In some situations, feeling short of breath is expected, like while doing exercise.
However, experiencing anxiety without any physical exertion can also make a person feel short of breath.
In this article, I’ll talk about shortness of breath and how anxiety may trigger it.
I’ll also go over reasons other than anxiety that a person may feel short of breath and when it’s essential to seek medical attention.
What is Shortness of Breath?
It can be terrifying, especially when you don’t know why you feel short of breath.
Under normal circumstances, the brain subconsciously controls your breathing based on your level of activity and whether you are talking, eating, resting, etc.
However, one unique thing about breathing is that you can also consciously control it. For example, you can hold your breath while jumping into water or hold that high note while singing in the shower.
When you feel short of breath, sometimes the reason is obvious; for example, when you are exercising and exerting a lot of energy, or if you’re at a higher than normal altitude.
Other times, however, the cause may not be as clear.
Anxiety and Shortness of Breath
Anxiety can be a cause of shortness of breath. It is a feeling of uneasiness, fear, or dread, and is a normal stress reaction.
A person may become anxious when doing things like taking an exam, making an important decision, or giving a presentation.
Anxiety may cause you to feel:
- Racing heartbeat
- Short of breath
Though they’re unpleasant in the moment, these signs of anxiety can also be helpful; they alert you to what you’re feeling and may also help you focus on finding a way to cope.
The problem is when anxiety (and its symptoms) becomes chronic.
It can also worsen over time and interfere with your relationships, job, and schoolwork, as well as your ability to enjoy activities you love.
When anxiety gets to this level, it’s called an anxiety disorder.
There are several types of anxiety disorders:
- Panic disorder is when people experience sudden, repeated episodes of feeling intense fear, even when there may not be any actual danger. These periods can come on quickly and last several minutes or longer, and can make a person feel short of breath.
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is when a person worries excessively about everyday issues such as money, family, work, and health. When these excessive worries occur daily for at least six months, it is considered GAD.
- Phobias are when a person has an extreme fear of something, including things that may not pose much danger to them in reality. Examples are having a fear of spiders, small or crowded spaces, flying, or being in social situations (social anxiety). When faced with a phobia, a person may experience shortness of breath and other symptoms.
Researchers don’t know the cause of anxiety disorders but believe your genetics, brain biology, environment, and stress level may play a role.
Other Causes of Shortness of Breath
Several other causes of shortness of breath relate to the lungs and heart.
This causes tightness in the chest, wheezing, and coughing. Usually, exposure to an asthma trigger is what causes an asthma attack.
Asthma triggers can be different for each person.
Some triggers are allergens like dust, mold, or pets. Breathing in cold air, tobacco smoke, or household chemicals are non-allergenic triggers.
Breathing in chemicals or industrial dust at work causes occupational asthma.
Exercise can also induce an asthma attack in some people, especially when the air is dry.
The lungs are where the all-important gas exchange takes place.
The blood releases carbon dioxide from the body and brings in fresh oxygen.
A disease in the lungs can make this gas exchange more difficult, making a person feel short of breath.
Examples of respiratory diseases include:
- Lung cancer
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Damage to the lung tissues makes breathing difficult and can cause shortness of breath.
Scarring and damage can be caused by toxins like asbestosis or smoking, or by illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis or cystic fibrosis.
A blood clot in the lungs, called a pulmonary embolism, causes sudden shortness of breath, rapid breathing, and chest pain.
A pneumothorax is when one of the lungs spontaneously collapses. This causes sudden shortness of breath and chest pain.
Your heart is the pump that moves oxygenated blood around your body.
When it’s not pumping correctly and not enough oxygen is getting to the body, you can start to feel short of breath. Several heart conditions can cause this to happen.
Heart failure is when the heart isn’t able to fill with blood and pump as well as it needs to.
Usually this happens because of damage to the heart muscle from a heart attack, problem with a heart valve, from toxins like alcohol or street drugs, or even some viral infections.
Symptoms include trouble breathing lying down, coughing at night, swelling of the ankles or legs, fatigue with activity, and water retention.
Other heart problems can include:
- Cardiac arrhythmias
- Problem with a heart valve
- Heart attack
Low blood pressure
Your organs require a certain amount of continual fresh oxygen flow to stay alive.
Your blood vessels and heart need to maintain a certain level of pressure inside them to keep blood flowing.
When you have low blood pressure, your brain and the other tissues of your body won’t get enough oxygen. When this happens, signals are sent to your brain telling it you need to take in more oxygen.
Sudden low blood pressure can be caused by shock, a sudden loss of blood, severe infection (sepsis), or a severe allergic reaction.
Other causes of low blood pressure include:
- Drinking alcohol
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Some heart medications
- Opioid painkillers
- Blood pressure medications
Other symptoms of low blood pressure include feeling light headed, dizzy, weak, or confused. Seek medical treatment if you believe you are having low blood pressure.
Treating Shortness of Breath Caused by Anxiety
If you find yourself feeling short of breath because of anxiety, get to a comfortable seated position and take deep breaths.
Place your hand on your stomach and breathe deep into your belly as you breathe deeply, then exhale.
Remind yourself that you have experienced anxiety before and have made it through.
Keep your thoughts in the present; try noticing what is around you, listen to a song that calms you down, or repeat a positive affirmation or mantra.
Talking to yourself can help you start to calm down.
Going forward, if you are experiencing shortness of breath from anxiety regularly, it’s time to seek some medical help.
Your primary medical provider may refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist, or clinical social worker so you can be correctly diagnosed.
Typically, anxiety disorders are treated through talk therapy (also called psychotherapy), with medications, and sometimes both.
Talk therapy can help you learn different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to the feelings of fear that would typically make you short of breath.
Once you start learning how to react differently, the attacks become less frequent.
Some medications may help treat your anxiety as well.
- Antidepressants such as serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are commonly used to treat anxiety. They can take a few weeks to start working. Side effects are typically mild but if they bother you, speak with your medical professional about trying a different medication.
- Beta blockers are not as commonly used to treat anxiety but in some cases they can help treat the physical reactions of anxiety, like a racing heart and rapid breathing.
- Anti-anxiety medications such as benzodiazepines are sedative medications that are very effective at stopping an anxiety attack. They do need to be used with caution, however, as a person can build a tolerance to them or become dependent on them.
Both talk therapy and medication can take time to help, and sometimes multiple medications need to be tried to find the right fit; however, if you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s worth talking to your healthcare provider and sticking it out until you find something that works for you.
Help yourself by learning about your anxiety disorder.
Get enough sleep every night and try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. Eat a balanced diet and get yourself outside and moving during the day as well.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
If your anxiety or someone you love has anxiety that is interfering with work, school, relationships, or ability to perform daily tasks, it’s time to seek medical help.
Seek immediate medical care if you are experiencing shortness of breath along with these other symptoms:
- Chest pain
- Discomfort in arms, neck, and jaw
- Unusual swelling in your legs
- Blue discoloration of the lips or fingertips
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Breathing problems. (2016.)
Low blood pressure. (2021.)
Panic disorder: When fear overwhelms. (2022.)
Shortness of breath. (2003.)