How to Tell If Shortness of Breath Is From Anxiety

By Jill Kapil, Psy.D.
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September 20, 2022

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. 

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What Causes Shortness of Breath From Anxiety?

Although anxiety is a mental health condition, it can cause physical symptoms, including respiratory problems, according to a 2019 study

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.

Exercise

Research has shown that regular exercise can improve anxiety symptoms long-term. Any type of physical activity that you enjoy can help.

Self care

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.

Mindful distractions

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
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • 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

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
  • Nausea
  • Stomach upset
  • Shaking
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes

Cognitive symptoms include:

  • Fear of loss of control, injury, or death
  • Worrying thoughts
  • Scary mental images
  • Confusion
  • Detachment
  • Poor memory 
  • Poor concentration
  • Trouble speaking

Emotional symptoms include feeling:

  • Nervous and tense
  • Scared
  • Worried
  • Jittery and impatient

Behavioral symptoms include:

  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Pacing
  • 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)
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Upper airway blockages

These are all serious conditions that require immediate medical attention.

Anxiety Treatments

Providers usually treat anxiety disorders with a combination of psychotherapy and medication.

Psychotherapy

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.

Medications

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.
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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:

  • Chest pain
  • Worsening shortness of breath
  • Fever and chills
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of extremities

How K Health Can Help

Want mental health support? Get connected to care in minutes. K Therapy offers free smart chats, which are dynamic, pre-written conversations designed by experts that cover a number of common mental health topics such as depression, anxiety, stress, relationships, and more. Access them for free by downloading the K Therapy app.

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

What does anxiety shortness of breath feel like?
Anxiety shortness of breath may feel like you can’t catch your breath. You may also have a tight feeling in your chest or have shallow breathing.
How do you get rid of shortness of breath from anxiety?
One of the most effective ways to manage anxiety shortness of breath is breathing exercises. You can practice these on your own or use a guided meditation in an app. Additionally, you can try exercise, self care, and mindful distractions.
How do you know if you have shortness of breath from anxiety or asthma?
If your shortness of breath is caused by anxiety, you will likely experience other anxiety symptoms. Shortness of breath caused by asthma may be accompanied by other asthma symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and rapid heartbeat.

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.

Jill Kapil, Psy.D.

Dr. Jill Sorathia Kapil is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in California. She completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology with a minor in Education from the University of California, Irvine; and received her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from CSPP, San Diego (California School of Professional Psychology). Dr. Kapil completed her predoctoral and postdoctoral training at various College/University Health Centers across California, and has been licensed as a Psychologist since 2016.

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