Reviewed by Heather Cashell, LCSW
While shortness of breath has been a concern in the past, it has risen to a new level this year in light of the pandemic for several reasons. First, coronavirus has caused a lot of worry and anxiety in people all over the world. And on top of that, it can also cause shortness of breath. That leaves many people wondering, “Is my shortness of breath anxiety related? Or is it something more?”
While some people only think of anxiety's emotional aspect, many physical symptoms are related to it. The more you understand anxiety, the easier it will be for you to determine if you’re experiencing symptoms of it and what you can do to stop it.
Can Anxiety Cause Shortness Of Breath?
The quick answer is—yes. Anxiety and breathing can have a connection. When you start to feel anxious, it can trigger a domino effect of symptoms throughout your body. Understanding what those symptoms are and how they impact one another can help you learn how to put a stop to them. This can, in turn, help you overcome your anxiety symptoms.
Symptoms Of Anxiety
The emotional symptoms of anxiety can include things like fear and worry. You may notice that it becomes harder to keep your attention on your work when you’re feeling anxious. You may also notice that it impacts how you feel about many other areas of your life when you feel anxious. For example, you may start to worry about finances, health, the weather, what your friends think about you, and so much more.
Those are examples of a few of the mental/emotional symptoms you may experience when dealing with anxiety. However, many physical symptoms play a part as well.
Some of the common physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
- Rapid heart rate
- Shakiness or weakness
- Digestive trouble
- Fatigue or low energy
What Role Does Anxiety Breathing Play?
When anxiety hits, one of the first symptoms that most people experience is rapid breathing and increased heart rate. This is not an intended response. Your body does this automatically in response to the stressor that you’re facing.
When you are under stress and feeling anxious, your body tends to start the fight or flight response. This is your body’s natural way of trying to keep you safe.
Imagine that you lived thousands of years ago. There were many more natural dangers that you may have faced in daily life, such as crossing paths with a wild and dangerous animal. In a situation like that, you need to be able to react and react quickly. There’s no time to process through the situation.
So, your body helps you out. During the fight or flight response, your body is preparing to help you act quickly the best that it can. That’s why you most likely notice that your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes faster and shallower. Your body is preparing to run if it needs to, so it’s making sure your body has the oxygen it needs.
What Happens Next
Once you experience those initial symptoms of the fight or flight response, it can trigger other symptoms as well if you’re faced with an immediate life or death situation. You act on those feelings and responses, which allows your body to slowly begin to return to normal.
However, these days, when you experience anxiety and stress, it’s not a life or death situation. This means that you may stay in higher levels of anxiety for longer periods.
You may start to notice that you feel lightheaded and have a hard time concentrating. Physical symptoms may start to kick in also like lack of sleep, change in eating habits, headaches, stomachaches, and anxiety symptoms.
These symptoms, like shortness of breath, can also increase the anxiety that you feel. When your anxiety increases, your symptoms, including shortness of breath, can increase as well. This can become a cycle that may feel like it’s spinning out of control.
How To Get Rid Of Shortness Of Breath From Anxiety
Because shortness of breath tends to be one of the first symptoms that people experience, it's an important symptom to address because it’s connected with triggering other symptoms. If you’re experiencing hyperventilation, anxiety symptoms will be difficult to control. Therefore, if you address your breathing first, it will help you address the other symptoms.
When it comes to breathing for anxiety, you can try several different strategies that are popular—one of the reasons that deep breathing exercises for anxiety work are for a couple of different reasons.
The first is that when you focus on your breathing, it helps to take your mind off the things that you are anxious about. The simple act of shifting your focus is sometimes all that you need to help settle some of the feelings and slow the stressor's natural response.
The other reason is that when you slow your breath, it helps to stop the domino effect of other physical symptoms. As your breathing slows, it can help your heart rate to return to normal. When you practice deep breathing regularly to handle anxiety in a healthy way, you may find that you don’t experience the other symptoms you used to struggle with.
Here are a few deep breathing exercises to try:
Breathe Through Your Nose
This might seem like an obvious tip, but when you’re feeling high levels of anxiety, you’re more likely to breathe through your mouth. As your breathing quickens, you may find that you start to hyperventilate. When this happens, you may start gulping in oxygen.
The simple act of breathing through your nose can help to signal your brain that it’s time to calm down. While you’re doing it, it also helps to focus on beginning to slow your breath even more. This will naturally happen somewhat since you can’t take in the same amount of oxygen at one time as mouth breathing, but it also helps to be intentional about it.
To practice belly breathing, simply sit up in a chair, lay down, and place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest. As you breathe in, focus on feeling your hands rise. Then, breathe out, using your hand to gently push the air out of your belly as you exhale.
Take your time through the process and repeat it between three and ten times, paying attention to how you feel.
Count Down Breathing
You’ve probably heard of counting down from ten when you’re angry, but what about when you’re feeling anxious? You can use the same strategy to fight the feelings of fear and worry.
When you feel your anxiety starting to rise, and you start to experience shortness of breath, find a quiet place, and do the following:
- Go to a quiet place if you can.
- Close your eyes.
- Breathe in a while thinking the word “relax” (or choose a word that helps calm you).
- Slowly breathe out and think of the word “ten.”
- With each additional breath, count down the rest of the way until you hit “”
Box Breathing ForAnxiety
The idea of box breathing is simply breathing in for a four-count, holding it for a four-count, and exhaling for a four-count. Then, you wait four seconds before you breathe in again. The goal is to work towards doing this breathing technique for four minutes, or until you feel the anxiety and stress feelings leaving. However, you may not be able to start there.
This breathing technique can leave some people feeling a little dizzy if they do it for too long. This is one of the last things you want if you’re already struggling with anxiety symptoms. So, when you’re just starting, you can start with just doing several rounds of this type of breathing. Then you can work up towards being able to do it for longer.
While the breathing techniques above can help, it can also help to be intentional about paying attention to how you’re breathing when you feel anxious. If you notice that you’re feeling short of breath or taking quick, short breaths, work on slowing it down.
Do I Have Anxiety?
If you struggle with shortness of breath and other symptoms but aren’t sure if you’re struggling with anxiety, you can take this anxiety quiz to see if it might be responsible for your symptoms.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, these breathing techniques may help. But you may also benefit from seeking other types of treatment. There are lifestyle changes you can make to support your mental health and wellness. You may also benefit from working with a therapist to help overcome anxiety.