How To Tell If Shortness Of Breath Is From Anxiety or Illness

If you are wondering how to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety or from other health conditions. continue to read this post...
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Do you ever feel short of breath 12 and wonder if it could be a symptom of anxiety? Does your heart race, making you wonder if it’s anxiety or something more serious? We know that experiencing breathlessness can be scary. But don’t worry, we’ve got your back! We’ll guide you through everything you need to know, from recognizing anxiety symptoms and differentiating them from other conditions to managing anxiety-induced shortness of breath.

Recognizing Anxiety: The Basic Signs and Symptoms

Key Takeaways:

  1. Shortness of breath can be a symptom of anxiety, activated by the body’s fight-or-flight response.
  2. Anxiety-induced breathlessness often occurs without physical exertion and tends to resolve after the anxiety subsides.
  3. Breathing exercises, grounding techniques, physical exercise, mindfulness, and seeking support can help manage anxiety symptoms.
  4. If you’re experiencing persistent or severe shortness of breath, seek professional medical help.

Anxiety is more than just feeling stressed or worried. It is a mental health disorder, which, when persistent, could significantly affect your daily life. One of the most unsettling symptoms of anxiety is feeling short of breath, often accompanied by a racing heart rate.

In addition to shortness of breath, common anxiety symptoms include:

  • Tightness or pain in the chest
  • Trembling or shaking of the hands and legs
  • Sweating and clammy palms
  • Chills and hot flashes
  • Muscle tension, aches, soreness, and spasms
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, and vertigo
  • Nausea and stomach upset
  • Fear of losing control or death
  • Feeling detached from reality

Physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, and experiencing gastrointestinal problems are also associated with anxiety. In severe cases, anxiety can trigger panic attacks that may feel like a heart attack, with symptoms like chest pain, feeling faint, or fear of loss of control.

Panic attack

Remember, everyone’s experience with anxiety is different. If you think you have anxiety, it’s essential to talk to your doctor or a mental health professional for accurate diagnosis and treatment options.

The feeling of shortness of breath from anxiety is often the body’s fight-or-flight response kicking in. This automatic response prepares your body to face a perceived threat. It quickens your heart rate, fastens your breathing, and prepares your muscles for action.

This reaction is helpful when faced with immediate danger but less so when triggered by every day worries. However, for those with an anxiety disorder, the fight-or-flight response can activate inappropriately, causing symptoms like shortness of breath, even in the absence of actual threats.

There are a few reasons why anxiety disorders like panic attacks and GAD can make you feel short of breath or unable to take a deep breath:

  • Hyperventilation – When you are anxious, you might start taking quick, shallow breaths. This hyperventilation expels too much carbon dioxide from your body, reducing carbon dioxide levels in your blood. Since CO2 helps regulate oxygen utilization, low levels lead to less oxygen getting to your cells, leaving you feeling like you can’t get enough air.
  • Chest tightness – Stress hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine released during the fight-or-flight response can cause your chest muscles to constrict and tighten up. This makes breathing feel more difficult and laborious.
  • Incorrect breathing – Some people start subconsciously breathing in an abnormal manner during anxiety attacks, which further reduces oxygen flow. For example, you may start breathing rapidly from your chest rather than slowly and deeply from your diaphragm. Shallow chest breathing fails to fully inflate the lungs.
  • Increased oxygen demand – Anxiety boosts your heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism as your body prepares to respond to danger. This places a greater demand on your cardiovascular system, so your body tries harder to take in more oxygen.
Blood circulation
Blood circulation

The end result is shortness of breath, chest tightness, and an urgent feeling that you need more air right away. This troubling sensation can further spike your anxiety, creating a vicious cycle of fear.

Unveiling Confusion: How to Differ Anxiety-Induced Breathlessness from Other Conditions

While shortness of breath is a common symptom of anxiety, it can also be caused by various health conditions, like asthma or heart disease. It’s crucial to understand that this guide isn’t a substitute for professional medical advice. If you experience persistent or severe shortness of breath, seek medical attention immediately.

A key distinction is that shortness of breath from anxiety often occurs without any physical exertion and is more likely to be accompanied by other anxiety symptoms. Other conditions like asthma or heart disease will typically present additional symptoms, like wheezing (in the case of asthma) or chest pain (in the case of heart disease).

Also, shortness of breath caused by anxiety tends to go away after the anxiety subsides. In contrast, breathlessness from conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may not resolve so quickly.

Conditions that could potentially be confused with anxiety breathlessness include:

ConditionDescriptionDiagnostic Method
AsthmaThis chronic lung disease inflames and constricts the bronchial tubes in the lungs, causing wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest, and shortness of breath. However, these symptoms are often triggered by specific allergens, irritants, weather conditions, or respiratory infections.Lab tests like spirometry and peak flow monitoring can help confirm asthma.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)COPD damages the air sacs and airways in the lungs over time, which blocks airflow. Shortness of breath tends to worsen gradually, especially during exercise.COPD is usually diagnosed with pulmonary function tests.
PneumoniaThis serious lung infection causes breathlessness along with other symptoms like high fever, chills, coughing up thick mucus, and sharp chest pain when breathing.A chest X-ray or CT scan can confirm pneumonia.
Heart conditionsConditions such as heart attacks, cardiac arrhythmia, heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, or pericarditis limit the heart’s ability to pump blood and oxygen efficiently. Chest pain, palpitations, swelling, and fatigue accompany shortness of breath.An EKG, echocardiogram, and cardiac stress testing can check heart function.
AnemiaA lack of healthy red blood cells reduces oxygen delivery throughout the body. Fatigue, weakness, lightheadedness, and pale skin accompany the shortness of breath.A complete blood count (CBC) screens for anemia.
Lung diseasesConditions like chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis, pleurisy, pulmonary embolism, and lung cancer can also manifest with shortness of breath.Imaging like X-rays, CT scans, and lung function tests may be used to diagnose lung diseases.

 To differentiate anxiety from more serious issues, pay close attention to any triggers and whether you have other associated symptoms like high fever, chills, coughing, or swelling. Discuss all your symptoms openly with your doctor. Ask for appropriate tests like chest X-rays, CT scans, spirometry, echocardiograms, EKGs, or bloodwork if other conditions are suspected.

How to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety or illness

Personal Stories: Real-life Experiences of People Coping with Anxiety and Breathlessness

Hearing about others’ experiences can sometimes be the most reassuring. Let’s explore some real-life stories.

Case 1: Emily, a 25-year-old writer, often experienced shortness of breath during her anxiety attacks. She explained, “It feels like I can’t get enough air, it’s frightening. But now I know it’s a part of my anxiety, I’ve learned grounding techniques and deep breathing exercises that help me calm down.”

Case 2: Paul, a 38-year-old teacher, initially thought his breathlessness was due to asthma. However, after a thorough clinical review, his doctor diagnosed him with a panic disorder. Today, he manages his symptoms with regular therapy, medication, and mindfulness techniques.

Let’s discuss ways to manage anxiety and its symptoms. Remember, while these tips are helpful, they aren’t a substitute for professional help. If you feel overwhelmed, please reach out to a mental health professional.

Diaphragmatic BreathingInhale slowly and deeply through your nose, feeling your belly expand with air. Hold for 3-5 seconds. Exhale slowly through pursed lips. Repeat for 5-10 cycles. This triggers your relaxation response.
Grounding TechniquesNotice 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things smell, and 1 thing you can taste to bring yourself into the present moment and reduce anxiety.
Progressive Muscle RelaxationSystematically tense and relax each muscle group in the body to reduce physical tension. This lowers stress hormones.
Meditation and MindfulnessPractice accepting anxious thoughts and physical sensations without judgment to lower reactivity to them. Apps like Calm can guide you.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)Work with a licensed therapist to change negative thoughts and behavior patterns that contribute to anxiety. This gives you tools to short-circuit the anxiety cycle.
ExerciseAerobic exercise helps decrease muscle tension and flushes out circulating stress hormones. However, avoid overexertion.
Get Enough SleepBeing well-rested will make you more resilient emotionally and physically to anxiety triggers. Stick to a regular sleep-wake schedule.


Shortness of breath and feeling unable to breathe deeply is a common symptom of anxiety disorders like panic attacks and generalized anxiety. Though these sensations can be very scary in the moment, there are many ways you can unravel anxiety’s hold over your breathing.

Start by making an appointment with your healthcare provider to explore the root cause and rule out other medical conditions that could be to blame. Be upfront about all your symptoms so you can get properly diagnosed and treated. Once you know anxiety is the underlying cause, you can start to incorporate lifestyle changes, self-help techniques, therapy, and medication as needed to manage anxiety-induced breathlessness.

While anxiety may always be a part of your life to some degree, you can take back control over your breathing and live boldly. Don’t let shortness of breath deter you from pursuing your dreams and engaging in activities you enjoy. With the right coping strategies tailored to your needs, you can breathe easier even in the face of anxiety’s challenges. Support from professionals, friends, and family can also make a big difference in overcoming anxiety.

So the next time you feel that dreaded shortness of breath and your heart starts pounding, remind yourself: “This breath can be scary, but maybe it’s just my anxiety speaking. Let’s take a deep breath, practice some grounding, and if needed, reach out to a professional.” After all, every breath you take is a step towards understanding and managing your anxiety better.

See our comprehensive overview of the physical symptoms of stress. Understand them so you can manage them in time before they become a problem. Note that there also are behavioral symptoms of stress and emotional symptoms of stress.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does shortness of breath feel like with anxiety?

Anxiety-induced shortness of breath can often feel like you’re unable to draw a complete breath. This feeling can lead to gasping for more air and the sensation of not getting enough air in or a sensation of ‘air hunger’. The feeling is often described as unsettling, disconcerting and may escalate feelings of panic or anxiety further.

How to tell if shortness of breath is anxiety or something else?

Determining if shortness of breath is due to anxiety or a different condition can be challenging. Typical signs that the breathlessness might be related to anxiety include its association with stressful situations, a lack of other physical symptoms, and the symptom subsiding when the person relaxes or is distracted. However, other physical conditions like heart or lung diseases can also cause shortness of breath, so it’s important to have a health professional assess your symptoms.

How do I stop anxiety and shortness of breath?

Stopping anxiety and shortness of breath involves several strategies. First off, employing relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga, and mindfulness can significantly help. Regular physical exercise is also useful in managing anxiety symptoms more broadly. Lastly, cognitive behavioral therapy or other forms of counseling can help you to manage the causes of your anxiety.

Can anxiety cause shortness of breath even if you don’t feel anxious?

Absolutely, anxiety can cause shortness of breath even when you don’t consciously feel anxious. This phenomenon is known as ‘high-functioning’ or ‘hidden’ anxiety. In these instances, you may not notice your worries, or you might rationalize and dismiss them, but your body reacts regardless, resulting in symptoms like shortness of breath.

Can anxiety and shortness of breath be signs of something serious?

Generally, anxiety and shortness of breath are not signs of something dangerous. However, they can be very uncomfortable and distressing to deal with. In rare cases, sudden shortness of breath can be a sign of a more serious heart or lung condition, so it’s always sensible to seek medical attention if it’s persistent, severe, or accompanied by additional symptoms like chest pain.


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Alex Reijnierse
Alex Reijnierse

Alex Reijnierse is a stress management expert with over a decade of experience in helping individuals effectively manage and reduce stress. He holds a Master of Science (MSc) and has a background in high-pressure environments, which has given him firsthand experience in dealing with chronic stress.