Having difficulty breathing can be scary whenever it happens, after all it’s what keeps us alive, so if we feel like we can’t do it, we can easily snowball into panic. It’s worth remembering that having difficulty breathing can be a symptom of many larger conditions, so if you’re concerned, it’s always best to check with your doctor. This being said, difficulty breathing has also been reported as a symptom of anxiety.
As with a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety, the triggers lie within our caveman 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. The stress hormone cortisol or the chemical adrenaline are released and this puts our body on high alert, and as a result, our body prepares to either fight, flight or freeze.
Why Can Anxiety Cause Shortness of Breath?
There’s a few reasons as to why anxiety can make it feel like it’s more difficult to breathe, and the important part here is that it feels like you can’t breathe, not that you lack the capacity to breathe. When our body goes into fight, flight or freeze mode our heart rate increases and our breathing quickens and becomes more shallow, which is called hyperventilation, in order to shunt blood and oxygen around the body to the key organs and muscles that need it most. Because our breathing is more shallow than usual, it feels as if we’re not taking enough oxygen in when actually the opposite is true, and we’re actually over oxygenating our blood. When this happens, our blood vessels constrict and we can feel lightheaded or faint, which causes us more worry and we increase our breathing rate further, exacerbating the problem.
Another reason is that when we’re in this survival mode, our muscles tighten and contract, ready to strike or run away. This includes the muscles around the ribs and around the throat, so it feels as if we’re struggling to breathe in this regard too.
How Can I Stop This Symptom?
As this symptom stems from our fight, flight or freeze response, the main thing that we can do to combat it is to focus on our breathing and allow it to become deeper and longer. This should calm our central nervous system, distract our mind from the perceived threat, and deactivate our fight, flight or freeze response allowing our muscles to loosen and relax. This altogether should help us to breathe easier and feel more calm.
Of course, in order to prevent the symptoms of anxiety occurring in the first place, 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.