It’s scary to feel like you can’t breathe. Breathing is one of the most essential activities for life, and most people take it for granted. But there are many health conditions—both physical and mental—that can make it difficult to breathe. Understanding why you’re having trouble breathing can help you feel safer, more in control, and empowered to take action.
Even if your trouble breathing is due to anxiety, it’s still a scary experience. Anxiety and panic attacks aren’t immediately life-threatening in the same way as, say, a heart attack. But they are still valid medical concerns that need to be addressed in their own way. In fact, trouble breathing due to anxiety is so common that it’s a good place to start before jumping to conclusions about your physical health.
Trouble breathing and anxiety
Anxiety is a type of fear. When you are afraid, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode . Your body is designed to deal with dangers like being attacked by a wild animal or having to run away from falling rocks. Your body isn’t always smart enough to realize that you can’t deal with all your day-to-day struggles by running away or fighting for your life. A lot of the time, that “fight or flight” mode only makes things worse. Shallow breathing and tense muscles just make you feel even more afraid.
That’s why anxiety causes trouble breathing. So what’s the solution? Well, there are many ways to treat anxiety. But here are a few quick things that are helpful for many people:
- Relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or meditation.
- Getting some physical activity. This provides an outlet for stress and also increases your lung capacity over time. Yoga is especially helpful for becoming more aware of your breath.
- Writing down your anxious thoughts in a journal.
- Talking to a trusted friend or family member about how you’re feeling.
- Distracting yourself with things you love doing, whether it’s playing a musical instrument or watching something lighthearted on TV.
- Talking to a therapist.
- If you’ve tried many of these things and nothing seems to be working, you can ask a doctor about medication for an anxiety disorder.
You can do many of these things on your own. Start with those, and see if you feel any better. If your anxiety doesn’t go away or it comes back later, then start to think about getting help from someone else.
Your body gets ready for a life-or-death situation. In those situations, it’s helpful to have tense muscles and fast breathing so that you can run away from danger. Your body isn’t always smart enough to realize that the thing you’re afraid of isn’t something you can escape by running away or fighting.
“COVID anxiety” and other respiratory illness
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, many of us suddenly became more aware than ever of our breathing. Any trouble breathing could be a sign of COVID. Of course, people are still getting COVID, and for people who have already had it, “long COVID” can be scary as well. So for many of us, the same heightened awareness of our breathing is still with us.
Ironically, anxiety about COVID can also make it difficult to breathe. This makes it hard to know whether you’re having trouble breathing because you’re sick, or because you’re afraid of getting sick!
You can start by thinking about your other symptoms. Although anxiety and a virus can both lead to trouble breathing, there are some differences :
- If you have a fever or a cough, that’s a good sign that you may be sick. Don’t just go by how you feel, because anxiety can also make you feel hot and sweaty. Take your temperature with a thermometer. If you don’t have one, have someone else feel your forehead.
- If you suddenly have trouble breathing and it goes away after 20 minutes or so, that’s more likely to be an anxiety attack. Even if this happens over and over, if you can breathe okay in between, that’s a good sign. A virus is more likely to make it hard to breathe for hours or days at a time.
If you’re worried about COVID-19, follow CDC guidelines to prevent getting sick and avoid spreading the virus to others.
Although COVID-19 is still the main virus on most people’s minds, many of the same things apply to other respiratory illnesses, like colds or the flu.
Other medical concerns
People who suddenly have trouble breathing often feel like they might be having a heart attack. This is really scary because it feels so urgent—you feel like you’re going to die, and you don’t have much time to react. Here’s an article on the differences between a panic attack and a heart attack. Understanding how a panic attack feels different from a heart attack can help you feel less afraid, and more in control of the situation.
There are also lots of other, less urgent, physical causes of trouble breathing. This article can help you go through some of the possibilities. You can also take our online anxiety test to see if anxiety might be the problem.
If you feel like you have other symptoms, it’s worth looking into possible physical health concerns. But also keep in mind that while the Internet can be a great source of information… It’s also easy to convince yourself that you have something more serious than you really do.
- Caporuscio. (2019). What’s the link between anxiety and shortness of breath? Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326831
- Jones. (2020). Shortness of breath: Anxiety or coronavirus? The Scope, University of Utah Health. Retrieved from https://healthcare.utah.edu/the-scope/shows.php?shows=0_0s956sjk