Anxiety is self-sustaining. Anxiety causes a variety of physical symptoms that can be incredibly frightening. These, in turn, cause more anxiety, which ultimately leads to more physical symptoms.
It's a dreadful cycle, and a symptom that often leads to this severe anxiety is difficulty breathing. Trouble breathing can be due to a heart attack, heart failure, lung disorders and more, but breathing difficulty may also be due to anxiety - especially severe anxiety.
Breathing Difficulty = Anxiety?
Trouble breathing may occur because of a serious heart or lung condition. It may also occur solely because of your anxiety and its related symptoms.
Take my 7 minute anxiety test to learn more about whether your breathing difficulties are caused by anxiety.
When to Call a Doctor
Only a doctor can assess whether your breathing problems are the result of anxiety or a heart condition. There is no harm at all to see a doctor and be certain your heart is in good shape, especially if this is the first time that you've ever had breathing trouble.
But if you've been to the doctor and you still wonder if your breathing difficulties may be caused by anxiety - _absolutely_ they can. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to see how your symptoms stack up to other people living with anxiety.
Factors that Doctors Use to Determine Anxiety or Heart-Related Breathing Problems
Remember, only a doctor can diagnose you, and even if you strongly believe it's anxiety, a simple visit can be very calming to quell any persistent worried thoughts.
When you go to the doctor, they'll look at:
- Your Medical History Is there anything in your medical history to believe you have a heart condition?
- Your Age Young men and women with no previous heart issues are unlikely to have any serious heart problems.
- Your Heart Your doctor will also listen to your heart and lungs. Listening alone is almost always enough to tell if there is a heart issue.
If your doctor has any concerns or simply wants to rule out any other issues, they may also request a blood panel and an X-ray. In almost every case, if these come up clean, you are likely to have an anxiety issue. An underlying heart condition that is not caught by that work is exceedingly rare.
Causes of Breathing Difficulty From Anxiety
Of course, when you have anxiety, your mind often tricks you into believing that you must be one of those "exceedingly rare" cases. After all, you know you have trouble getting a deep breath, and anxiety can't explain that, right?
But the reality is that trouble breathing from anxiety is profoundly common. In fact, it's one of the most common symptoms of anxiety attacks, and one that many people accidentally make worse on their own.
Trouble breathing is almost always caused by hyperventilation - an issue that many people don't understand.
How Hyperventilation Affects Breathing
When you aren't getting a full breath, it may feel like you're not getting enough oxygen, so you try to take deeper breaths. But you'd be surprised to learn that that feeling isn't caused by not getting enough of a breath - it's actually caused by getting _too much oxygen_.
The act of getting too much oxygen can make your body feels like it needs more air, causing you to try to breathe in deeper. This never works, however, because the problem is caused by an over-abundance of oxygen and not enough CO2. It may cause your hyperventilation to get worse, causing other symptoms like:
- Chest Pain
- Leg/Extremity Weakness
- Rapid Heartbeat
This is actually one of the main reasons that anxiety attacks occur. During an anxiety attack, the individual often feels like they aren't getting enough air so they try to breathe deeper. This causes the body to be depleted of CO2, which can make you feel as though you're going through a serious health problem - like a heart attack - causing a surge of anxiety that may lead to panic and numerous physical symptoms.
Hyperventilation itself is also often misunderstood. It can occur for several reasons, including:
- Fast Breathing Hyperventilation during periods of intense anxiety may occur simply because the person is breathing too quickly. They're expelling too much CO2 while letting in too much oxygen, throwing off their body's balance.
- Conscious Breathing - Another common cause is conscious breathing. Normal breathing is subconscious - your body takes in exactly as much air as it needs to function because it knows exactly how much it needs. Conscious breathing is when you think about your breathing and control how deep your breaths are. Often you think you need to take deeper breaths than you do, and this brings in more oxygen than you need. It's not uncommon to respond by yawning or trying to take even deeper breaths only to make the situation worse.
- Poor Breathing Habits Finally, while its direct cause isn't well understood, anxiety does appear to cause poor breathing habits. The most notable of which is trying to breathe in through your chest rather than your stomach, or trying to feel your ribs expand (like with a yawn). This type of breathing is inefficient and may trigger hyperventilation.
It's also possible that coughing or sitting awkwardly can lead to over-breathing, and these may also trigger the symptoms of hyperventilation.
As mentioned, usually when someone is in the process of hyperventilating and feel they can't get a deep breath, they respond by trying to breathe deeper, ultimately making their hyperventilation worse. Most symptoms of hyperventilation come after the person already has started to hyperventilate and responded to their breathing incorrectly.
Other Causes of Breathing Difficulty
Anxiety may also cause perceived breathing difficulty, simply because any time you're feeling anxious you may start breathing faster and feel that something is "wrong" even when it isn't. This is especially true of those that feel anxiety when their chest doesn't expand during a yawn.
Perceived breathing problems may also lead to real breathing problems if the person responds by trying to breathe in too much air.
How to Calm the Symptoms and Get a Deep Breath
Anytime you feel like you're unable to breathe properly, you need first to try to control the hyperventilation. It may go against your instincts, however - yawning or trying to get your chest to expand will only make it worse.
You'll need to take slower breaths so that your body can regain some of its carbon dioxide. You'll also need to breathe through your stomach, since this type of breathing is more productive.
Ideally, you actually need to take smaller and slower breaths, but that can be hard when you're in a panic because of the lightheadedness. Instead, try the following:
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. Try to fill your stomach and worry less about your chest. This should take about 5 seconds.
- Hold for a few seconds.
- Breathe out slowly through pursed lips as though you're whistling. This should take anywhere from 6 to 8 seconds.
This should help you get control of your breathing again so that you're no longer hyperventilating. Some of the secondary symptoms (like chest pains) may take a bit longer to fade, and don't be surprised if it takes a while longer for your anxiety to go away with it.
Once your breathing is under control, your next step will be to reduce your overall anxiety. First, make sure you remind yourself that hyperventilation is extremely common. It affects millions of people, and far more likely than developing a heart problem if you didn't have one already. Assuming you have already been to the doctor, the chance of you having a serious health problem is very small.
Next, make sure you start to take control of the individual symptoms of your anxiety.
I've helped thousands of people in the past with their anxiety, and the first step involves recognizing what your anxiety symptoms are, and understanding how they affect you. To do that I have people take my free 7 minute anxiety test. It costs nothing, and it will give you an opportunity to see what symptoms are common with people suffering from anxiety, as well as information on what those symptoms mean and how they can be treated.
If you haven't yet, take my 7 minute anxiety test now.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Mar 08, 2018.