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Anxiety and Respiratory Problems

Faiq Shaikh, M.D.
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:

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:

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:

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.

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