Is shortness of breath from anxiety?

In this blog we will address the question “is shortness of breath from anxiety?” and if so, how you can manage it.

We will also discuss what anxiety is, the symptoms of anxiety, causes and possible treatments for anxiety. 

Is shortness of breath from anxiety?

Yes, shortness of breath or dyspnea is a physical symptom of anxiety and it is triggered when an individual is feeling anxious, worried, and distressed. 

Shortness of breath as well as other breathing issues such as rapid breathing is one of the most common symptoms of anxiety and it is not as concerning because it is potentially harmless. 

However, it can be very scary for individuals who are experiencing anxiety, if they are not aware of this, as the shortness of breath can make them feel suffocated or make them feel like they are having a heart attack. 

This is often reported most by individuals who have Panic Disorder, a type of anxiety disorder, where their physical symptoms include shortness of breath along with other symptoms that resemble a heart attack. 

These symptoms often make a person feel more anxious and it is when they notice this symptoms of shortness of breath it is possible that they grow more anxious 

Anxiety and panic has a direct link to fear or stress and this, evolutionarily speaking, leads to individual behavioural and physiological changes as a way to prepare the individual to either fight or take flight. 

Because the brain is wired to respond to threats, real or imagined, with either fight or flight, the brain signals other parts of the body to respond by increasing blood flow to the muscles; this can result in shortness of breath and to compensate for this, the body begins to breathe more rapidly.

It is this mechanism, a response to stress and fear, that leads to shortness of breath when an individual is anxious. 

How can you manage shortness of breath due to anxiety?

When you have anxiety related breathing problems such as shortness of breath or accelerated or rapid breathing, you can do various things to cope or manage this symptom. 

In fact, by helping yourself manage these symptoms, it is possible that your psychological symptoms of anxiety can be reduced and even managed. 

When it comes to the mechanism of breathing, chest breathing, which is shorter and faster than usual when you are exercising, is the type of breathing that occurs when you are anxious. 

This form of breathing makes your body tense as it prepares to either fight off the threat or flee from the threat. 

Now, another type of breathing that experts usually suggest to help individuals with anxiety manage their stress and anxieties is deep breathing which involves taking long, slow, and deep abdominal breaths. 

In a 2017 study on Diaphragmatic Breathing and its effects on stress amongst other psychological functions explored how this exercise affects an individual.

The study consisted of a group of participants, 40 participants from an IT company in Beijing, and the group was divided into control group and intervention group where the breathing exercises were introduced and taught. 

The intervention group underwent intensive training for 20 sessions over 8 weeks while the control group did not receive any training. For the study both groups were given pre and post tests related to attention, affect, and stress, 

The study found that the intervention group reported lower levels of negative affect, greater sustained attention and focus, and lower levels of cortisol- stress hormone- which indicated that they were less stressed after the 8 weeks were up. 

The researchers of this study concluded that this  study was evidence that diaphramic breathing  has a positive impact on the mind and the body.

Because Deep breathing allows more oxygen flow, it can also help reduce blood pressure, heart rate, and also relax one’s body muscles and in effect, relax and reduce anxiety in the individual.

So, experts advise that when an individual is affected by stress or anxiety it is best that they engage in deep breathing exercises along with other mindfulness activities. One way with which you can practice this type of breathing exercise include:

  • Sit up comfortably in a chair or lie back on a flat surface
  • Place one hand on your upper chest and the other below your rib cage so that you can feel your diaphragm. 
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose so your stomach moves out.
  • Tighten your stomach muscles. 
  • As you exhale, let your stomach muscles fall inward through your nose or your mouth.
  • Continue to take deep breaths in and out for five to ten minutes a day. 

It is also important to note that It’s also normal to get tired or feel like it’s a lot of effort when you first begin this practice.

While deep breathing is an excellent way to help you cope with shortness of breath, you also have to remember that anxiety symptoms are often a result of deeper, more serious conditions and it could be possible that your symptoms could be a result of an anxiety disorder which is a medical condition. 

Thus, the best thing you can do for yourself, if you epiences shortness of breath and other anxiety conditions is that you seek out assessment and treatment from a professional who can provide you with psychotherapy or counselling treatments as well as pharmacological treatments if needed. 

What is anxiety?

Anxiety refers to the body’s natural response to stress and it involves a fear or apprehension of a possible threat. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as 

“…an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”

According to this definition, anxiety involves emotions, thoughts, and physiological reactions to a stressor or a state of stress. 

It is a normal response that many people have as a mechanism developed to help people survive and it is what triggers our flight or fight response in the face of danger.

However, when there is no apparent threat and this state of apprehension is caused by triggers that are inappropriate to the anxious response or this state persists for more than six months, it could be possible that the anxiety has developed into a disorder or that in its indication of a negative state of well-being. 

Anxiety that is persistent is a key part of several anxiety disorders identified by the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for mental disorders. 

The various types of anxiety disorders include:

  • Panic disorder where the disorder is characterised by recurring panic attacks at unexpected times and individuals usually live in fear of the next panic attack.
  • Specific phobia Disorder where the individual has inappropriate and excessive fear of a specific object, situation, or activity
  • Social anxiety disorder where individual experiences anxiety symptoms related to the extreme fear of being judged by others in social situations
  • General Anxiety disorder where the individual has a pervasive pattern of excessive, irrational, and inappropriate worry or tension regarding various aspects of their lives. 

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

Here are the commonly reported symptoms of general anxiety:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Excess perspiration
  • Rapid breathing
  • Restlessness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Nightmares or sleep terrors
  • Anxious thoughts and worry
  • Intrusive thoughts about a possible or imagined threat. 

For an individual to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders, these symptoms along with others should be persistent for at least a specific amount of time and should cause dysfunction in all areas of their lives. 

What causes anxiety?

When it comes to the causes of anxiety disorders, possible links have been made. These probable causes include:

  • Stress from work, relationships, family issues
  • Genetics vulnerability
  • Family history
  • Childhood experiences
  • Life experiences
  • Medical factors such as a medical condition that causes the stress or effects of a medication. 
  • Brain chemistry and structure. 
  • Withdrawal from a substance
  • Trauma 
  • Loss and death

What are the treatments available for anxiety?

If your symptoms are debilitating or severe to the point where it is getting in the way of your day to day life, the most advisable thing you can do is to seek treatment from a mental health professional.

Various treatment options for anxiety include:

Cognitive behavioural therapy

In terms of Cognitive behavioural therapies your therapist will teach you how to regulate your negative and irrational thoughts when you come across triggers. 

As you engage in therapy you will start learning to alter your thoughts, develop an awareness of how you feel, and as a consequence the way you react in situations where you are faced with a real or imagined trigger. 

Rational Emotive Behavioural therapy

REBT is an action-oriented type of CBT that addresses unhealthy or irrational beliefs and attitudes that influence thoughts,  emotions, and behaviours. 

It follows the ABC model of developing an awareness about the processes that influenced the development of the phobia such as the activating event, the beliefs that were developed as a result and the consequences of those beliefs. 

It uses a method known as “disputing” to assist individuals develop realistic and healthy beliefs and as a consequence develop the ability to rationalise their thoughts and their emotional and behavioural responses as well. 

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) 

MBSR is an evidence-based program that involves mindfulness training to help people who are suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues. 

MBSR could be helpful in helping individuals deal with their phobia as it has been found to be effective in tackling anxiety issues in most cases. 

The program involves teaching and training individuals to develop skills to cope with the anxiety or to reduce the intensity of the anxiety. 

Pharmacological treatment

If your anxiety is extremely severe your doctor may prescribe you antidepressants or an anti-anxiety medication to assist your treatment, your panic, and other physical symptoms.

These medications will most probably be prescribed to you in the case that you have been diagnosed with the disorder, meaning that the anxiety has now affected your life significantly. 

Conclusion

In this blog we have addressed the question “is shortness of breath from anxiety?” and if so, how you can manage it.

We have also discussed what anxiety is, the symptoms of anxiety, causes and possible treatments for anxiety. 

Faq related to Is shortness of breath from anxiety?

What does the symptom shortness of breath mean?

Shortness of breath can indicate:

  • Heart and lung problems. 
  • Anxiety
  • Allergies
  • Asthma.
  • Flu

What is the most common cause of shortness of breath?

Most common cause of shortness of breath is asthma. 

How do you know if shortness of breath is serious?

In case you notice chest pain, fainting, nausea, a bluish tinge to lips or nails, or a change in mental alertness along with shortness of breath, seek medical attention immediately.

References

Elmer.J. How Anxiety Can Cause Shortness of Breath and What You Can Do. Healthline. Retrieved on 3rd February 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/shortness-of-breath-anxiety

Well.D. Anxiety: Breathing Problems and Exercises. Healthline. Retrieved on 3rd February 2022. https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/anxiety-breathing


Caporuscio. J. What’s the link between anxiety and shortness of breath? Medicalnewstoday. Retrieved on 3rd February 2022. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326831

Felman. A. What to know about anxiety. Medicalnewstoday. Retrieved on 3rd February 2022. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323454#what-is-anxiety

Ma X, Yue ZQ, Gong ZQ, et al. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Front Psychol. 2017;8:874. Published 2017 Jun 6. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874

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