a therapist before your anxiety becomes severe, you can prevent shortness of breath and other serious anxiety symptoms from developing.
How to Get Rid of Shortness of Breath from Anxiety
It’s also helpful to have coping skills on-hand to manage shortness of breath from anxiety when it comes on. It’s helpful to create a lifestyle that prevents anxiety in the first place, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Below, we’ll walk you through six tools you can use to get rid of shortness of breath from anxiety.
Keep in mind that these tips are only meant to help you if you’re experiencing shortness of breath from anxiety. If you’re feeling shortness of breath because of something else (asthma or COVID-19, for example), they may not be helpful — and you likely need to see a medical professional for assistance.
It might sound ironic, but deep breathing exercises (also known as diaphragmatic or belly breathing) are one of the most effective things you can do when you’re feeling short of breath due to anxiety.
To practice deep breathing, find a comfortable sitting or lying down position. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your lower belly. If you feel comfortable, close your eyes — if not, simply find a soft gaze.
Then, inhale deeply through your nose. Instead of breathing into your chest, where you may feel tightness, breathe instead into your belly. You should feel the hand on your belly rise up. The hand on your chest shouldn’t rise very much.
When you’ve filled your lower belly up with air, exhale slowly through your mouth. You might find it comforting to make a “whooshing” sound as you breathe out. Empty your belly of air; the hand on your belly should fall.
If you’d like a more structured approach to deep breathing, you can try the 4-7-8 breathing technique.
Follow the instructions above, and start the exercise off as if you were going to practice deep breathing. When you inhale, breathe in to a count of four. Then, hold your breath at the top for seven counts. As you exhale, count to eight; your exhale should be twice as long as your inhale.
Practice this until you start feeling calmer.
Pursed lip breathing
Another helpful breathing technique for shortness of breath is called pursed lip breathing. Pursed lip breathing doesn’t just relieve anxiety; it also improves ventilation and keeps your airways open.
To practice pursed lip breathing, relax your body. Now, breathe in for two counts. You don’t need to take a deep breath; just breathe normally. Now, purse or pucker your lips, and exhale. It should feel like you’re trying to whistle. Breathe out, slowly, for four counts, through your pursed lips.
In pursed lip breathing, your exhale should always be longer than your inhale. Complete this exercise until you feel in control of your breath, and your shortness of breath goes away.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is an exercise that’s often used to help people decrease their stress levels and relieve the physical tension that often comes along with stress and anxiety. It can also help you fall asleep. It’s a great way to manage your intense anxiety in the moment and calm down your breathing.
To practice progressive muscle relaxation, find a comfortable seated or lying down position (many people enjoy doing this exercise while lying down). The goal of this exercise is to relax one muscle group at a time.
Start with your toes and feet. As you breathe in, tense all of the muscles in your toes, feet, and ankles. Tense significantly, but not to the point of pain. Hold the tension for five to ten seconds.
Then, as you breathe out, release all of the tension that you’ve just built up in your feet. Completely relax your feet, all at once. Enjoy this sensation, and relax for several seconds before moving on to the next muscle group.
Work your way up your body until you’ve tensed and relaxed every muscle group, and your shortness of breath has gone away.
Grounding is a way to bring your mind back down to Earth, when an anxiety attack has taken it away from you.
If you’re feeling anxious to the point of feeling short of breath, you might feel like your brain is muddled, or that you can’t think straight. You are caught up in the “what if’s”. Grounding helps you connect back to the present moment. This can help your brain realize that, at this moment, you’re not facing any real danger. You are safe.
One popular and effective grounding technique is called the 5-4-3-2-1 technique.
To practice this technique, find a comfortable seated position, and take a deep belly breath. Now, find five things that you can see around you, and name them. For an extra challenge, find five things of different colors.
Now, what are four things that you can feel? Pick up four items around you, and run your fingers over them. What do they feel like? Are they soft or rough? What is their temperature?
Next, listen for three sounds that you can hear. You might find it helpful to close your eyes to try to sharpen your sense of hearing. What sounds can you hear around you? Perhaps some noises outside, or the beating of your own heart?
The next step can be difficult: find two things that you can smell. You may need to walk around your room to find things that have an aroma. Do you have a scented soap or candle? What do ordinary items, like pencils or paper, smell like?
Finally, place one (edible) thing in your mouth so you can taste it. It doesn’t have to be food; you can taste a piece of mint dental floss, for example. Or are there any lingering flavors inside of your mouth?
While you’re completing this exercise, try to be fully present with it rather than getting lost in your thoughts. This grounding activity is designed to bring you back to the present moment, which should help relieve shortness of breath.
Finally, some people use anti-anxiety medication to help them manage intense anxiety attacks and relieve shortness of breath. Some medications that are used for immediate relief from anxiety symptoms include benzodiazepines like Xanax.
Because these medications carry a risk of abuse and dependence, they aren’t usually used as a first line treatment for anxiety or shortness of breath. But if your healthcare provider has prescribed these medications to you and recommended that you use them, then you should follow their instructions.
Anxiety Treatment at The Center • A Place for HOPE
If you’ve been suffering from shortness of breath from anxiety, know you’re not alone. At The Center, you will find a safe and respectful environment where you can focus on overcoming anxiety and all of its painful symptoms.
Our unique Whole Person Care approach ensures that your anxiety treatment will address the physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, and spiritual elements of your life. In this way, you can start healing from the different ways social anxiety has affected you.
We can help you find ways to not only manage, but prevent, anxiety symptoms like shortness of breath. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you and your family.