Anxiety Induced Shortness of Breath & How to Manage It

Anxiety can cause many different kinds of scary side effects. One of the most stressful and upsetting symptoms of anxiety is experiencing shortness of breath. When experiencing shortness of breath a person may feel lightheaded or may experience a pain in his or her chest. Such sensations are often the result of anxiety or related issues that affect breathing patterns. Experiencing shortness of breath can both be caused by anxiety and create a stronger sensation of anxiety. Having shortness of breath can create many alarming sensations, like:

  • Shallow or interrupted breathing
  • ‘Huffing’ or deep rapid inhaling and exhaling
  • Rapid shallow breaths
  • The sensation of feeling ‘frozen’
  • Chest pain
  • Labored breathing
  • Gasping for air
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Feelings of suffocation

What Causes Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath is a common symptom for a person who suffers from anxiety. The rate in which a person may experience shortness of breath depends on the intensity of anxiety the affected person experiences. A person may only feel a shortness of breath when triggered by high risk or stressful situations. He or she may feel the sensation at unexpected times throughout the day when no apparent trigger is present.

Shortness of breath can be caused by:

  • Intense fear or apprehension
  • Social situations
  • Confrontation
  • Excessive workload
  • Making a mistake or fear of making a mistake
  • Flashbacks or stressful memories
  • Phobias

In such cases shortness of breath will have varying degrees of severity, but the initial onset of the shortness of breath is enough to worsen the symptom as a person becomes more anxious about his or her symptoms and resulting sensations.

The Effects of Shortness of Breath on Anxiety

Having shortness of breath when experiencing anxiety is not a fun experience and is not easy to handle. The difficult part about experiencing shortness of breath when feeling anxious is even though the anxiety may have caused the shortness of breath, the short, low, and shallow breathing will cause a person to lose control of the anxious reaction to the stimulating issue. Many people who experience shortness of breath will have panic attacks as a result of losing control of their anxiety.

There is a science as to why shortness of breath worsens anxiety. When a person is experiencing a shortness of breath as a reaction to anxiety he or she is bringing less oxygen into the lungs and body. Oxygen plays an important role in stress management because it prevents stress and reduces strain on the body and mind. The oxygen that is brought to the muscles of the body prevents them from becoming too tense, which makes anxiety worse. It also has an effect on the brain, which is also a muscle, by straining its functions and altering its ability to properly process information. This strain on the brain causes the anxiety to increase as rationalizing, reasoning and emotional management capabilities are hindered by the lack of oxygen. Both muscle tension and racing thoughts are symptoms of anxiety and will both be exacerbated by the low oxygen supply caused by shortness of breath.

How to Manage Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath brought on by anxiety is intrusive on the sufferer’s day-to-day life. It can cause strain on a person and prevent him or her from being able to complete tasks or overcome obstacles. It can cause panic attacks and depression. It can also exacerbate pre-existing medical issues like asthma, cardiac issues or respiratory issues.

When you suffer from anxiety-induced shortness of breath it is important to know how to manage the stress that is causing shortness of breath. Anxiety management skills will be important to practice to reduce the occurrence of shortness of breath. The following are important considerations when learning to manage anxiety and reduce experiences of shortness of breath:


Meditation will help with keeping your overall mental health and wellness at a state of calm. Meditation will help by teaching the mind how to enter a relaxed state, which will teach skills in remaining relaxed when exposed to a triggering issue or situation. In learning how to stay calm in such situations you will be able to reduce the risk of experiencing shortness of breath and increase your ability to focus. Some popular meditation practices that are helpful in reducing shortness of breath are described below.


Yoga is an eastern practice that combines stretching, movement, and breathing exercises to enhance mindfulness and overall wellness. By transitioning between positions you will learn how to be aware of your body and mind. You will also learn how to use your breath to keep you grounded and support your muscles.

Guided Imagery

Guided imagery, or visualization, is a technique used in many relaxation exercises. With guided imagery you are asked to engage your memory and imagination to create a ‘calm space’ in your mind. This space should be a place that is pleasant for you and creates little stress. When engaging with guided imagery you are asked to immerse yourself in that calm space to the point where you can imagine the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and feelings all around you. For example, picture yourself sitting on the beach. You see the waves rolling in, smell and taste the salt in the air, feel the sea breeze and sun, and hear the water crashing around you. This should create a sense of calm that relaxes the body and prevents shortness of breath or hyperventilation.

Tai Chi

Tai chi is another eastern meditation practice that helps reduce anxiety. In tai chi you are asked to move through a series of movements in a rhythmic motion. Tai chi aids in concentration, focus, and relaxation. It also stimulates circulation of oxygen through the body. Practicing tai chi regularly can reduce the overall level of anxiety and reduce the severity of symptoms like shortness of breath.

Deep Breathing Exercises

Deep breathing exercises will be important when learning to cope with anxiety that induces shortness of breath. Deep breathing exercise will be useful for several reasons:

  • It will teach you how to manage your breathing in times of stress
  • It will prevent deprivation of oxygen to the muscles
  • It will create a calming sensation throughout the brain and body
  • It will help you maintain control over your anxious symptoms
  • It will help you think clearly when confronted with a problem or stressful situation that needs to be handled

The following is a list of helpful deep breathing exercises that can be used to reduce anxiety and occurrence of shortness of breath:

  • 10 Second Count. When you feel yourself getting anxious, upset or uncomfortable it is beneficial to try the 10 second count deep breathing exercise. For this exercise you will inhale for 10 seconds through the nose, hold the breath for 5 seconds, and take a 10 second exhale through the mouth. You may need to repeat this exercise 5-7 times before you feel a calming effect. Try closing your eyes if you find you are having trouble focusing on the exercise.
  • Tummy Breaths. Tummy breaths are a good exercise to use when needing to decompress or take a break in your day. To take tummy breaths, Place your dominant hand on your chest and your other hand on your stomach, with your pinky resting on your belly button. While inhaling through your nose try to fill your stomach with as much air as you can without moving your chest. When your lungs are full, gently press on your stomach to assist the 7-second exhale through the mouth. Repeat this exercise 3-5 times before returning to your daily routine.
  • 4-7-8 Breaths. 4-7-8 breaths have been found to be helpful with increasing relaxation and reducing overall stress on the body and mind. To perform 4-7-8 breaths begin by placing one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Take a deep 4- count inhale through the nose from your stomach. Hold the breath for 7 seconds. Release with an 8-second exhale through the mouth- by the time you reach second 8 you should have exhaled all of the air from your lungs. Repeat 5-7 times for complete relaxation effect.

Suffering from shortness of breath is a difficult symptom to cope with, but by identifying triggers, understanding the symptoms and learning how to manage stress and anxiety, it is possible to control how often you experience shortness of breath. It may take time and patience to learn how to effectively use all of the techniques like meditation, deep breathing and guided imagery, but with practice, patience, and commitment it is possible to see a positive change in how you manage your anxiety.

If you feel your shortness of breath is affecting your overall quality of life, or if you are concerned it may be due to a medical issue, it is important to speak with a medical professional. It is not uncommon to experience shortness of breath, but medical or psychiatric intervention may be needed if it is affecting your ability to perform daily tasks.