When you're having an anxiety attack, it can feel like you're struggling for air. You might start to worry: is there something seriously wrong with my body? You may even wonder if you are dying. Here's how to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety, and when you should seek medical attention.
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Anxiety is associated with a range of both physical and psychological symptoms.
Physical symptoms may include:
Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
Nausea or stomach aches
Frequent bowel movements
Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
Psychological symptoms can include feeling:
Restless and on edge
Sad or depressed
Unable to concentrate
While shortness of breath is commonly associated with anxiety, it can also be a symptom of severe medical problems, such as heart attacks or pulmonary embolisms. However, if it is anxiety that is causing you to experience shortness of breath, it will usually go away once you've calmed down.
If you experience severe anxiety, it is also often possible for you to identify a trigger or cause that resulted in the onset of symptoms. Depending on the severity of the trigger, it may take several hours before you feel normal again. However, anxiety and panic can both occur without any known cause.
Anxiety is often exacerbated by:
Stress or pressure at work
Learning new skills
Dealing with other health problems
Concerns for friends or family
If you experience shortness of breath after dealing with a stressful event, it's probably due to anxiety. As you engage in relaxing activities, such as taking long deep breaths, yoga, or a gentle walk, and separating yourself from the stress, your breath should return to normal. If it doesn't, or you find yourself becoming breathless multiple times a day, you should talk to your doctor.
Anxiety can put excessive stress on the body and make you vulnerable to other illnesses. Studies show¹ that anxiety disorder can negatively affect the immune, cardiovascular, digestive, reproductive, and sleep systems. Therefore, if your levels of anxiety are consistently high, you should talk to a mental health professional to get the support you need.
Apart from anxiety, shortness of breath has also been linked to chronic diseases and disorders, including:
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
While these can be serious conditions, rest assured that shortness of breath isn't the only symptom. Serious diseases don't just appear out of the blue. They are usually accompanied by other physical symptoms that you experience over a longer period of time. If you are concerned that your shortness of breath isn't caused by anxiety, ask your doctor for guidance.
Shortness of breath can also have other causes, including:
Cold or other respiratory infections
Injuries like broken ribs
Extremely hot or cold temperatures
Adverse reactions to medication
Strenuous physical activity
When your body experiences anxiety, it goes into fight-or-flight mode to protect itself from an immediate threat. It releases adrenaline, a hormone that pumps blood to your muscles and causes your body temperature to rise. It also sends most of your oxygen to your muscles, which is why you may feel short of breath.
However, unlike an immediate danger, an anxiety trigger isn't always easily identified. This can make it more difficult for your body to know when the danger has passed, so it may take you a while to relax. Additionally, symptoms of anxiety, such as shortness of breath, often lead you to feel more anxious, so it can become a cycle.
In the first instance, it may relieve some of your worries if you can rule out any serious diseases. Talk to your doctor about getting a physical exam, blood tests, lung function tests, or chest X-rays to check for any underlying issues. You can also talk to your doctor about medication to help ease the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Another way in which you can manage anxiety is through psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT teaches you how to deal with the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that may be causing you to feel anxious. You will also learn effective coping mechanisms and how to de-escalate stressful situations. Joining a support group or group therapy program can also be helpful.
Social interaction is also one of the best ways to manage anxiety. Reaching out to friends and family to let them know how you are feeling can often lead to encouraging conversations and support. You may even learn that some of your loved ones are having similar struggles and you can support each other. You should also try to cut out as many unnecessary stressors from your daily life as possible, get adequate sleep, and eat a healthy diet to help you better deal with your anxious symptoms.
When anxiety sets in, take a deep breath by inhaling deeply into your stomach and exhaling slowly to slow down your breathing and lower your heart rate. Deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which calms your fight-or-flight response. You may also benefit from meditation or other grounding techniques, like squeezing stress balls.
Most of the time, a wave of anxiety will pass on its own without medical attention. However, if you experience any of the following you should urgently seek help:
Extremely painful chest heaviness
Prolonged racing heartbeat
High-pitched wheezes when trying to breathe
Swollen feet or ankles
Blue fingers or lips
Inability to think clearly
Pain in your left arm
Shortness of breath is one of the many uncomfortable physical symptoms of anxiety, but it's almost always temporary. Therapy, meditation, breathing exercises, and making healthy lifestyle changes can help you to manage shortness of breath. However, if you are experiencing frequent anxiety attacks, which can affect your long-term physical health, contact your doctor as soon as possible.