Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions, affecting about 12% of people in the U.S. If you live with anxiety, you may experience symptoms such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and shortness of breath.
Feeling short of breath can be scary. If you have additional symptoms such as chest pain, seek medical attention. However, if your shortness of breath is solely caused by anxiety, you can take action to manage it.
In this article, I’ll explain why anxiety may lead to shortness of breath and how to identify its cause. I’ll also cover breathing exercises that can help, other treatment options, and when to see your provider.
Can Anxiety Cause Shortness of Breath?
Anxiety causes a wide range of symptoms that vary from person to person. One of the physical symptoms is shortness of breath. However, many other health conditions also cause shortness of breath, so having it doesn’t definitively mean you have anxiety. If your shortness of breath is accompanied by other anxiety symptoms, you may be experiencing anxiety.
What Causes Shortness of Breath From Anxiety?
This occurs because when you experience heightened levels of anxiety, it activates the body’s fight-or-flight response. This can cause symptoms such as shortness of breath.
If you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder , you likely won’t feel short of breath all the time. You might experience it during particular stressful or worrying situations or during a panic attack.
Breathing Exercises to Reduce Anxiety
Breathing exercises can help reduce anxiety, but experts don’t know exactly why or how they work. There are several different types of breathing exercises, so if you want to incorporate this skill, choose the one that works best for you.
If you’re new to mindfulness and breathing modulation, a great place to start is diaphragmatic breathing. This relatively well-researched technique can help people reduce stress and anxiety. You can practice diaphragmatic breathing by following these steps:
- Sit or lie down and place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly.
- Take a slow, deep inhale through the nose. This should last about six seconds. Focus on keeping the chest still and inhaling through the diaphragm.
- Exhale from the mouth and repeat.
Other Tips for Reducing Anxiety
Other simple practices and lifestyle habits may help reduce anxiety. While these may not provide short-term relief for shortness of breath, they may improve long-term anxiety symptoms.
Research has shown that regular exercise can improve anxiety symptoms long-term. Any type of physical activity that you enjoy can help.
Self care means taking the time to take care of yourself. This could be going for a walk, sipping a cup of tea, reading a book, taking a bath, or spending time in nature.
Distraction techniques take your mind off of what’s currently happening. These techniques include:
- Watching a video
- Listening to music or a podcast
- Drawing, painting, or coloring
- Physical activity
- Guided meditation or breathing practice
Talking to yourself
If you’re experiencing severe anxiety, talking to yourself—whether out loud or in your head—can help. Much like a mindful distraction, this can redirect your thoughts and help you focus on what is actually happening.
Grounding techniques can help you reconnect with your body when you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms. They help you focus on the here and now, and they may be helpful if you’re experiencing a panic attack. You can try:
- Talking out loud: Talk through what day it is, where you are, your physical surroundings, and how your body feels.
- Visualization: Visualize turning down the volume on your emotions. Think about how this makes your body feel.
- Fist clenching: Clench your fists. Then imagine your emotions and anxiety going away as you unclench.
- Distraction: Use physical things in your space to distract yourself. You can also try counting down from 100, touching physical objects, and other distraction techniques discussed above.
Symptoms of Anxiety
There are a variety of anxiety symptoms, and people often experience them in different ways. If you have anxiety, you can have a combination of physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms.
Physical symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Stomach upset
- Hot flashes
Cognitive symptoms include:
- Fear of loss of control, injury, or death
- Worrying thoughts
- Scary mental images
- Poor memory
- Poor concentration
- Trouble speaking
Emotional symptoms include feeling:
- Nervous and tense
- Jittery and impatient
Behavioral symptoms include:
- Avoiding situations
- Seeking safety
- Changes in sleep or appetite
Causes of Shortness of Breath
Although anxiety may lead to shortness of breath, it’s not the only cause. Other causes include:
- Heart failure
- Cardiac tamponade (fluid around the heart)
- Acute myocardial ischemia (heart blockage)
- Bronchospasm (constricting airway in lungs)
- Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in lungs)
- Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
- Upper airway blockages
These are all serious conditions that require immediate medical attention.
Providers usually treat anxiety disorders with a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
The types of psychotherapy commonly used to treat anxiety include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This teaches you different ways of thinking and reacting to situations in order to reduce anxiety. It is considered the “gold standard” form of psychotherapy.
- Exposure therapy: This type of CBT exposes you to the underlying fears that contribute to your experience of anxiety.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): This uses mindfulness and goal setting to improve anxiety symptoms.
Your provider will choose the right medication for you based on your symptoms, medical history, age, and other health conditions. They will likely choose one of the following:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): Considered a first-line treatment, these are also used to treat depression. They include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), and escitalopram (Lexapro).
- Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): These are another first-line treatment for anxiety. They include venlafaxine (Effexor) and duloxetine (Cymbalta).
- Tricyclic antidepressants: While effective, these may cause significant side effects. They include amitriptyline (Elavil), imipramine (Tofranil), and nortriptyline (Pamelor).
- Benzodiazepines: Providers may typically only prescribe these for short-term use, as they provide quick relief for panic attacks. They include clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium), and alprazolam (Xanax).
- Beta-blockers: These are used to treat physical symptoms like increased heart rate, dizziness, and shaking.
- Buspirone: This is a slow-acting tranquilizer that takes two weeks to start working.
When to See a Medical Provider
Contact your provider if you have symptoms of anxiety. Additionally, if you have any of the following symptoms in addition to shortness of breath, seek immediate medical attention:
How K Health Can Help
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K Health also offers anxiety medication for the right candidates.
Online therapists are also available in select states for individualized care. Connect with a licensed mental health therapist for unlimited asynchronous text-based therapy. Therapists respond Monday through Friday between 9am-5pm, within 24-hours.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety. (2013.)
Grounding Techniques. (2014.)
Panic Disorder. (2022.)
Physiology, Stress Reaction. (2021.)
Relationship of Anxiety and Depression with Respiratory Symptoms: Comparison between Depressed and Non-Depressed Smokers in Singapore. (2019.)
The breathing conundrum – interoceptive sensitivity and anxiety. (2013.)