Acera Health

Is My Shortness of Breath Anxiety? - How to Tell

Reviewed by: Melody Stone
Headache, stress and business woman with tech glitch, wifi problem and anxiety about connection. An.

Experiencing shortness of breath can be alarming, especially when it occurs suddenly and without an obvious cause. Many people immediately think of physical health issues such as heart or lung problems. However, shortness of breath can also be a symptom of anxiety. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, and many of these individuals experience physical symptoms, including shortness of breath. Understanding the connection between anxiety and respiratory symptoms is essential for managing this condition effectively.

Recognizing when anxiety disorder might be the cause of your shortness of breath can help you take appropriate steps to alleviate your symptoms. It’s important to note that anxiety-induced shortness of breath often occurs during periods of high stress or anxiety and is typically accompanied by other anxiety symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating, or trembling. By identifying these patterns and seeking proper treatment, you can manage your anxiety and reduce the occurrence of these distressing symptoms.

Understanding Anxiety and Its Physical Symptoms

Experiencing shortness of breath can be alarming, primarily when it occurs suddenly and without an apparent cause. Many immediately think of physical health issues such as heart or lung problems. However, shortness of breath can also be a symptom of anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 31.1% of adults at some point in their lives. Many of these individuals report experiencing physical symptoms, including shortness of breath. Understanding the connection between anxiety and respiratory symptoms is essential for managing this condition effectively.

Recognizing when anxiety might be the cause of your shortness of breath can help you take appropriate steps to alleviate your symptoms. Anxiety-induced shortness of breath often occurs during periods of high stress or anxiety and is typically accompanied by other anxiety symptoms such as a racing heart, sweating, or trembling. These symptoms result from the body’s fight-or-flight response, which prepares you to face perceived danger by increasing your breathing rate. By identifying these patterns and seeking proper treatment, you can manage your anxiety and reduce the occurrence of these distressing symptoms.

How Anxiety Triggers Shortness of Breath

When you experience anxiety, your body’s fight-or-flight response is activated. This response is a survival mechanism that prepares your body to face a perceived threat. One way it does this is by increasing your breathing rate to supply more oxygen to your muscles, preparing you to either confront the danger or flee from it. This rapid, shallow breathing, known as hyperventilation, can lead to feelings of shortness of breath.

Hyperventilation causes a decrease in the level of carbon dioxide in your blood, leading to a condition called respiratory alkalosis. This imbalance can make you feel like you can’t catch your breath, even though your body is receiving enough oxygen. Individuals with high anxiety sensitivity are particularly prone to experiencing such symptoms. Anxiety sensitivity (AS) is a stable cognitive characteristic that predisposes individuals to the development of anxiety problems. This sensitivity encompasses fears of physical, mental, and publicly observable experiences that can amplify preexisting anxiety and lead to symptoms like hyperventilation and shortness of breath.

Understanding this physiological process can help you recognize that your shortness of breath might be related to anxiety rather than a physical illness. By identifying these patterns and understanding the body’s response to stress, you can take steps to manage your symptoms more effectively. Techniques such as deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, and cognitive-behavioral therapy can help reduce hyperventilation and the associated feelings of shortness of breath.

Signs That Shortness of Breath is Due to Anxiety

So, how can you tell if your shortness of breath is from anxiety? Here are some signs to look for:

  • Sudden Onset During Stress: If your shortness of breath begins suddenly during or after a stressful event, it is likely linked to anxiety. Stressful situations can trigger the fight-or-flight response, leading to rapid breathing.
  • Accompanied by Other Anxiety Symptoms: Anxiety often comes with a range of other symptoms, including a racing heart, sweating, trembling, and a feeling of impending doom. If you notice these symptoms along with shortness of breath, anxiety is a likely cause.
  • Pattern of Occurrence: If your shortness of breath occurs in specific situations that typically make you anxious, such as public speaking or flying, it is probably anxiety-related.
  • Normal Medical Tests: If you have undergone medical tests (e.g., ECG, chest X-ray, pulmonary function tests) and all come back standard, your shortness of breath may be due to anxiety.

 

To better understand why anxiety can cause such intense physical symptoms, it’s helpful to look at how anxiety affects the brain. Anxiety triggers the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, which then signals the hypothalamus to activate the fight-or-flight response. This releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare your body for immediate action.

These changes can affect various bodily functions, including breathing. The brain’s response to perceived danger is a powerful one, capable of causing significant physical sensations, even in the absence of actual danger. Anxiety disorders can be considered part of the broader neurodivergent spectrum. Neurodivergence encompasses a range of neurological variations, including anxiety disorders, that deviate from what is considered typical cognitive functioning. Understanding anxiety as a form of neurodivergence can help reduce stigma and promote a more inclusive view of mental health.

Recognizing anxiety as neurodivergent highlights the importance of tailored treatment approaches that address the unique needs of individuals with anxiety disorders. It also underscores the need for greater awareness and acceptance of mental health conditions in society.

When to Seek Professional Help

While self-help strategies can be effective, there are times when professional help is necessary. If your anxiety and shortness of breath are severe, persistent, or interfering with your daily life, it’s essential to seek the help of a mental health professional.

At Acera Health, we offer comprehensive mental health treatment programs designed to address anxiety and its symptoms. Our team of experienced professionals can provide personalized treatment plans that include therapy, lifestyle modifications, and other interventions to help you manage anxiety effectively.

Here are some strategies to help manage anxiety without medication:

  • Breathing Exercises: Practicing deep breathing can help counteract the effects of hyperventilation. Techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing or the 4-7-8 method can be particularly effective.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices can help you stay present and reduce the overactivity of the fight-or-flight response. Mindfulness helps you become aware of your anxiety symptoms without judgment, which can reduce their intensity.
  • Regular Exercise: Physical activity is a natural anxiety reliever. It helps to reduce stress hormones and promotes the release of endorphins, which can improve your mood and reduce anxiety.
  • Healthy Lifestyle Choices: Eating a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol can all help manage anxiety.
  • Therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for anxiety. It helps you identify and challenge negative thought patterns that contribute to anxiety.
  • Support Networks: Connecting with friends, family, or support groups can provide emotional support and reduce feelings of isolation.

Acera Health – Anxiety Treatment

Shortness of breath can be a frightening symptom, but understanding its connection to anxiety can help you manage it more effectively. By recognizing the signs that your shortness of breath is due to anxiety, you can take control of your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, Acera Health is here to help. Our residential and outpatient programs are designed to provide the support and treatment you need to manage anxiety and live a healthier, happier life. Contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can help you on your journey to wellness.

Clinically Reviewed by:

anxiety | melody 1

Melody Stone, LMFT

Melody Stone is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has over 17 years of experience in the field of behavioral health. She works as the Chief Clincal Officer (CCO) to Acera Health, where she is a strong leader focused on sustainable success.

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