You're ruminating over an argument with your partner or stressing over a work deadline that just got bumped up. Suddenly, you notice your breathing has gotten a little faster and more shallow, and you start to feel even more keyed up. What's going on?
This is your body on anxiety.
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But before you go into full-on panic mode, know this: Shorter, more rapid breaths are a completely normal response to feeling anxious, David H. Rosmarin, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Center for Anxiety in New York City and Boston, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
In this case, shortness of breath is neither dangerous nor a sign of an underlying health problem.
What's more, the phenomenon can be easy to manage on your own. Here's what to know about shortness of breath and anxiety, plus what you can do to get back to breathing easier.
Why Anxiety Can Cause Shortness of Breath
We're often hit with a feeling of anxiety when we sense a threat. That could be a physical threat, like a hungry tiger chasing you, or an emotional or psychological threat, like an email from your boss about a project that isn't going well.
The threat triggers the body's fight-or-flight system. This sets off the release of the hormone adrenaline, which is responsible for launching a cascade of physiological responses to help you protect yourself. That includes constricting your airways, causing faster, shallower breathing, notes the National Library of Medicine.
Shortness of breath (or dyspnea, in medical terms) might feel a little uncomfortable or unsettling. But "it's a good thing," Rosmarin explains.
An increase in breathing shuttles more oxygen to your muscles, giving you more power to get out of harm's way. "If there's a bus careening towards me, what enables me to lift off at a faster rate is more oxygen in my system," he says.
For some, anxiety can cause hyperventilation, or very rapid, shallow breaths that can cause feelings of dizziness or lightheadedness. "That can happen when a person has anxiety about their anxiety," Rosmarin says.
Hyperventilating can feel scary while you're experiencing it, but it isn't harmful to your physical health, notes the Cleveland Clinic.
Other Symptoms of Anxiety
The release of adrenaline doesn't just spike your breathing. Per the Cleveland Clinic, anxiety can cause other physical symptoms like:
- Cold or clammy hands
- Dry mouth
- Muscle tension
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Racing or pounding heart
Other Causes of Shortness of Breath
Anxiety is a common cause of rapid breathing. "It's a normal, healthy response," Rosmarin says.
You can usually tell if your breathing changes are anxiety-related if they tend to come on when you're feeling anxious or stressed and ease up as you start to feel calmer, he adds.
But shortness of breath can also be a sign of an underlying health problem, especially if it's accompanied by other symptoms.
According to the Mayo Clinic, shortness of breath that comes on suddenly could be caused by:
- Anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction)
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Cardiac tamponade, or excess fluid around the heart
- Heart attack
- Heart rhythm problems
- Heart failure
- Pneumonia or other lung infections
- Pneumothorax, or a collapsed lung
- Pulmonary embolism, or a blood clot in the lung
- Sudden blood loss
- Upper airway blockage
Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if you have shortness of breath along with any unexplained pain, difficulty swallowing, nausea or vomiting, a headache or if you feel dizzy or lightheaded.
How to Manage Shortness of Breath From Anxiety
1. Do Some Cyclic Sighing
When you're in the throes of anxiety, taking slow, mindful breaths can help you feel calmer and get back to a normal inhale-exhale rate.
One technique is cyclic sighing, a controlled breathing exercise that encourages long exhalations, according to a January 2023 Cell Reports Medicine study.
The long exhales in cyclic sighing can help take your body out of fight-or-flight mode, which automatically slows your heart rate and breathing. (And practicing it when you're not anxious can make it a more accessible option when anxiety hits.)
People who practiced it regularly for 30 days reported a consistently better mood, too, the study found.
Here's how to do it:
- Take a normal breath in through your nose. Your lungs should feel comfortably full.
- Pause for a few seconds. Then take in a little bit more air so your lungs feel as full as possible.
- Exhale very slowly until your lungs are emptied.
- Repeat for five minutes.
2. Wait It Out
Not a fan of breathing exercises? Another approach is to simply do...nothing. Continue on with what you're doing, letting yourself feel the anxious feelings that come up.
"Fighting against anxiety gives your body something to mobilize against. You're sending the body the message that something is wrong," Rosmarin says. "The more you force relaxation, the more you delay it."
You might tell yourself something like, "I'm feeling anxious right now, I'm not going to fight this," Rosmarin recommends.
After a few minutes, you might find that alone is enough to bring you back to baseline.
3. Try Natural Remedies for Anxiety
Once your anxious feelings have passed, you can take time to look into certain lifestyle factors or habits that may help you feel calmer over time.
These kinds of natural remedies for anxiety include:
- Doing mindfulness activities like meditation
- Getting regular exercise
- Avoiding or limiting alcohol
- Quitting smoking
- Sipping chamomile tea
When to See a Doctor
Anxiety is a normal feeling that everyone experiences from time to time, and so are the physical symptoms that come with it. Feeling short of breath when you're anxious "is an adaptive, healthy, natural bodily process in order to deal with a perceived threat," Rosmarin says. "It might be uncomfortable, but it's not dangerous."
Talk with a doctor or a mental health provider if your level of anxiety is interfering with your daily functioning. Stress or worry that makes it harder to engage in your everyday activities or pushes you to engage in unhealthy behaviors (like abusing alcohol or drugs) can be managed with talk therapy and/or certain medications.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.