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15 min read

How to Tell if Shortness of Breath is from Anxiety

Written by Klarity Editorial Team

Published: Jan 19, 2024

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Zoe Russell

Table of contents

If you’re experiencing shortness of breath, you’re likely worried about its cause. Is it anxiety or an underlying health issue?

Throughout this article, we’ll explore the connection between anxiety and breathing difficulties by understanding the causes, differentiating anxiety-induced symptoms from other medical conditions, and identifying other signs related to anxiety. We’ll also provide practical strategies to alleviate shortness of breath caused by anxiety and advice on when to seek medical attention or help from a mental health professional. 

If you’re experiencing the unsettling sensation of shortness of breath and suspect it might be linked to an anxiety or panic attack, don’t wait to seek help. The board-certified providers on Klarity are ready to unravel your anxiety symptoms and physical manifestations. 

Take the free self-evaluation assessment on Klarity today and begin managing your symptoms with anxiety treatment.

What Causes Shortness of Breath?

Shortness of breath, medically known as dyspnea, can be caused by a variety of factors ranging from benign to serious. Common causes include respiratory conditions like asthma, where airways become inflamed and narrowed, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which obstructs airflow from the lungs. 

Heart conditions such as heart failure and coronary artery disease can also lead to shortness of breath, as the heart struggles to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to meet the body’s needs. Environmental and lifestyle factors can also contribute to this condition, as exposure to allergens, air pollution, and high altitudes with lower oxygen levels can trigger shortness of breath. 

Additionally, intense physical activity, especially in untrained individuals or in extreme temperatures, often leads to transient breathlessness. It’s important to understand these varied causes to effectively address and manage the symptoms. Anyone who experiences any form of shortness of breath should seek medical clearance from their regular provider as soon as possible.

How Anxiety Can Trigger Shortness of Breath

Anxiety can trigger shortness of breath due to its impact on the body’s respiratory and nervous systems. When anxiety strikes, it activates the body’s natural “fight or flight” response, leading to physiological changes like increased heart rate and rapid breathing. This rapid breathing, or hyperventilation, can make you feel like you’re not getting enough air, leading to further panic, even more shortness of breath, and potentially an anxiety attack.

In some cases, anxiety can cause people to breathe too quickly, upsetting the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body and exacerbating feelings of breathlessness. This reaction is part of the body’s natural response to perceived threats, although, in the case of anxiety, these threats are often psychological rather than other physical symptoms. 

Difference Between Anxiety-Induced Shortness of Breath and Other Medical Conditions

Distinguishing anxiety-induced shortness of breath from symptoms related to other medical conditions is crucial for appropriate diagnosis and treatment. Anxiety-related shortness of breath often occurs in the absence of physical exertion and is usually accompanied by other signs of anxiety, such as nervousness, increased heart rate, or panic. This type of difficulty breathing is typically rapid and shallow, and it can fluctuate in intensity with changes in your emotional state.

In contrast, shortness of breath caused by medical conditions such as asthma, COPD, or heart disease usually has a direct link to physical triggers or exertion. These conditions often produce additional symptoms, like wheezing in asthma, persistent cough in COPD, or chest pain in heart disease. Moreover, these symptoms are less influenced by emotional states and more by physical health status or activities.

It’s important to consider the duration and context of the breathlessness. Anxiety-induced shortness of breath often resolves as the anxiety diminishes, whereas symptoms from chronic medical conditions are usually persistent and require medical management. If shortness of breath is persistent, worsening, or accompanied by other concerning symptoms, seek medical evaluation to rule out or treat any underlying physical conditions.

Besides shortness of breath, identifying other common symptoms associated with anxiety is important for managing this condition. Anxiety often manifests through a variety of physical and psychological symptoms. Common physical symptoms include:

  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Excessive sweating, trembling, or shaking
  • Feelings of weakness or fatigue
  • Gastrointestinal problems like nausea or upset stomach

Psychologically, individuals with anxiety may experience persistent worry or fear, feelings of impending doom, difficulty concentrating, and restlessness or irritability. These symptoms can vary in intensity and frequency from person to person and may occur in response to specific triggers or as a general ongoing state.

Sleep disturbances are another notable symptom of anxiety, where individuals may struggle with either falling asleep or staying asleep, leading to overall reduced sleep quality. This can create a challenging cycle, as poor sleep can exacerbate anxiety symptoms, further impacting mental health and daily functioning. 

Noticing symptoms and suspect you have a mental health condition? Find fast, affordable care from a provider on Klarity today.

Different Types of Anxiety Disorders

There are many types of anxiety disorders, each with unique characteristics and symptoms that impact individuals differently. Recognizing your type of anxiety disorder is the first step toward seeking effective treatment and managing symptoms. Here are some of the more common types of anxiety disorder:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Characterized by persistent, excessive worry about everyday activities, often disproportionate to the actual event.
  • Panic Disorder: Involves recurrent, unexpected panic attacks marked by intense fear and physical symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath.
  • Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD): Defined by significant anxiety and discomfort about being embarrassed or scrutinized in social or performance situations.
  • Specific Phobias: Intense, irrational fear of specific objects or things (spiders) or situations (being stuck in tight spaces), often leading to avoidance behavior.
  • Agoraphobia: Fear and avoidance of places or situations where escape might be difficult, often related to fear of panic attacks.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Anxiety following exposure to a traumatic event, featuring symptoms like flashbacks, nightmares, and severe or debilitating anxiety.
  • Separation Anxiety Disorder: Excessive fear or anxiety about separation from home or attachment figures, more commonly seen in children.

How to Get Rid of Shortness of Breath from Anxiety

Alleviating shortness of breath caused by anxiety involves engaging in practices that help relax the body and regulate breathing. From specific breathing exercises that target the physiological aspects of anxiety to simple physical activities and sensory experiences, these methods aim to bring immediate relief benefits while preventing long-term effects of anxiety

Understanding and applying these techniques can be a significant step toward overcoming the discomfort caused by anxiety-induced shortness of breath.

Deep Breathing

By focusing on taking slow and deliberate deep breaths this practice helps to counteract the rapid, shallow breathing that often accompanies anxiety. It aids in calming the mind and stabilizing the heart rate, promoting a sense of physical and mental balance. 

Deep breathing can be an effective tool in reducing the intensity and frequency of anxiety symptoms when practiced regularly.

Abdominal Breathing

Abdominal breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, emphasizes breathing deeply into the abdomen rather than shallowly into the chest. This technique encourages full oxygen exchange, which can be more effective in reducing anxiety than shallow chest breathing. 

Engaging the diaphragm during this process promotes relaxation and is particularly helpful in managing sudden, acute anxiety episodes, offering a practical tool for immediate stress relief.

Box Breathing

Box breathing, also referred to as four-square breathing, is a structured breathing technique that involves equal counts for inhalation, holding the breath, exhalation, and holding again, typically for a count of four. This rhythmic pattern serves as a mental anchor, helping to refocus and calm the mind, making it particularly useful during moments of heightened stress or anxiety. 

The methodical nature of box breathing aids in re-establishing a regular breathing rhythm, making it an effective tool for regaining control over erratic or rapid breathing, often seen in anxiety episodes.

Simple Exercise

Simple exercise, such as gentle walking or stretching, serves as a practical way to alleviate symptoms of anxiety-induced shortness of breath. These activities help redirect mental focus away from stressors, thereby reducing feelings of anxiety. 

Moreover, engaging in mild physical exercise aids in releasing muscle tension and promotes a more regulated and deeper breathing pattern, which is beneficial in restoring a sense of calm and balance in the body.

Listen to Music

Listening to music is a therapeutic tool for managing anxiety and its associated breathing difficulties. Calming melodies and harmonious rhythms can significantly lower stress levels, easing the mind into a more relaxed state. This relaxation response facilitates smoother and more controlled breathing, helping to interrupt the cycle of anxiety and shortness of breath. 

Music’s ability to engage the mind positively also means that it can act as a distraction from anxiety triggers, providing a soothing backdrop for practicing other anxiety-reducing techniques.

Managing Anxiety and Shortness of Breath

Managing anxiety and its physical manifestation, such as shortness of breath, often requires a holistic approach that includes lifestyle changes and professional help. Adopting healthier habits can play a significant role in calming down anxiety symptoms, while professional interventions provide targeted strategies and treatments for more severe or persistent cases. 

Lifestyle Changes

Implementing lifestyle changes can be a transformative step in managing anxiety and its associated symptoms like shortness of breath. Regular physical activity, such as yoga or brisk walking, improves cardiovascular health and also releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters. 

A balanced diet, rich in nutrients, supports overall brain health and helps regulate mood while avoiding stimulants like caffeine can decrease anxiety symptoms. Adequate sleep is another crucial element, as it allows the brain to rest and recover, reducing stress and improving emotional regulation. 

Relaxation techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation, when practiced consistently, can significantly lower stress levels. These activities not only provide immediate relief but also build resilience against future anxiety episodes, enhancing the body’s ability to maintain calm and balanced breathing.

Professional Help

Seeking professional help is a crucial step in managing anxiety and its symptoms, including shortness of breath. Mental health care providers can provide a range of treatments tailored to individual needs, combining prescription medication (if necessary) and therapy to help with anxiety

This dual strategy aims to address both the biological and psychological aspects of anxiety, offering a more rounded and effective treatment plan.

Prescription Medication Treatment

Medications like SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and benzodiazepines can be instrumental in managing anxiety. SSRIs work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain, which can improve mood and reduce anxiety symptoms. Benzodiazepines, on the other hand, act quickly to provide short-term relief by calming the nervous system. 

If your licensed provider feels that prescription medication treatment is appropriate for your situation, they will go over your medical history and recommend medication and dosage. If you have a history of substance abuse that’s holding you back from asking about medication, talk to a mental health professional about non-addictive anxiety medications that are available online.

Anxiety Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a highly effective form of anxiety therapy. It involves identifying and changing negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to anxiety. Exposure therapy, another effective method, gradually exposes patients to anxiety-inducing situations in a controlled way to reduce fear and avoidance behaviors.

Both forms of anxiety therapy aim to equip individuals with tools and strategies to manage anxiety in everyday life.

When Should You Seek Help For Anxiety-Induced Shortness of Breath

Seeking help for anxiety-induced shortness of breath is important when it starts to significantly affect your daily life or if it occurs frequently. If you find yourself regularly experiencing shortness of breath along with other anxiety symptoms, such as persistent worry, difficulty concentrating, or insomnia, it’s a clear indicator to seek professional help for anxiety.

Additionally, if self-help techniques and lifestyle changes don’t alleviate your symptoms or if your anxiety begins to interfere with your work, relationships, or general well-being, professional intervention may be necessary.

You should also seek help if you’re unsure whether your shortness of breath is due to anxiety or a physical health issue. Sometimes, symptoms of anxiety can mimic those of more serious conditions, like heart or lung diseases. Consulting with a healthcare provider ensures that you receive a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment. 

Take Klarity’s Free Self-Assessment Today And Get The Anxiety Treatment You Need

Throughout this guide, we’ve explored the symptoms of anxiety and its physical manifestation, specifically focusing on shortness of breath. If you’ve experienced shortness of breath and feel that it’s related to anxiety, the providers on Klarity are ready to help you manage and overcome your symptoms through specialized anxiety treatment.

Take Klarity’s free self-assessment today to better understand and manage your anxiety disorder and symptoms.


“Is your shortness of breath anxiety-related or could it be a heart condition? What to know.” Daryl Austin. USA Today.

“Anxiety Can Cause Shortness of Breath and What You Can Do.” Jamie Elmer. Healthline.

“What is the link between anxiety and shortness of breath?” Jessica Caporuscio, PharmD. MedicalNewsToday.

“How To Tell if Shortness of Breath Is From Anxiety.” Nidhi Sharoha, DO. Talkiatry.

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