Anxiety increases breathing rate - that’s normal. But when your body is continually anxious (such is the case with an anxiety disorder), you develop rapid breathing that doesn’t cease. If this occurs long-term, it can trigger a whole host of health complications.
So, what’s the connection between anxiety and breathing? And what are your treatment options? We reveal the answers to these questions later on. But first, what does anxiety and rapid breathing look like?
Symptoms of Anxiety & Rapid Breathing
While anxiety symptoms vary significantly between individuals, there are some tell-tale signs when anxiety combines with rapid breathing:
- Chest tightness
- Tension in the muscles
- Nausea or gastrointestinal problems
- Heart palpitations
- Hyperventilation - rapid breathing
- Restlessness and irritability
- Dizziness or feeling faint
But what is the reason for this relationship? Let’s look at the connection between anxiety and breathing.
What’s the Connection Between Anxiety and Breathing?
Anxiety is your body’s internal alarm, telling you there may be a threat. This process was invaluable when living in the wilderness, as it helped us stay safe from predators.
The presence of anxiety sets off an intense physiological and chemical reaction. Some of these changes include:
- Heart rate quickens
- Glucose is made available to your muscles
- Breathing rate increases
- Adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) release
- Pupil dilatation
- Complex thinking shuts down temporarily
You may notice that breathing features on this list. That’s because when you’re anxious, your body prepares to fight against the threat or run away from it. We call this process the fight or flight response.
Part and parcel of the fight or flight response is the need to pump oxygen to your muscles, ready for you to react. To do this, you need to breathe faster.
However, while the idea that anxiety causes rapid breathing seems pretty straightforward, the relationship isn’t one-sided. Evidence shows that rapid breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system, a key element of our bodies’ stress response .
You see, when you breathe rapidly on purpose in a process called over-breathing, you set off a similar response to anxiety. The sympathetic nervous system becomes active, which triggers the release of adrenaline.
The relationship works both ways. However, if you’re reading this article, the likelihood is that you’re not breathing quickly on purpose. So, how do you know when anxiety is causing your rapid breathing?
Knowing When Anxiety Is the Cause
Anxiety isn’t the only health condition that can cause rapid breathing. Nevertheless, when anxiety triggers rapid breathing, it has some characteristic signs:
- Dry mouth
- Chest pain
- Muscle tension
- Poor concentration
- Speaking difficulties
- Intrusive thoughts or images
- Choking sensation
- Stomach discomfort
If you experience any of these symptoms alongside rapid breathing, anxiety may be the cause. However, these adverse effects coincide with other medical conditions, which is worth bearing in mind.
So, what can you do about it?
There is a lot of support available to help you cope with and manage your anxiety and rapid breathing, whether they’re related or not.
It’s always wise to seek professional support when experiencing any health issue - we explore the ways you can do this below. However, if you’d rather go it alone, here are some self-help methods to try.
Self-help calming strategies reduce anxiety and lessen the likelihood of rapid breathing, provided there isn’t an underlying medical condition causing it.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) involves tensing and relaxing your muscles, one muscle group at a time. PMR has been proven to slow breathing rate and reduce anxiety symptoms [2, 3]. Evidence also suggests PMR can lessen the symptoms of insomnia, chronic pain, and anger/aggression [3, 4].
The idea behind PMR is that psychological calmness occurs when you are physically relaxed. This is a great self-help technique to try, as you can comfortably complete it lying or sitting in the comfort of your home.
Here are detailed instructions on how to do PMR. Why not give it a go?
Deep breathing is another relaxation technique you can easily incorporate into your daily routine. Deep abdominal breathing facilitates full oxygen exchange in the lungs, whereas rapid breathing only tends to reach the chest. This trade of oxygen and carbon dioxide slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure .
You can practice this anywhere, as long as you are seated with your spine straight. Try out deep breathing by following the instructions in this article.
Talking therapy is a highly effective treatment method for improving anxiety. While there are many different forms of talking therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has proven most beneficial for those with anxiety disorders .
CBT involves identifying your negative thoughts and feelings and the impact these have on your behavior. With your therapist, you begin to address these and test them through exposure exercises.
Rapid breathing is also readily addressed in talking therapy - your therapist will likely equip you with breathing exercises to encourage a slower breathing rate.
Seek Medical Support
It’s worth remembering that anxiety may not cause your rapid breathing. Fast breathing rate is also associated with various other conditions, including:
- Heart problems
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
- Interstitial Lung Disease 
If your rapid breathing isn’t going away, even after you try relaxation techniques, it’s imperative that you seek medical support.
Medication is often prescribed to treat anxiety and rapid breathing. This treatment method has proven effective for anxiety and rapid breathing, reducing stress symptoms and relaxing the nervous system.
One of the most common medications doctors prescribe for anxiety is Bupropion, which prevents the uptake of the feel-good hormone dopamine in your body, making it more readily available.
Take a Deep Breath
When you understand the relationship anxiety and rapid breathing have with the stress system, it’s easy to see how they are linked. If anxiety is causing your rapid breathing, you’ll experience a particular set of symptoms.
To help you manage these challenging health issues, seek medical assistance through your doctor or a therapist, or try self-help techniques like progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing.