Understanding Anxiety, Stress, and Shortness of Breath

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Suffering with modern stress

When you’re anxious or stressed out, your body works differently. It produces hormones that induce the “fight-or-flight” response. Your heart beats faster and your blood vessels narrow, which restricts blood flow and increases blood pressure. Your breathing rate and your oxygen needs increase too, causing you to feel short of breath. Here’s how stress and anxiety can affect you if you have lung disease.

Understand the good and bad side of stress

The fight-or-flight response primes your muscles to take action, which is useful if, say, you’re running out of the way of an oncoming bus. But everyday events that aren’t life threatening, such as work deadlines or multitasking, can also trigger this stress response. And chronic stress spells trouble.

Lasting weeks or years, chronic stress can weaken your immune system and lead to health problems like high blood pressure and headaches. Even in the short term, stress can make anxiety and other health conditions, such as asthma, worse. 

Learn how to trigger the relaxation response

You may not realize it, but you can outwit stress and anxiety by physically changing the way your body responds. This induces the opposite of fight or flight—the relaxation response—to help you breathe more easily and feel calmer and more in control. Here are some tactics to help retrain your response. 

Belly breathing

This breathing technique is also known as diaphragmatic breathing. It involves purposely breathing from your diaphragm—the large, dome-shaped muscle at the base of your lungs—to maximize the amount of oxygen that goes into your bloodstream. When you introduce more oxygen into your body, you’ll short-circuit the fight-or-flight response. Your heart will beat more slowly and your blood won’t be flooded with stress hormones. 

  • While sitting down, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. 
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose. You should be able to feel your stomach against your hand when you do. The hand on your chest should be relatively still. 
  • Tighten your stomach muscles and exhale through pursed lips. 

Belly breathing takes practice. To get the hang of it, try it 3 to 4 times a day for 5 to 10 minutes each time, even when you’re not feeling anxious. 

Autogenic training

This technique involves focusing on your breathing or the physical sensation of your heartbeat and thinking of your body as warm, heavy and relaxed. 

  • While seated in a comfortable position, slowly repeat the following phrases to yourself several times: “My arms are heavy. My left arm is heavy. My right arm is heavy. Both of my arms are heavy.” Imagine the immense weight of your arms. 
  • Repeat the same phrases about your legs, and imagine your legs being heavy and relaxed. 
  • Repeat both phrases about your arms and legs, but this time substitute the word warm for heavy, as in, “My arms are warm. My right arm is warm. My left arm is warm. Both arms are warm.” Visualize your arms being warmed by the sun. 
  • Now focus on your heartbeat and say, “My heartbeat is calm and regular.” Think of your heart rate as relaxed and steady. 
  • Repeat the same phrase, but substitute breathing for heartbeat. Think about breathing deeply, but don’t force yourself to do so. 
  • End with a deep, cleansing breath and a good stretch.

These techniques can take some practice. If you need help understanding how to retrain your response, talk with your doctor or respiratory therapist. They can work with you until you are comfortable with the relaxation techniques on your own.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Oct 17
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Autogenic Training. American Holistic Nurses Association. http://www.ahna.org/Resources/Stress-Management/Managing-Stress/Stress-Exercises/Autogenic-Training.
  2. Diaphragmatic Breathing. Cleveland Clinic. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/chronic_obstructive_pulmonary_disease_copd/hic_diaphragmatic....
  3. Relaxation Techniques for Health: An Introduction. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/stress/relaxation.htm.
  4. Shortness of Breath. American Cancer Society. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/physicalsideeffects/dealingwithsymptomsatho....
  5. Training: Diaphragmatic Breathing. University of Texas at Austin. http://cmhc.utexas.edu/stressrecess/Level_Two/breathing.html.