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How To Tell if Shortness of Breath is From Anxiety

During a panic-inducing anxiety episode, as you desperately try to catch your breath, it’s natural to be flooded with questions and concerns. Could this be indicative of a severe health problem? Is my life hanging in the balance?

Navigating the complexities of our physical sensations can often be challenging, especially when attempting to pinpoint the root cause. One such sensation, shortness of breath, can be particularly distressing, as it may arise from various sources, anxiety being one of them.

Here’s how to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety.

anxiety illustrations

Recognizing Anxiety-Related Shortness of Breath

Anxiety can cause a range of physical and mental symptoms. These include restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, racing thoughts, and muscle tension. Other common anxiety symptoms are sweating, trembling or shaking hands and feet, rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), feeling lightheaded or dizzy, and chest pain or tightness in the chest area (angina).

It is also common to experience fear or panic attacks when feeling anxious. Other symptoms that can occur during this response and as a result of the anxiety disorder include:

Physical Symptoms

  1. Rapid heartbeat
  2. Rapid, Shallow Breathing Patterns
  3. Sweating
  4. Trembling or shaking
  5. Hyperventilation
  6. Chest pain or tightness
  7. Nausea or upset stomach
  8. Dizziness or lightheadedness
  9. Chills or hot flashes
  10. Fatigue or muscle weakness
  11. Insomnia or difficulty sleeping

Psychological Symptoms

  1. Excessive worry or apprehension
  2. Irritability or mood swings
  3. Restlessness or feeling on edge
  4. Difficulty concentrating or racing thoughts
  5. Fear of losing control or going crazy
  6. Feelings of impending doom or danger
  7. Intense fear or terror
  8. Avoidance of situations that trigger anxiety
  9. Depersonalization or feeling detached from oneself
  10. Persistent negative thoughts or catastrophizing
  11. Sensation of Suffocation

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The Role of Fight-or-Flight Response

Amidst the chaos of our daily lives, we often encounter situations that ignite our primal instincts. At the heart of this lies the fight-or-flight response, an automatic reaction hardwired into our brains to safeguard our survival.

Can you recall when your pulse raced, your breathing quickened, and your muscles tensed?

This physiological response prepares our bodies for action, confronting threats or fleeing to safety. Yet, this ancient mechanism may misfire in our modern world, leaving us to grapple with false alarms and physical and psychological symptoms of excessive stress.

How do we learn to differentiate between genuine danger and anxiety-induced overreactions?

Identifying Triggers for Anxiety Attacks and Real-Life Examples

We often stumble upon hidden triggers that provoke anxiety attacks. These enigmatic catalysts lurk in the shadows of our subconscious, waiting to unleash a torrent of emotional turbulence. Perhaps you’ve experienced a sudden surge of panic upon encountering an unexpected social situation or found yourself gripped by fear when faced with an overwhelming workload.

Identifying the unique triggers that spark our anxiety is crucial to regaining control and reclaiming serenity.

Here are some triggers and real-life examples:

  1. Stressful life events: Major life changes, such as job loss, moving, relationship issues, or the death of a loved one, can trigger anxiety attacks.
    1. Example – Jane experienced an anxiety attack after her divorce was finalized, as she struggled to adjust to her new life and responsibilities as a single parent.
  2. Health concerns: Worrying about personal health or the health of loved ones can contribute to anxiety attacks.
    1. Example – Tom’s anxiety attack was triggered when he discovered a lump on his body and became increasingly worried about the possibility of cancer.
  3. Financial stress: Money-related problems, such as debt or job instability, can provoke anxiety.
    1. Example – Lisa had an anxiety attack while trying to figure out how to pay her mounting bills after losing her job unexpectedly.
  4. Social situations: Interacting with others, public speaking, or attending social events can trigger anxiety in some individuals.
    1. Example – Sam experienced an anxiety attack at his friend’s wedding when he was asked to give an impromptu speech in front of all the guests.
  5. Traumatic experiences: Past trauma, such as accidents, abuse, or violence, can lead to anxiety attacks when faced with similar situations or reminders.
    1. Example – Ann, who had survived a car accident, had an anxiety attack when she witnessed a similar accident on the highway.
  6. Phobias: Specific fears, such as heights, enclosed spaces, or certain animals, can trigger anxiety attacks.
    1. Example – Tim’s fear of flying led to an anxiety attack when boarding a plane for the first time in years.
  7. Substance use: Consumption of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, or recreational drugs can provoke anxiety attacks in some individuals.
    1. Example – After consuming several cups of coffee throughout the day, Sarah had an anxiety attack, likely caused by excessive caffeine intake.
  8. Environmental factors: Crowded places, loud noises, or bright lights can induce anxiety in sensitive individuals.
    1. Example – Attending a concert with loud music and flashing lights, Emily experienced an anxiety attack and had to leave the venue.
  9. Lack of sleep: Insufficient rest or poor sleep quality can increase anxiety levels.
    1. Example – John, who had been working long hours and sleeping poorly for weeks, had an anxiety attack during a high-pressure meeting at work.
  10. Negative thinking patterns: Pessimistic thoughts, rumination, or constant self-doubt can lead to heightened anxiety and anxiety attacks.
    1. Example – Karen began ruminating on her perceived failures after receiving a less-than-perfect performance review.
  11. Sensitivity to physical sensations: Feeling overly aware of bodily sensations, such as heart rate or breathing, can trigger anxiety in some people.
    1. Example – Mike felt his heart rate increase while exercising and became fixated on the sensation, leading to an anxiety attack due to the fear of having a heart problem.

Differentiating Between Anxiety & Medical Conditions

As we traverse the intricate terrain of our mental and physical well-being, we must recognize the subtle distinctions between anxiety and genuine medical conditions.

Has your heart raced uncontrollably due to a sudden bout of panic, or is it an underlying cardiac issue? Could your breathlessness be a manifestation of anxiety, or does it hint at a respiratory concern?

By understanding the nuances of our body’s signals and seeking professional guidance, we can disentangle the threads of anxiety and seek medical attention immediately for these conditions. Apart from anxiety, shortness of breath has also been linked to chronic diseases and disorders, including:

  1. Asthma
  2. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  3. Pneumonia
  4. Bronchitis
  5. Emphysema
  6. Pulmonary embolism
  7. Cardiac arrhythmia
  8. Lung cancer
  9. Interstitial lung disease
  10. Pulmonary hypertension



  • Regular exercise: Physical activity can help improve and reduce anxiety symptoms.
  • Deep breathing techniques: Practicing deep, controlled breathing can help regulate your breath during stress or anxiety.
  • Mindfulness and meditation: Incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your daily routine can help promote relaxation and reduce anxiety.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique involves tensing and relaxing different muscle groups to release tension and promote relaxation.
  • Maintain a healthy diet: Eating a balanced diet can help support overall mental and physical health, which may reduce anxiety symptoms.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol intake: Consuming excessive amounts of caffeine or alcohol can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and trigger shortness of breath.
  • Get enough sleep: Prioritize quality sleep to help manage anxiety and maintain overall health.
  • Identify and manage triggers: Recognize situations or factors contributing to anxiety and develop coping strategies to minimize their impact on your breathing.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

When a person experiences breathlessness or panic, they might try breathing with their diaphragm. Doctors often recommend diaphragmatic breathing to reduce fear, and many people who practice it report improved mental stability.

Research has found that diaphragmatic breathing can decrease stress and reduce negative moods. It is important to note that the participants in these studies were not diagnosed with an underlying anxiety disorder.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

In many cases, an episode of anxiety dissipates without requiring medical intervention. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to seek immediate assistance if you encounter any of the subsequent situations:

  1. Rapid or shallow breathing
  2. Chest tightness or pain
  3. Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
  4. Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  5. Sweating or clammy skin
  6. Gasping for air
  7. Wheezing or a high-pitched sound while breathing
  8. Fatigue or weakness
  9. Difficulty speaking or completing sentences
  10. Blue lips or fingertips (cyanosis)

When To Talk To a Therapist

Embarking on a transformative journey of self-discovery and healing, one mustn’t underestimate the profound impact of seeking guidance from a skilled therapist or counsellor. These compassionate allies, versed in unravelling our innermost thoughts and emotions, offer invaluable support in navigating the complexities of our mental landscape.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can illuminate the intricate interplay between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, while psychodynamic therapy may reveal the hidden depths of our unconscious desires and motivations. Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) provide alternative pathways toward emotional balance and self-awareness, paving the way for a richer, more fulfilling life.

We can chart a course toward inner harmony, empowerment, and growth with our trusted counsellor. Book your 15-minute consultation today to get matched with one of our therapists.

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  1. Alcántara, Carmela et al. “Anxiety Sensitivity and Physical Inactivity in a National Sample of Adults with a History of Myocardial Infarction.” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine (2020): 1-7.
  2. Doyle, Todd A et al. “Association of Anxiety and Depression with Pulmonary-Specific Symptoms in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.” The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine 45 (2013): 189 – 202.
Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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