I feel like I can’t breathe!

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 that can make it difficult to breathe. And there are many mental health conditions that can make you feel like you can’t breathe.

Even if your trouble breathing is due to anxiety, it’s still a scary experience. In some ways it can be even more frustrating to deal with, because people around you might not take you seriously if they can’t see any physical symptoms. 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.

Trouble breathing and COVID-19

Let’s start with COVID-19, because the global pandemic has had a huge effect on how people think about medical treatment. Trouble breathing is one symptom of the coronavirus—but it’s also a symptom of anxiety. Many people are feeling anxious about the pandemic. Ironically, anxiety can 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 [1]:

  • 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 think you may have COVID-19, follow CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of the illness. Call the doctor’s office or emergency room before you go in. If you don’t have it, going outside will make you more likely to catch it—and if you do, it will make you more likely to spread it to others.

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.

Trouble breathing and anxiety

Anxiety is a type of fear. When you are afraid, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode [2]. Your body is used to dealing with dangers like being attacked by a wild animal or having to run away from falling rocks. It’s not 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:

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.

  1. 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
  2. Caporuscio. (2019). What’s the link between anxiety and shortness of breath? Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326831

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