One of the most common anxiety symptoms is tightness in the chest or shortness of breath. It is well documented that anxiety can sometimes cause hyperventilation which results in shortness of breath and asthma-like symptoms. There's also speculation that chronic stress and anxiety can cause the sufferer to unknowingly tighten up muscles in the stomach, back and chest, which lead to a tight feeling in the chest or shallow breathing.
But it is important to remember that shortness of breath can also be a symptom of many physical ailments, including asthma, heart problems, pneumonia, bronchitis and emphysema. So even if an individual suspects they have anxiety-related shortness of breath, it is important to always see a doctor first, especially if the symptoms are severe or causes lightheadedness, dizziness, discoloration of the face or lips, or numbness/ tingling sensation in the fingers or toes. These can be signs of a more serious pulmonary disorder and should be treated by a doctor immediately.
If a doctor has ruled out any physical cause for the shortness of breath, there is a good chance the discomfort is caused by anxiety or chronic stress. It is not uncommon for anxious or depressed individuals to unknowingly begin "over-breathing," which results in taking in an excess of oxygen, and a failure to properly exhale carbon dioxide from the lungs. This is the phenomenon usually referred to as hyperventilation, and it is most often characterized by short, shallow breaths.
Hyperventilation is relatively common and has long been associated with panic attacks, but it can also be the result of ongoing generalized anxiety and stress. We've all seen the old home remedy of breathing into a paper bag to help restore calm to an individual suffering with shortness of breath caused by hyperventilation. The paper bag technique forces the individual to take in more carbon dioxide and less oxygen. And there is some evidence that, when used sparingly, the paper bag technique can help restore normal breathing and offset the effect of "over-breathing" that can cause hyperventilation.
Some anxiety sufferers have also had good results by using breathing exercises from yoga or tai chi to eliminate anxiety-related shortness of breath. These disciplines teach a controlled method of breathing, which ensures that the individual empties the lungs completely when exhaling. This type of breathing is associated with a calmer, more relaxed state of mind, and can significantly help in controlling panic or anxiety attacks, especially those that include breathing symptoms such as shortness of breath or hyperventilation.
Other techniques that have been found effective against shortness of breath caused by anxiety include guided visualization, meditation, and even hypnosis. Additionally, refraining from using nicotine, caffeine and other stimulants is recommended in practically all cases of anxiety or panic attacks. The use of stimulants can increase the likelihood of experiencing shortness of breath anxiety symptoms. On the other hand, herbal teas such as chamomile and peppermint are sometimes used to calm the nerves, and are said to promote more relaxed, healthy breathing.
Keep in mind though, any time an individual experiences shortness of breath it is imperative to see a doctor right away. While shortness of breath is a relatively common anxiety symptom, it can also be attributable to more serious physical illnesses. Only a doctor can determine for certain if the breathing difficulty is caused by anxiety, or something more serious.