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Can Anxiety Cause Breathing Problems?


Although there are many symptoms that can be associated with anxiety, one of the most common is breathing problems or hyperventilation. When this symptom occurs it can be very concerning, after all there are plenty of serious conditions that revolve around the inability to breath. 


Physical symptoms of anxiety are often triggered by a release of the stress hormone cortisol or the chemical adrenaline in the caveman part of our brain. This is the survival-driven part of our brain that our newer, rational cortex grew on top of. Its primary concern is keeping us alive, so when our brain perceives a threat, it releases these stress chemicals and activates a response called the fight, flight or freeze response. This puts our body on high alert, and as a result, our body prepares to either fight, flight or freeze.


Why Does Anxiety Cause Breathing Problems?

When our brain perceives a threat and activates our fight, flight or freeze response, our body reacts accordingly. This includes raising our heart rate and breathing, as if we’re preparing to run away or fight.


As our breathing increases, our breaths become shorter and shallower, as if we’re sprinting. This is so that the blood can circulate oxygen to our key muscles to strike out or flee. However, this isn’t maintainable for long periods of time, because this process means that we lack the appropriate balance of carbon dioxide, which causes our muscles to tense and cramp.


Similarly to a lot of anxiety-related symptoms, our brain interprets our physical reaction as reinforcement that the threat is real, even though chances are it’s not as life and death as we might believe. 


Also, because of the severe connotations that come with not being able to breath properly, we become more panicked and worried, feeding into the perceived threat. This can build into full hyperventilation and panic attacks.  


How Can We Stop This Symptom?

As this is to do with the cardiovascular and respiratory system the key is to take deep, full breaths in a controlled way. By getting our oxygen and carbon dioxide levels back in whack our heart rate will slow and the fight, flight, or freeze response in our caveman brain should begin to cease.


This can be a very scary symptom to experience so it’s important to reassure yourself that you are in control and can calm your system back down. These panic related symptoms tend to last on average about 10 minutes, so you can get through it. Just try and ground yourself, focus on your breathing and what’s immediately around you, and your breathing should slow.


Of course, this helps us to stop the symptoms in action, but in order to prevent the symptoms occurring, you need to manage or build strategies to tackle your anxiety. There are several options available including CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), mindfulness, medication and group therapy. If you’re unsure, please contact your GP for more information.