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Anxiety and Respiratory Problems

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

Anxiety and Respiratory Problems

One of the hardest parts of living with an anxiety disorder is experiencing symptoms that cause more anxiety. That's why respiratory problems caused by anxiety are perhaps the worst type of symptom. Any time you struggle with your breathing or your lungs, you're likely to experience a burst in anxiety, and that's what we often see in those that are living with anxiety disorders.

There are many different respiratory problems, each caused by different issues. In this article, we'll explore some of the most common, and then look at how you can prevent them.

Types of Anxiety Respiratory Issues

Respiration issues with anxiety tend to be related to the type of anxiety you experience. Many of them are also perceived, but not an actual problem – meaning there isn't anything wrong with your lungs or heart, but there is a sensation that makes it seem like something is wrong.

Anxiety actually changes your breathing habits. It's not clear how or why exactly people learn to breathe differently when they suffer from anxiety, but there are several issues at play:

  • Anxiety is the activation of your fight-or-flight system, which pumps adrenaline into your bloodstream. This can cause your breathing to speed up as a result, which in turn causes some of the issues that we'll discuss momentarily.
  • Anxiety can also cause you to think too much about your breathing, which makes you breathe inefficiently. This actually has many of the same effects as breathing quickly, but without necessarily speeding up each breath.

That latter point is where a lot of the confusion tends to arise. When you think about your breathing, your breathing no longer becomes an automatic process. You temporarily make it manual, which means that you're the one deciding how much to breathe and how fast.

People think they need much more air than they do, so they tend to take deeper breaths than their body needs. This has the same effect as breathing too quickly, both of which can cause an issue known as hyperventilation.

What is Hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation is the primary cause of most respiratory problems from anxiety. The word itself means "over-breathing." Many people know that a human body turns oxygen to carbon dioxide and then gets rid of it, but most don’t know that carbon dioxide is actually something your body needs. Many of the processes in your body rely on the right carbon dioxide balance in order to operate.

When you breathe too quickly, the problem isn't too much oxygen – it's too little carbon dioxide. Your body essentially breathes out its carbon dioxide before it has a chance to make more.

Hyperventilation is responsible for a number of different problems, most notably chest pains, lightheadedness, and rapid heartbeat. But it also causes several issues that relate to respiratory distress:

  • Trouble Breathing Sensation Even though hyperventilation is too much oxygen, the response by the body is to feel as though you're not getting enough oxygen. This paradoxical effect is often a problem because the person that is hyperventilating responds by trying to force deeper breaths - breaths that make hyperventilation worse. This is one of the reasons that people develop panic attacks, because they continue to hyperventilate more and more and experience a gradual worsening of symptoms.
  • Inability to Expand Chest/Need to Yawn A similar problem that is directly related to the sensation of struggling to breathe is a feeling as though you really need to yawn, but finding that when you start you're unable to expand your chest for the full yawn. This makes it feel like something is wrong with your lungs, even though in reality you simply don't need the air.

Chest pains for many are also a type of respiratory problem that is often associated with heart attacks. It's one of the reasons that many of those with anxiety develop health concerns and see a doctor.

Hyperventilation is the main cause of breathing issues associated with anxiety.

Other Respiratory Issues

Anxiety may also lead to other types of breathing problems. Because of hyperventilation, asthma attacks are notorious in those with both asthma and anxiety.

Some people find that anxiety seems to make them cough, possibly as the result of dry air or an increase in mucus. Allergies are believed to increase when someone has anxiety as well, which may also create coughing.

Finally, anxiety can lead to bloating. While bloating isn't necessarily a respiratory problem, some people claim that their bloating causes them to struggle to obtain full breaths.

How to Address Anxiety Respiratory Problems

The best way to stop these breathing problems is to stop anxiety. Since anxiety is the cause, the solution is to learn to control your anxiety, which will ultimately control your breathing. But in the meantime, consider the following tips to stop hyperventilating as often:

  • Practice Deep Breathing One method is to simply practice breathing again. Hyperventilation can actually grow into its own separate problem, known as "hyperventilation syndrome," which is when you start hyperventilating even when no anxiety is present. You can overcome this by spending 30 or so minutes a day retraining your body to breathe using slow, deep, controlled breaths. Consider taking yoga or meditation classes, as these types of activities teach better breathing habits and are more enjoyable than sitting in your apartment.
  • Learn to Stop Hyperventilating Once you've started hyperventilating it does take a while for your body to get back to normal. But in the meantime, there are ways to prevent hyperventilation from getting worse. The most important thing to remember is to fight the urge to expand your chest or breathe more oxygen than you need. Instead, slow down your breathing, taking at least 5 seconds to breathe in, holding for 2 or 3, then taking 7 seconds to breathe out. This will help you regain your carbon dioxide levels.
  • Walk/Run Sometimes it's hard if you're in the middle of a panic attack to do anything that raises your heart rate, but studies have shown that walking and running – both while you're hyperventilating and in general – seem to have positive benefits for preventing hyperventilation. Most likely the movement, blood flow, and the way your body breaths when you walk helps you regain control of your breathing and your carbon dioxide levels. Exercise is also known to reduce anxiety overall.

These strategies will give you a way to combat hyperventilation, and while they won't cure your anxiety they should decrease anxiety symptoms.

But to really get rid of the respiratory problems, you need to cure your anxiety. In order to manage anxiety, look for treatments such as therapy, medication, and self-help/lifestyle changes. There are plenty of different opportunities out there provided you are able to make the first step.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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