Is My Shortness of Breath Due to Anxiety?

Henna Geronimo
March 8, 2024

Anxiety often manifests in physical symptoms even without physical exertion. Shortness of breath, while widely experienced, can sometimes be overlooked as a sign of underlying mental health concerns, such as anxiety.

In the following sections, we will explore the mechanisms by which anxiety influences respiratory function. We will also discuss strategies on how to manage or alleviate this condition.

Source: Roots Mental Wellness

What Causes My Shortness of Breath?

Medically known as dyspnea, shortness of breath is a sensation of uncomfortable breathing or the feeling of not getting enough air. This symptom can arise from various physical causes, with conditions like asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) being among the most common.

Asthma leads to inflammation and narrowing of the airways, causing difficulty in breathing, especially during physical exertion or at night. COPD, a group of lung diseases that include emphysema and chronic bronchitis, progressively restricts air flow, making breathing increasingly difficult over time.

The sensation of shortness of breath can vary widely among individuals; some may feel a tightness in their chest, while others might struggle to take a deep breath. It often occurs during physical activities for those with underlying health conditions but can also happen suddenly in stressful situations, highlighting a potential link to psychological factors.

What are the Common Anxiety Symptoms?

Anxiety can appear through physical and psychological symptoms.

Physically, individuals might experience:

  • dizziness
  • heart palpitations
  • rapid breathing
  • chest discomfort
  • headaches
  • shaking
  • excessive sweating
  • stomach issues
  • frequent bowel movements
  • muscle stiffness
  • dryness in the mouth
  • throat constriction
  • difficulty breathing

Psychologically, symptoms can range from:

  • feelings of restlessness
  • worry
  • irritability
  • sadness
  • sleep disturbances
  • concentration difficulties
  • a sense of impending doom
  • impulsiveness
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How Does Anxiety Lead to Breath Shortness

There are several ways anxiety can lead to shortness of breath. Recognizing triggers is key to understanding and managing anxiety-induced problems.

Fight-or-Flight Response

Anxiety triggers the body's fight-or-flight response, a primal reaction that prepares the body to confront or flee from perceived threats. This response increases heart rate, redirects blood flow to essential muscles, and, crucially, accelerates breathing to increase oxygen intake. While beneficial in short bursts, frequent activation of this response by chronic anxiety can lead to persistent shortness of breath.

The accelerated breathing that comes with the fight-or-flight response can lead to overbreathing or hyperventilation. This rapid breathing can decrease carbon dioxide levels in the blood, which may cause light-headedness, a sensation of suffocation, or chest tightness.

Other Situational Examples

Public Speaking

The prospect of speaking in front of an audience can induce anxiety, triggering the fight-or-flight response and resulting in rapid, shallow breathing.

Social Gatherings

For those with social anxiety, crowded environments can feel overwhelmingly threatening, leading to difficulties in breathing.

Stressful Work Situations

High-pressure work scenarios, especially those requiring immediate decision-making, can stimulate anxiety and the associated respiratory symptoms.

Source: Roots Mental Wellness

Importance of Medical Evaluation

When experiencing shortness of breath, you must undergo a comprehensive medical evaluation to rule out any underlying physical health issues. This step is essential because similar symptoms can indicate more serious conditions that require immediate attention.

Here's why medical evaluation is crucial:

Identifying Physical Health Conditions

Conditions such as asthma, COPD, heart disease, and others can manifest as shortness of breath. A thorough medical examination, including diagnostic tests, can help identify these conditions early on, allowing for appropriate treatment.

Differentiating Between Anxiety and Physical Conditions

Since anxiety and physical health issues can share similar symptoms, a medical evaluation is key to distinguishing between the two. This differentiation is vital for choosing the correct treatment path.

Ensuring Comprehensive Care

Ruling out or identifying physical conditions ensures that any treatment plan is comprehensive. For those whose breathlessness is linked to anxiety, knowing that physical causes have been explored can also provide peace of mind, which may help in managing anxiety symptoms.

Guiding Appropriate Treatment

Once physical causes are ruled out, healthcare providers can focus on treating anxiety-related breathing problems. This may involve a combination of psychiatry, including the possibility of anxiety medication, and psychology services.

By prioritizing a medical evaluation, individuals can ensure they receive the correct diagnosis and treatment, whether their shortness of breath is due to a physical condition, anxiety, or a combination of factors. 

Tips to Managing Anxiety-Induced Shortness of Breath

  • Deep Breathing Exercises: Practice deep, slow breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing to help regulate your breathing pattern and reduce the intensity of breathlessness.
  • Mindfulness and Relaxation: Engaging in mindfulness practices, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation can help decrease overall anxiety levels and improve control over your breathing.
  • Professional Therapy: Consulting with a mental health professional can provide personalized strategies for managing anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is particularly effective in addressing the thought patterns that contribute to anxiety and its physical symptoms.
  • Regular Exercise: Physical activity can improve both physical health and stress resilience, helping to reduce the frequency and intensity of anxiety-induced breathing difficulties.
  • Avoid Stimulants: Limiting caffeine and other stimulants can reduce anxiety levels and prevent exacerbation of symptoms.

Incorporating these strategies into your daily routine can significantly alleviate the impact of anxiety on your breathing, enhancing your quality of life and well-being.



It's common to think of anxiety as just a feeling or something that affects our emotions and thoughts. However, it can also show up in physical ways, like shortness of breath, muscle tension, or fast heartbeat. These signs reveal how closely our mental and physical health are tied together and the importance of getting the right kind of support and treatment. 

For anyone trying to manage anxiety, seeing the whole picture—both mental and physical—can be a key part of the journey to feeling better. If you're noticing signs of anxiety, both in your mind and body, and you're considering a professional diagnosis, we're here to help. Contact us at Roots Mental Wellness and take the first step towards a healthier, more balanced life.

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Henna Geronimo
Contributing Writer