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How to Tell if Shortness of Breath is From Anxiety

Navigating the Tightness in Your Chest: Is It Anxiety or Something More?
December 1, 2023
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In our quest to understand the connection between physical symptoms and mental health, a common query that arises is "How to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety?" It's not unusual to wonder if episodes of rapid breathing or a tight chest are purely physiological or if they stem from anxiety. This blog article titled "How to Tell if Shortness of Breath is From Anxiety" will explore the intricate relationship between anxiety and respiratory symptoms, shedding light on how to discern the cause of your discomfort and addressing the question, "Does anxiety cause shortness of breath?"

When you're gasping for breath, it can be a frightening experience. Is it anxiety, or is it something more serious? Understanding the difference can help you decide the best course of action.

Understanding Anxiety and Breathlessness

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness. It might cause you to sweat, feel restless and tense, and have a rapid heartbeat. It can be a normal reaction to stress. For example, you might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or before making an important decision. However, anxiety disorders are different. They are a group of mental illnesses that cause constant and overwhelming anxiety and fear. Excessive anxiety can make you avoid work, school, family get-togethers, and other social situations that might trigger or worsen your symptoms.

Signs of Anxiety

The signs of anxiety include nervousness, restlessness, or being tense; feelings of danger, panic, or dread; rapid heart rate; rapid breathing; increased or heavy sweating; trembling or muscle twitching; trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry.

How to tell if shortness of breath is from anxiety

Shortness of breath, also known as dyspnea, can stem from various health conditions, but when tied to feelings of anxiety, it's often accompanied by a unique set of symptoms. If your heart races and you feel panicked without an apparent reason, you might be experiencing an anxiety attack. Anxiety disorders can manifest physical symptoms such as rapid breathing, chest tightness, and palpitations, all of which can mimic the sensations of a heart attack or heart disease. If you're familiar with these feelings and they often occur in response to stress, it's likely they're linked to your anxiety.

The Physical Response: Understanding Your Body's Reaction

Anxiety triggers the fight-or-flight response, leading to a cascade of physical reactions. Your nervous system ramps up, hyperventilation begins, and you might feel lightheaded or experience chest pain. These are normal reactions to stress, albeit uncomfortable. To distinguish these from heart problems, note how they arise. They're typically short-term, associated with a stressful situation, and will subside with relaxation techniques or breathing exercises.

Differentiating Between Anxiety and Breathlessness

How to Tell the Difference Between Shortness of Breath and Anxiety?

When exploring the root causes of respiratory discomfort, it's essential to consider the context in which it occurs. Can anxiety cause shortness of breath? The answer is yes, anxiety can indeed lead to breathlessness, which often arises in response to stress and fluctuates with varying levels of anxiety.

Unlike shortness of breath that stems from a medical condition like asthma or heart failure, which typically presents during physical exertion and alleviates upon resting, anxiety-induced shortness of breath can appear or intensify during tense moments or periods of worry. If you observe a pattern where your breathing difficulties emerge or escalate in stressful scenarios or when feelings of anxiety strike, it's quite possible that anxiety is a contributing factor.

What Does Shortness of Breath Mean?

Shortness of breath means you are having difficulty breathing or feeling suffocated. It's a common symptom of many different medical conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can also be caused by anxiety. When it's not related to a physical condition, it's often described as a tightness in the chest with a feeling of not being able to breathe deeply enough.

When to Seek Help: Monitoring Your Health

If you're uncertain whether your symptoms are due to anxiety or a medical condition, it's crucial to consult a healthcare professional. Medical advice is necessary to rule out heart conditions like heart failure, which require immediate medical attention. A health professional can assess your heart rate and blood pressure and may recommend lab tests to determine the cause of your breathlessness.

For those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medications like SSRIs or benzodiazepines can be effective treatment options. Mental health professionals often suggest grounding techniques and diaphragmatic breathing to manage rapid or shallow breathing.

How Do You Get Rid of Shortness of Breath from Anxiety?

To get rid of shortness of breath from anxiety, you can try deep breathing exercises. These help control the over-breathing that can happen with anxiety. You can also try relaxation techniques, such as meditation or yoga, which help slow down breathing and reduce anxiety.

What is the Best Way to Calm Down if You Have Shortness of Breath from Anxiety?

The best way to calm down if you're experiencing shortness of breath from anxiety is to focus on taking slow, deep breaths. Inhale slowly through your nose, hold your breath for a few seconds, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. This can help regulate your breathing pattern and reduce the feelings of panic.

How Do You Calm Down Breathing Anxiety?

To calm down breathing anxiety, engage in a technique called diaphragmatic breathing, which involves breathing deeply into the abdomen rather than shallowly into the chest. This encourages full oxygen exchange and can help reduce the rapid breathing that accompanies anxiety.

How Do I Stop Thinking About Breathing Anxiety?

To stop thinking about breathing anxiety, try redirecting your focus to something external or engaging in an activity that occupies your mind. You can also practice mindfulness, where you observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment and then gently redirect your attention back to your breath or relaxation techniques.

How Do I Calm Down Anxiety?

To calm down anxiety, consider these methods:

  • Exercise regularly to help manage stress and improve your mood.
  • Practice deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to help relax your mind and body.
  • Talk about your feelings with a friend, family member, or mental health professional.
  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and smoking, which can increase feelings of anxiety.
  • Get enough sleep, as a lack of sleep can increase anxiety.
  • Eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated to help your body cope with stress.

Unraveling the Mystery: Lab Tests to Tell if Shortness of Breath is From Anxiety

When you're experiencing shortness of breath, particularly if anxiety is suspected to be a factor, your healthcare provider may recommend several lab tests to rule out other medical conditions and to understand the full picture of your health.

Complete Blood Count (CBC)

A Complete Blood Count (CBC) can help detect signs of anemia or infection, which may contribute to breathlessness. For patients with anxiety, understanding that their shortness of breath isn't due to blood abnormalities can be reassuring and help in focusing on anxiety management.

Thyroid Function Tests

These Thyroid function tests check for thyroid disorders, which can sometimes mimic or worsen anxiety symptoms. Properly managing thyroid levels can alleviate some of the physical symptoms that contribute to anxiety, such as heart rate fluctuations.

Blood Gas Test

This measures oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood and can indicate how well your lungs are functioning. For those with anxiety, normal results can confirm that breathlessness is likely not caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other pulmonary issues.

Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP)

A Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP) test can be a useful diagnostic tool in evaluating the underlying causes of symptoms like shortness of breath and anxiety. While a CMP does not directly measure factors causing these symptoms, it provides essential information about the body's metabolic state, which can influence respiratory and mental health. Here's how a CMP can contribute to unraveling the mystery behind these symptoms:

Evaluating Electrolyte Balance

  • Key Components: Sodium, potassium, chloride, and bicarbonate.
  • Relevance: Electrolyte imbalances can affect muscle function and the nervous system, leading to symptoms like palpitations and muscle weakness, which can exacerbate feelings of anxiety. Electrolyte imbalances can affect muscle function and hydration levels, potentially leading to muscle weakness or cramps, which may contribute to shortness of breath.

Assessing Kidney Function

  • Key Components: Blood urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatinine.
  • Relevance: Kidney issues can lead to an accumulation of waste products in the blood, causing symptoms like fatigue and shortness of breath, which can heighten anxiety levels.

Checking Liver Status

  • Key Components: Liver enzymes such as AST and ALT, bilirubin, and albumin.
  • Relevance: Liver dysfunction can lead to a buildup of toxins in the blood, which can cause symptoms that mimic or exacerbate anxiety.

Monitoring Blood Glucose Levels

  • Key Components: Glucose.
  • Relevance: Abnormal glucose levels can lead to symptoms of anxiety and can also affect breathing if severe.

Understanding Calcium Levels

  • Key Components: Calcium.
  • Relevance: Calcium plays a vital role in nerve transmission and muscle contraction. Abnormal levels can cause neuromuscular symptoms that may be perceived as shortness of breath or anxiety.

Assessing Protein Levels

  • Key Components: Total protein, albumin.
  • Relevance: Abnormal protein levels can indicate a variety of conditions, including nutritional deficiencies that can impact overall health and contribute to symptoms of anxiety and breathing difficulties.

A CMP provides a snapshot of your body's current metabolic state, and any abnormalities might suggest a need for further investigation. For example, if the CMP indicates that your electrolytes are imbalanced, it could be affecting your heart's rhythm and leading to shortness of breath. If your glucose levels are off, it might suggest diabetes, which can cause symptoms of anxiety.

Remember, while a CMP can offer valuable clues, it is often used alongside other tests and evaluations to determine the precise cause of such symptoms.

Cardiac Enzymes

These tests can rule out heart attack or heart failure, which is essential as chest pain and shortness of breath from anxiety can sometimes resemble heart conditions. Knowing your heart is healthy can alleviate some of the fear and anxiety about these symptoms.

Ulta Lab Tests offers a range of tests to measure cardiac enzymes, which are proteins released into the blood when the heart muscle has been damaged, such as after a heart attack. These enzymes include:

  1. Creatine Kinase Isoenzymes (CK Isoenzymes) with Total CK: This test measures the total creatine kinase in the blood and the specific isoenzymes. It can be useful in assessing muscle damage, as different isoenzymes are found in different types of muscles, including the heart​​.
  2. Creatine Kinase (CK), Total: This test measures the total amount of creatine kinase, an enzyme found in heart tissue, and may be used to assess muscle damage. It reports the total CK and fractions of CK isoenzymes present in the blood​​.
  3. Troponin I, High Sensitivity: Troponin I is a protein found in heart muscle and is a highly sensitive and specific marker of heart muscle injury. This test is used to diagnose myocardial infarction, or heart attacks, and can detect even small amounts of heart muscle damage​​.

Patients benefit from these tests as they can help diagnose conditions like myocardial infarction promptly, leading to timely and appropriate treatment. Detecting heart muscle damage early can be crucial in preventing further complications and improving outcomes after a cardiac event. These tests are typically part of a panel used to diagnose or rule out a heart attack but can also be used to monitor ongoing heart conditions or damage from other causes. Regular monitoring through these tests can provide crucial information about the health of the heart over time.


A D-Dimer, Quantitative test can help rule out the presence of an inappropriate blood clot, which can be a medical emergency causing shortness of breath. For anxious patients, excluding this possibility can be a significant relief.

Pulmonary Function Tests (PFTs)

While not a blood test, PFTs measure how well the lungs take in and release air and how efficiently they transfer oxygen into the blood. For someone with anxiety, normal PFT results can rule out lung conditions as a cause of breathlessness.

Holter Monitor

Again, while not a blood test, a Holter monitor is a portable device worn to continuously monitor heart rate and rhythm. For individuals with anxiety, this can help differentiate between cardiac causes of breathlessness and those related to panic attacks.

Benefiting from Lab Tests

Undergoing these tests can provide peace of mind for those with anxiety by ruling out physical health problems. They are crucial steps in managing anxiety, as they help confirm that the shortness of breath is not due to a physical illness, allowing both the patient and the healthcare provider to focus on treating the anxiety itself. Understanding that their symptoms are not indicative of a more serious condition can significantly reduce a patient's anxiety levels.

Summary: Can Anxiety Cause Shortness of Breath?

In wrapping up our exploration of shortness of breath and its connection to anxiety, it's crucial to recognize the interplay between the mind and body. Shortness of breath can indeed stem from anxiety, manifesting alongside a spectrum of symptoms that signal your body's response to stress or fear. Understanding the signs and learning to distinguish them from other medical causes is the first step toward management and relief.

To effectively address shortness of breath due to anxiety, incorporating relaxation techniques, practicing mindful breathing, and engaging in activities that alleviate stress are key strategies. For those experiencing persistent or severe symptoms, or if there's any doubt about the cause, consulting with a healthcare professional is imperative.

Remember, while anxiety can significantly impact your physical well-being, there are numerous ways to regain control and improve your quality of life. By staying informed, proactive, and open to professional guidance, you can navigate the challenges of anxiety and breathe easier both literally and figuratively.

Q&A: How to Tell if Shortness of Breath is From Anxiety

Q: How to tell the difference between shortness of breath from anxiety and other causes?
A: Shortness of breath from anxiety is often accompanied by other symptoms of anxiety, like nervousness, a racing heart, or sweating. It also tends to improve as you relax or distract yourself. Medical causes often have additional symptoms like pain or persistent cough and do not typically subside without treatment.

Q: How do you get rid of shortness of breath from anxiety?
A: Start by practicing deep breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, which can help regulate your breath. Mindfulness meditation and progressive muscle relaxation can also alleviate anxiety-induced shortness of breath.

Q: How do you calm down breathing anxiety?
A: Focus on slow, controlled breaths. Inhale slowly through your nose, hold for a count, and exhale through your mouth. Repeat this while sitting or lying down comfortably, which can slow down your breathing and reduce anxiety.

Q: How do I stop thinking about breathing anxiety?
A: Engaging in activities that keep your mind occupied can help, such as reading, walking, or a hobby. Cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques can also train your mind to focus less on your breathing.

Q: What is anxiety?
A: Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. It's a normal and often healthy emotion, but when a person regularly feels disproportionate levels of anxiety, it might become a medical disorder.

Q: How do I calm down anxiety?
A: Calming anxiety can involve various techniques, including breathing exercises, physical activity, reducing caffeine intake, and practicing mindfulness. In some cases, therapy or medication may be recommended by a healthcare provider.

Q: What is the best way to calm down if you have shortness of breath from anxiety?
A: Use deep breathing exercises to regain control over your breathing. Find a quiet space, take slow deep breaths, and focus on filling and emptying your lungs completely. This can help reset your breathing pattern and reduce anxiety.

Q: What are the signs of anxiety?
A: Common signs include restlessness, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, difficulty concentrating, and trouble sleeping. Everyone may experience different symptoms depending on their level of anxiety.

Q: What does shortness of breath mean?
A: Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, means you are having difficulty breathing or are feeling suffocated. It can be caused by anxiety, but it can also be a sign of various health issues, such as respiratory infections, asthma, or heart problems. If shortness of breath is sudden or severe, it’s important to seek medical attention promptly.

Q: How can I tell if my shortness of breath is caused by anxiety?
A: Shortness of breath from anxiety is often accompanied by other signs of anxiety such as rapid heart rate, sweating, or a feeling of panic. It typically resolves as you calm down.

Q: Does anxiety cause shortness of breath?
A: Yes, anxiety can trigger shortness of breath. It's a common symptom of anxiety disorders, including panic attacks, where the body's "fight or flight" response can affect your breathing pattern.

Q: Can anxiety shortness of breath happen without feeling anxious?
A: Sometimes, anxiety can manifest primarily with physical symptoms like shortness of breath, even if you're not consciously feeling anxious. This can be due to subconscious stress or tension.

Q: How long can shortness of breath from anxiety last?
A: The duration can vary. Some people experience it only during an anxiety or panic attack, while others may have it persistently throughout the day, often in response to ongoing stress.

Q: What are some strategies to manage shortness of breath caused by anxiety?
A: Techniques like deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, and regular physical activity can help manage anxiety. If shortness of breath is a frequent issue, consulting with a healthcare provider or therapist is advised.

Q: Is shortness of breath from anxiety harmful?
A: While it can be uncomfortable, shortness of breath from anxiety itself is not harmful. However, it's important to rule out any potential medical causes, especially if the symptom is new or severe.

Q: Should I see a doctor for shortness of breath from anxiety?
A: Yes, it's always a good idea to consult a healthcare professional to rule out other causes of shortness of breath and to receive appropriate treatment for anxiety.

Understanding the nature of your shortness of breath is important for your overall health and well-being. If you suspect your breathing difficulties are anxiety-related, taking steps to manage your anxiety and speaking with a professional can provide relief and improve your quality of life.

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