Anxiety itself can already be troubling, but when that anxiety affects the way you feel about your own health, it becomes a tremendous burden. It's not uncommon for many people suffering from anxiety and anxiety attacks to feel as though they have health issues, and one of the main contributing symptoms is a shortness of breath.
Shortness of breath is a common symptom of an anxiety disorder, especially if anxiety affects the way you breath. In this article, we'll take a look at the causes of shortness of breath, how to cope with it, and how to prevent it from occurring.
Are You Short of Breath from Anxiety?
Shortness of breath can be frightening. In some cases, shortness of breath causes anxiety, while in others, shortness of breath is caused by anxiety. Many times it is both.
To get an idea if your shortness of breath is related to an anxiety disorder, take the free 7 minute anxiety test I developed specifically to give you a snapshot of your anxiety.
There are several health issues, unrelated to anxiety, that can cause shortness of breath. These include common conditions like asthma and allergies, as well as less common conditions like pneumonia, emphysema, and heart conditions.
But even when shortness of breath is caused by a health condition, it can still lead to anxiety, because hyperventilation and trouble breathing can trigger anxiety attacks. When shortness of breath is caused by anxiety, you need to treat the anxiety first. If you haven't yet, take my 7 minute anxiety test to see if your breathing difficulty is likely related to anxiety.
Causes of Shortness of Breath
Anxiety related breathing issues tend to be a result of hyperventilation. Hyperventilation is also known as "overbreathing," and it occurs when your body is receiving too much oxygen and is expelling too much carbon dioxide.
Even though the bodies need oxygen, healthy carbon dioxide levels are still important. When you are taking in too much air and letting out too much oxygen, it can cause your body to feel like you're not breathing enough. Anxiety hyperventilation is often caused by one of two issues:
- Breathing too fast, such as during an anxiety attack when your body is in fight/flight mode.
- Thinking about your breathing, which may cause you to take in more air then you need.
The latter is common in people with health anxieties and panic attacks. These individuals are often concerned about their health so they start to control their own breathing, and ultimately try to take in too much air in order to feel their chest expand for a full breath. The body often doesn't need that much air, and shortness of breath occurs.
Shortness of Breath and Other Physical Sensations
Unfortunately for many people, this shortness of breath is often accompanied by other health scares. Hyperventilation, anxiety, and shortness of breath can cause other issues like chest pain, dizziness, and lightheadedness. These are very similar sensations that occur when something is wrong with your health, so this often makes the shortness of breath worse.
If you have anxiety, it's also possible to have shortness of breath even when you're not feeling anxious. That's because anxiety can alter the way you breathe, and cause hyperventilation without any triggers.
Coping With Shortness of Breath From Anxiety
Those that are experiencing severe shortness of breath may still want to see a doctor. Shortness of breath is a common problem with anxiety, but only a medical professional can give you an accurate diagnosis. For those whose shortness of breath is caused by anxiety, you'll need to take two approaches:
- Short term coping.
- Long term coping.
In the short term, you'll need to make sure that you breathe healthy and avoid the temptation to over-breathe. During an panic attack, you may simply need to wait it out - they generally peak after 10 minutes and subside soon after. You can also try the following:
- Slow, Stomach Breaths Slowing your breathing so that you're actually breathing a bit less can be a big help. Try to breathe in and out slowly, and don't worry about yawning or filling up your chest with air. Instead, breathe in through your stomach slowly, hold for a few seconds, and breathe out very slowly through your mouth. This should help you maintain better CO2 levels.
- Distractions Recall that for many people, shortness of breath is caused by thinking about your own breathing. Distractions can put breathing back in your body's control. Turn on the TV or call someone you know - anything to distract your mind so that your subconscious takes control of your breathing again.
- Go Walk Similar to distractions, walking (and jogging, although jogging can be hard for people going through an anxiety attack) gets your heart rate up a bit, and challenges your body to breathe normally. Often the mind and body go back on autopilot and you get correct breaths again. It may also provide you with the distractions you need, especially if there is enough around you visually.
Shortness of breath, when related to anxiety, will go away once your breathing returns to a normal rate. If you can control overcompensating by trying to get too much air, you should be able to get your breathing to feel natural again.
Long Term Treatment for Shortness of Breath
In the long term, the key is to get both your breathing and your anxiety under control.
Breathing strategies tend to focus on "retraining" the mind to breathe correctly. Many experts recommend deep breathing exercises. They're a form of relaxation exercise that involves sitting still and learning to breathe slowly through your stomach instead of your chest. It's strongly believed that doing so will train your body to breathe better, and ultimately prevent hyperventilation. Yoga and meditation also have deep breathing components, and these can help you retrain the way you breathe.
You'll also need to learn to control your anxiety specifically. To do his, you need to figure out what type of anxiety issues you're suffering from, and then treat the anxiety directly. There's no overnight cure for anxiety, but as soon as your anxiety is permanently cured, your physical symptoms should completely go away.
In the past I've worked with thousands of people that were hoping to control their anxiety, but before you can even begin, it's critical that you take the 7 minute anxiety test. It's free, and I designed it to help you get an idea of what your anxiety is and how it's affecting you so that you can treat it and rid yourself of shortness of breath once and for all.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jul 09, 2018.