How to Tell If Shortness of Breath Is From Anxiety? Clues to Tell the Difference

Understanding why anxiety, a mental health concern, can cause physical symptoms like shortness of breath can be confusing and challenging. It’s a peculiar phenomenon, where our emotional turbulence manifests physically, often without a clear trigger.

This article aims to explore the relationship between anxiety and breathing difficulties, providing clear insights and practical advice on recognizing and managing this common symptom of anxiety effectively.

The Basics

Shortness of breath, medically known as dyspnea, is a sensation of suffocating or not being able to get enough air. It can be a symptom of various conditions, both psychological and physical, and understanding its root cause is crucial for management and treatment.

In the realm of health, this sensation is a common complaint and can stem from a myriad of sources, ranging from benign to severe. Distinguishing between physiological and psychological origins is the first step toward effective management.

1. Physical Causes

From cardiovascular to respiratory, numerous systems in our body can influence our breathing. Recognizing patterns, triggers, and accompanying symptoms can aid in identifying the underlying physical causes of shortness of breath.

According to the American Lung Association, this problem can be attributed to various physical conditions, including asthma, pneumonia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Understanding the physical aspects involves recognizing persistent patterns, which might indicate a chronic condition, or sudden onset, which might point towards an acute event.

Moreover, this might be accompanied by other symptoms such as chest pain, wheezing, or coughing. These additional symptoms often provide clues about the underlying cause and should be thoroughly evaluated by healthcare professionals.

2. Psychological Causes

Anxiety, stress, and panic attacks are common psychological triggers for experiencing shortness of breath.

Based on the information provided by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety can lead to rapid breathing, or hyperventilation, which might make you feel short of breath (source).

Recognizing this pattern, especially in the absence of physical symptoms, can be a key indicator This often occurs in the absence of physical exertion and might be accompanied by feelings of panic, dread, or excessive worry.

It is essential to note that anxiety-related breathing difficulties can be managed with various techniques and interventions, which will be explored further in the subsequent sections.

Differentiating Between Anxiety and Other Causes


Navigating through the maze of symptoms to determine whether anxiety is the root cause of shortness of breath can be complex yet crucial for implementing appropriate interventions.

Identifying the origin of this sensation involves a careful analysis of symptoms, triggers, and patterns. While physical conditions often have distinct, measurable indicators, anxiety-induced symptoms might be more subtle and intertwined with emotional states.

Recognizing Patterns and Triggers

As stated by the Mayo Clinic, recognizing patterns such as the onset of shortness of breath during stressful situations, or in the absence of physical exertion, might indicate a psychological trigger.

Additionally, if the symptom alleviates upon calming down or engaging in relaxation techniques, it further points toward anxiety as a potential cause. Triggers can range from obvious, such as during a stressful event, to subtle, like an unconscious worry or fear.

Keeping a symptom diary, noting when and under what circumstances the shortness of breath occurs, can be a valuable tool in identifying patterns and potential triggers.

Medical Testing and Diagnosis

Employing medical tests and professional evaluations ensures a comprehensive understanding and accurate diagnosis of the underlying cause of the problem.

In adherence to Johns Hopkins Medicine, to diagnose the causes of shortness of breath, doctors may order a chest X-ray or an electrocardiogram (ECG). Additionally, the oxygen level in your blood and your breathing might be measured, and a blood test may also be required.

These tests provide tangible data, enabling healthcare professionals to pinpoint any physiological issues contributing to breathing difficulties. Conversely, if physical tests do not reveal a clear cause, a psychological evaluation might be recommended.

This involves discussing symptoms, life events, and emotional states with a healthcare professional to explore potential psychological origins and devise a suitable management plan.

How to Manage This?

Once anxiety is identified as the root cause, implementing strategies to manage and alleviate symptoms becomes paramount in enhancing quality of life.

Addressing this problem involves a multifaceted approach, encompassing lifestyle modifications, therapeutic interventions, and possibly pharmacological management.

Moreover, while we delve into various techniques and interventions, it’s worth noting that certain dietary changes, such as incorporating stress-relieving beverages, can also play a supportive role in managing anxiety and its physical manifestations.

Tailoring strategies to individual needs and preferences is crucial for sustainable and effective management.

Breathing Techniques and Exercises

Employing specific breathing techniques and exercises can be a direct and effective strategy to manage episodes of shortness of breath.

In accordance with the Cleveland Clinic, practicing diaphragmatic breathing, also known as “belly breathing,” can help manage this problem by encouraging full oxygen exchange, which can stabilize or lower the breathing rate and help prevent hyperventilation.

Engaging in regular practice of this technique can also enhance overall stress management. Moreover, other breathing exercises, such as 4-7-8 breathing or box breathing, can also be effective in managing acute episodes of anxiety and preventing the onset of hyperventilation.

These techniques involve controlled inhalation, retention, and exhalation of breath, promoting relaxation and physiological stability.

Psychological Interventions

Incorporating psychological interventions, such as therapy and mindfulness practices, can provide long-term benefits in managing anxiety and its associated symptoms.

As mentioned by the American Psychological Association, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is effective in managing anxiety disorders by helping individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors (source).

Through CBT, individuals can learn to manage their anxiety and, consequently, alleviate associated shortness of breath. Mindfulness and relaxation techniques, such as meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, can also be valuable tools in managing anxiety and its physical manifestations.

These practices promote a state of relaxation and present-moment awareness, which can mitigate the physiological stress response and alleviate symptoms.

The Interplay Between Anxiety and Physical Health

Exploring the intricate relationship between anxiety and physical health provides insights into the cyclical nature of psychological stress and physical symptoms, fostering a holistic approach to management.

Anxiety doesn’t merely manifest in the mind; it intertwines with physical health, creating a loop where mental stress can exacerbate physical symptoms, which in turn, can heighten anxiety.

The Impact of Anxiety on Physical Well-being

According to the Harvard Medical School, anxiety activates the body’s “fight or flight” response, releasing a flood of chemicals and hormones like adrenaline into the system, which, in turn, increases breathing and heart rate to equip the body to respond to perceived threats (source).

This physiological response, while crucial for survival, can be taxing when activated frequently due to anxiety, impacting overall physical well-being. Furthermore, chronic anxiety can lead to a range of physical health problems, including:

  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • weakened immune system

This creates a complex web where anxiety and physical health are inextricably linked. Managing anxiety, therefore, is not just beneficial for mental health but is imperative for maintaining physical health.



Can Anxiety-Induced Shortness of Breath Occur Even when I’m Feeling Calm?

Yes, anxiety-induced shortness of breath can sometimes occur unexpectedly, even in moments when you feel calm or relaxed. This phenomenon is known as “quiet” or “covert” anxiety.

It’s possible to experience physical symptoms of anxiety without the characteristic anxious thoughts, as the body might still be processing stress or tension.

How Long Does Shortness of Breath Last During an Anxiety Attack?

The duration of this sensation can vary widely among individuals. For some, it may last only a few minutes during an acute phase of panic, while for others, it might persist for 30 minutes or more, especially if the anxiety is ongoing or if they are experiencing a prolonged panic attack.

Can Practicing Yoga Help Manage Anxiety-Induced Shortness of Breath?

Yes, practicing yoga can be beneficial. Yoga often involves mindful breathing and poses that can enhance lung capacity and promote relaxation.

The practice of mindfulness and controlled breathing during yoga can also provide tools to manage anxiety and its associated symptoms more effectively.

Is It Possible to Completely Eliminate This Problem?

While it may not always be possible to completely eliminate anxiety-induced shortness of breath, it can certainly be managed and reduced with appropriate strategies and interventions.

This might involve a combination of therapeutic approaches, medication, and lifestyle changes, tailored to the individual’s needs and experiences.

Can Children Experience This Problem, and How Can It Be Managed?

Yes, children can also experience anxiety-induced shortness of breath. Managing it involves gentle reassurance, teaching them simple breathing exercises, and sometimes involving a professional, such as a pediatrician or a child psychologist, to explore further management strategies.

Engaging in activities that promote relaxation and emotional expression, like art or play therapy, can also be beneficial.

How Can I Support Someone Experiencing Anxiety-Induced Shortness of Breath?

Supporting someone experiencing this involves staying calm, offering reassurance, and encouraging them to engage in slow, controlled breathing. Avoid offering dismissive statements like “just relax” and instead validate their experience.

If they have specific coping strategies, assist them in implementing these. In the longer term, encourage them to seek professional help to manage their anxiety effectively.

The Bottom Line

As per the World Health Organization, recognizing the importance of mental health in overall well-being and adopting a holistic approach towards health can foster a balanced and healthy life.

This involves considering mental health as a pivotal component of overall health and ensuring that strategies implemented address all facets of well-being.

Moreover, a holistic approach involves integrating various strategies, from medical interventions and psychological therapies to lifestyle modifications and alternative treatments, ensuring a comprehensive and inclusive approach to managing anxiety and its physical manifestations.

Managing anxiety and its physical manifestations, such as shortness of breath, involves continuous learning, adaptation, and the implementation of various strategies tailored to individual needs and experiences.