Anxiety Can Cause Shortness of Breath, but So Can *a Lot* of Other Health Issues—Here’s How to Tell the Difference

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61
Imagine this: You're sitting at your desk (or in the car, at a restaurant...wherever, really) and all of a sudden, your mind's filled with racing thoughts. Your body starts to tense up, each inhale and exhale gets shallow and quick, and it feels like you can't get in enough air. This, dear friends, is often how an anxiety attack or panic attack begins. While there are many physical symptoms of anxiety, feeling short of breath is one of the major ones.

But how can you tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety or something more?

Anxiety—or a general sense of fear, dread, or uneasiness, according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM)—can definitely mess up your breathing pattern, and cause other physical effects. And while it's sometimes possible to manage anxiety at home (with breathing techniques and mindfulness practices), it's best to go to a doctor and have things checked out, to rule out other health conditions that cause shortness of breath (of which there are a quite a few).

Experts In This Article

Here, learn all about anxiety-induced shortness of breath, other conditions that can cause breathlessness, and when to reach out for help.

Does anxiety cause shortness of breath?

The short answer is yes. While not everyone's breathing changes when they're anxious, it's not uncommon to feel short of breath or even have chest pain and a racing heart, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

"Anxiety is like a misfire in your nervous system that stimulates your fight-or-flight response," says Elizabeth Sharp, MD, IFMCP, medical director and CEO of Health Meets Wellness in New York City. "Similar to how you would get short of breath if you're running away from a bear and you're sprinting, for example, that same thing happens with anxiety."

Panic attacks—a sudden wave of fear or discomfort that can hit suddenly and ease up after several minutes—are especially likely to affect your breathing, Dr. Sharp notes. It can make you feel like you're spiraling out of control or even worry that you're dying and cause other physical symptoms like trembling, chest pain, sweating, dizziness, tingling, or nausea, per the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Other symptoms of anxiety

Anxiety can affect you both mentally and physically, usually causing an onslaught of unpleasant symptoms as you start to get stirred up, says the Cleveland Clinic.

Physically, you might have the following:

  • Cold or clammy hands
  • Dry mouth
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Numbness or tingling in your hands or feet
  • Muscle tension
  • Shortness of breath

Anxiety can also cause stomachaches, headaches, or other aches and pains throughout your body.

At the same time, you might also have mental and emotional symptoms like:

  • A feeling of panic, fear, or uneasiness
  • Nightmares
  • Repeated thoughts or flashbacks to traumatic experiences
  • Uncontrollable or obsessive thoughts
  • Trouble being calm or still
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Repetitive behaviors, like needing to wash your hands over and over

How to tell if your shortness of breath is from anxiety

Physical symptoms of anxiety, including shortness of breath, will likely ease up as your emotions stabilize."If you do some stress-relief techniques and the symptoms improve, then it can help with the diagnosis, as well," Dr. Sharp says.

Problem is, sometimes breathing troubles can be caused by various health issues (see the list below), some of which are potentially serious. "Sometimes people think they are having a heart attack or stroke because [anxiety] can end up causing lightheadedness, dizziness, chest pain, or a sense of impending doom," says Dr. Sharp.

Learning how to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety or heart problems starts with noting the length of time. If your symptoms get better after a few minutes, it's often anxiety. But if they get worse as time goes on (and come with other symptoms like severe chest pain, irregular heartbeat, or fatigue), it could be a sign of a heart issue.

Bottom line: If shortness of breath is new to you, or your symptoms are concerning, it's a good idea to reach out to your doctor instead of trying to play a guessing game. "Once you identify that there isn't another underlying cause, then you can identify it as anxiety," she adds.

Other health conditions that cause shortness of breath

Anxiety aside, feeling short of breath can come from many other health conditions, some of which are relatively minor and some that are serious. According to the Cleveland Clinic, these include the following:

  • Anemia, including iron deficiency anemia
  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Colds or respiratory infections, including severe infections like pneumonia
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Extreme heat or cold
  • Heart conditions, including heart muscle conditions, heart inflammation, abnormal heart rhythm, or heart failure
  • Injuries, like a broken rib
  • Medications, including statins and beta blockers
  • Sleep apnea

How to get rid of shortness of breath from anxiety

Thankfully, there are many different coping strategies to stop anxiety breathlessness and return to a more balanced state.

1. Consider talk therapy

One of main things you can do is reach out to a medical professional you trust to refer you to a therapist. Or do some research online to find a qualified therapist who looks like a good match for you. Talk therapy, particularly cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help you learn how to recognize unwanted thought patterns and work on changing them. That way, your emotions are less likely to lead to unpleasant physical symptoms, per the Cleveland Clinic.

2. Try getting daily exercise

Exercise can help your mental health, too. "It's one of the best things to incorporate into your routine to reduce anxiety," Dr. Sharp says. Even five minutes of physical activity is enough to start producing feel-good endorphins that can start to soothe stress, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America.

Keep in mind: If you feel too worked up in the moment, wait a little while before starting your workout, as exercise can worsen anxiety in some cases.

3. Take slow, deep breaths whenever you can

If you feel your chest start to tighten and your breath get shallow and quick (i.e., hyperventilation), stopping for a moment to take some slow, deep breaths can help. Dr. Sharp is a fan of 4-7-8 breathing, where you inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds, repeating several times. You can do it preventively throughout the day or when you start to feel revved up.

Another method you can try is belly breathing—where you place a hand on your belly, let it rise/expand as you breathe in, and let it sink at you exhale, per Cedars Sinai.

4. Find activities that make you feel relaxed

One of the best ways to quell shortness of breath from anxiety is by doing things that relax you and that you love. This could be spending time in nature, talking with friends or family, writing in a journal, reading a book, watching a comfort TV show, or practicing yoga or meditation to slow down your thoughts. Anything that can take you out of the anxious moment and reduce stress symptoms can help.

5. Consider medication

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor or your therapist might also recommend you start taking medications to help reduce anxiety. A few different types of anti-anxiety meds include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:

  • Benzodiazepines—like Xanax, Valium, or Ativan
  • Antidepressants—like SSRIs (Zoloft, Prozac, Lexapro)
  • Beta blockers—like Propanolol or atenolol

These medications are often prescribed as a short-term bridge to make your symptoms more manageable as you address the root causes of your anxiety in therapy, per the Mayo Clinic.

How to prevent losing your breath when you're anxious

Lifestyle changes, deep breathing, and other relaxation strategies can help you keep your calm or get back to baseline when you start to feel your brain unraveling. You can:

  • Take deep breaths: As mentioned above, taking slow, deep breaths can re-stabilize your breathing and lower your heart rate, which deactivates your fight-or-flight response, per Harvard Health Publishing. The soft breathing technique can also help relax your mind and muscles.
  • Try a grounding technique: Relaxation exercises like guided imagery (where you visualize a calming environment) or progressive muscle relaxation (where you gradually tense and release the muscles throughout your body) can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, so you feel calmer, per the NLM. This can keep you from entering a full-blown anxiety attack.
  • Try yoga: Yoga can be a great anxiety-reducer, according to a September 2018 review of eight trials in Depression and Anxiety1. Dr. Sharp is also a fan because it's a form of moving meditation, meaning, it relaxes your brain while getting your body moving.
  • Try to limit foods and drinks that could spike anxiety: Added sugar, caffeine, and alcohol can worsen anxiety symptoms for some people, Dr. Sharp says. So if you've been wondering why you have anxiety and trouble breathing all day, it could be from your morning cup of joe or evening cocktails. Reducing these from your diet may help with feelings of jitteriness, restlessness, and stress.

When to see a doctor for anxiety-induced shortness of breath

If you get frequent bouts of shortness of breath, or have other symptoms of anxiety, let your doctor know—especially if it's disrupting your daily life. They can do a psychological assessment (with the GAD-7 form for anxiety or PHQ-9 survey for depression) to help figure out the underlying cause of your symptoms. They can also check your heart and lungs, to rule out other health conditions that can cause shortness of breath.

From there, your doctor will provide treatment options, like referring you to a therapist, prescribing medication, or suggesting lifestyle changes to help ease anxiety.

Lastly, if you or someone you know has severe shortness of breath, chest pain, fainting, a change in mental alertness, or a bluish tinge to their lips or nails, seek emergency medical help, per the Mayo Clinic. These could be signs of life-threatening conditions like a heart attack or a blood clot in the lungs.


How long can anxiety shortness of breath last?

There's no official timeframe, but generally, shortness of breath from anxiety or a panic attack doesn't last for that long. "Generally speaking it is self-limited and relatively short in duration," Dr. Sharp says. "It can last as long as 30 minutes, but it's usually more like a few minutes."

Note: If your anxiety causes shortness of breath for weeks (especially if it comes and goes), you might have generalized anxiety rather than a panic disorder. This can be treated and prevented in the same ways panic attacks are, per the NIMH.

What anxiety medication is good for shortness of breath?

Benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and beta blockers (which are a type of high blood pressure med) can all be prescribed for anxiety. Your doctor or psychiatrist might prescribe beta blockers to help minimize some of the physical symptoms that come with anxiety, especially shaking, trembling, or a rapid heartbeat, notes the Cleveland Clinic.

Can anxiety cause you to yawn excessively?

Anxiety, yawning, and shortness of breath can all go hand in hand. In fact, frequent yawning, especially when you're not tired, could be related to anxiety. "It's another way of expressing activation of the nervous system and your body's way of asking for a deep breath," says Dr. Sharp. If you find yourself yawning a lot, try taking more deep and conscious breaths throughout the day.

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Cramer H, Lauche R, Anheyer D, Pilkington K, de Manincor M, Dobos G, Ward L. Yoga for anxiety: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Depress Anxiety. 2018 Sep;35(9):830-843. doi: 10.1002/da.22762. Epub 2018 Apr 26. PMID: 29697885.

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.

Loading More Posts...