Can Anxiety Cause Shortness Of Breath? How To Know The Cause

Shortness of breath is a symptom commonly associated with lung problems, such as bronchitis and asthma. 

However, a person may develop shortness of breath as a result of anxiety.

Being in a situation that triggers anxiety can cause difficulty in breathing. 

Conversely, the inability to breathe properly can also make a person feel anxious.

Telling if shortness of breath is from anxiety or any other cause, such as asthma or heart problems, can help you determine the most appropriate treatment to relieve it.

In this article, we will discuss how to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety, how to manage it, and the other possible non-anxiety causes of difficulty breathing.

How To Tell If Shortness Of Breath Is From Anxiety

It is possible to know if shortness of breath is from anxiety by calmly assessing the symptoms that accompany it. 

Here are some ways to tell if shallow breathing is due to anxiety:

Psychological symptoms

Shortness of breath caused by anxiety is often accompanied by a range of psychological, psychosomatic, and physical symptoms. The term psychosomatic refers to the physical manifestations of emotional factors.  

The intensity of psychological and psychosomatic symptoms tends to be more severe or prominent than physical symptoms when difficulty in breathing is due to anxiety.

For example, when labored breathing occurs due to anxiety, you may have psychological symptoms such as:

  • Dry mouth
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Poor concentration
  • Confusion
  • A poor memory
  • Difficulty speaking

In addition, you may have psychosomatic symptoms. such as:

  • An increased heart rate
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Cold palms
  • Chills
  • Shaking
  • Muscle tension

If you have predominant psychological and psychosomatic symptoms, shallow breathing is more likely to be from anxiety. 

In addition, occasional sighing and yawning in order to fill the lungs could suggest that the labored breathing could be due to anxiety.

Lung or heart symptoms

If you are having typical symptoms associated with lung or heart disease, it is possible that you are having difficulty breathing due to a physical ailment and not anxiety.

For example, shortness of breath caused by lung diseases, such as asthma, bronchitis, and emphysema, is often accompanied by:

  • Cough
  • Increased sputum
  • Fever
  • Nose block
  • Chest congestion

Similarly, when shortness of breath is caused by heart disease, there is typically a history of hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, arrhythmias, or cardiac failure. 

The person may also have related symptoms, such as high blood pressure, swelling of the face and legs, and palpitations.

The presence of these symptoms suggests that the shortness of breath is less likely to be caused by anxiety.

Preceding events

When shortness of breath is preceded by the anticipation of an adverse situation or when there is actual exposure to a stressful situation, it is more likely to be due to anxiety. 

For example, a child might experience difficulty breathing before an examination.

Conversely, if the episode of breathlessness is preceded by exposure to allergens or intense physical activity, it is possibly due to asthma or any other lung disease.

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Why Can Anxiety Cause Shortness of Breath?

When you encounter a stressful situation, such as an environmental or psychological trigger, your body responds by releasing chemical messengers like cortisol and adrenaline. 

These are called stress hormones, as they help prepare the body to face a potentially dangerous situation by setting off a “fight-or-flight response.”

The fight-or-flight response is typically marked by an increase in the heart rate and blood pressure and the release of glucose into the bloodstream. 

It also involves quickening your breathing pattern in an attempt to breathe in more oxygen to help you fight or escape a dangerous situation.

It is this change in your breathing pattern that can make you feel you are short of breath when you experience anxiety.


If you suspect anxiety-related shortness of breath, consult a healthcare professional for an appropriate diagnosis and treatment plan.

Your doctor might prescribe you benzodiazepine medications, such as alprazolam, clonazepam, diazepam, or lorazepam, for short-term relief from shortness of breath and other symptoms of anxiety.

These medications usually provide relief from anxiety symptoms within just 30 minutes. 

However, it typically isn’t recommended to use these drugs long-term due to the risk of side effects, including physical dependence.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Healthcare providers often combine benzodiazepine medication with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychotherapy for comprehensive anxiety management.

Cognitive behavioral therapy works by helping people modify how they think or perceive challenging situations, including those that trigger anxiety. 

CBT sessions also include training the person to cope with situations that may cause anxiety rather than avoiding them.

Similarly, psychodynamic therapy focuses on managing familiar or interpersonal conflicts associated with anxiety. 

A combination of medication, CBT, and psychodynamic therapy can often provide significant relief from anxiety disorders and help patients avoid shortness of breath and other related symptoms.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is an at-home relaxation method that can provide immediate relief from shortness of breath from anxiety.

Here are the steps to perform diaphragmatic breathing:

  1. Lie down on a flat surface, placing your left hand on your diaphragm, just above your stomach and below the ribs. Place your right hand in the middle of your chest.
  2. Breathe in slowly through the nose. Make sure your left hand raises while inhaling while the right hand remains still.
  3. Contract your abdominal muscles and slowly exhale.

You can repeat the steps about 10 to 15 times when you experience difficulty breathing due to anxiety. 

You can also practice this method regularly to reduce stress and improve your emotional wellness.

Pursed lip breathing

Pursed lip breathing slows your breathing and relieves shortness of breath. This method is aimed at focusing on each breath to make them more intentional.

To practice pursed lip breathing, sit comfortably and breathe in through the nose for 3 or 4 seconds. Then, purse your lips tightly and slowly exhale through your pursed lips for about 5 seconds.

You can practice pursed lip breathing for 5 to 10 minutes when you experience anxiety to induce mental and physical relaxation and relieve shortness of breath.


If you suffer from frequent episodes of shortness of breath due to anxiety, you can practice mindfulness meditation on a regular basis. 

Mindfulness meditation can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve your emotional and physical wellness.

Mindfulness meditation can be practiced by focusing your attention on the present moment and your current emotions and physical sensations. 

You can focus on the natural flow of breathing during your meditation sessions to improve breathing.

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Other Non-Anxiety Causes of Shortness of Breath

If labored breathing occurs frequently, it can be a sign of an underlying medical condition such as:

  • Asthma
  • Obesity
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Interstitial lung disease
  • Arrhythmia
  • Congestive cardiac failure
  • Renal failure

If you frequently experience shortness of breath (SOB), it’s advisable to seek guidance from a qualified healthcare professional to identify potential underlying causes.


  • Assessing what does shortness of breath feel like can help you determine whether it is from anxiety or any other medical condition. 
  • Depending on the cause of shortness of breath, you can seek appropriate treatment. 
  • You can also practice mindful meditation, pursed lip breathing, or other techniques discussed above to get relief from shortness of breath.

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