Shortness of Breath and Panic Attacks

Learn how to breathe easier during panic attacks

out of breath woman bending over with hands on knees outdoors
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If you have panic disorder, you're likely familiar with the symptoms of panic attacks. Heart palpitations, trembling, shaking, numbness, and tingling are just some of the uncomfortable sensations often experienced during a panic attack.

Shortness of breath is another common symptom of panic attacks that can lead to feelings of fear and extreme discomfort. Panic attack sufferers often describe an inability to breathe, feeling as if they can't get enough air into their lungs. Others report that it feels as if they're choking or suffocating.

When experiencing shortness of breath, you may try hard to get breath into your body by taking in gasps of air. It's not uncommon for you to feel as though you're having a serious medical emergency, such as a stroke or heart attack. Even though shortness of breath is a common symptom and rarely signifies a medical issue, it can heighten feelings of fear and anxiety during a panic attack.

Why It Feels As Though You Can’t Breathe

The flight-or-fight stress response is a term used to describe the innate human reaction to potentially harmful situations. It's believed this reaction helped our ancestors to either flee from or ward off threats in their environment. In modern life, this response may occur in reaction to stress caused by common issues, such as traffic, work deadlines, or an argument with a loved one.

The fight-or-flight response may be overactive or more easily triggered in people with anxiety disorders, contributing to overwhelming physical symptoms of panic and anxiety. During a panic attack, this response becomes activated, signaling that you're in danger. The body prepares for a quick escape or combat through somatic (physical) sensations that help the body focus on one of these two tasks.

As the flight-or-fight response sets in during a panic attack, it can cause a change in your breathing pattern. Your breathing may become shallower, quicker, and more restricted. These changes can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide circulating through the blood. By decreasing the levels of carbon dioxide, shortness of breath may contribute to additional physical symptoms, including lightheadedness, chest pain, dizziness, and faintness.

Ways to Cope

There are a couple of ways to help manage breathing issues during a panic attack:

  • Breathing Exercises: As mentioned, your breathing pattern changes when you experience shortness of breath. To get your breathing back on track, it may be helpful to purposely focus on your breathing pattern. You may notice that your breaths are quick and erratic. A deep-breathing exercise can help you calm down and normalize your breathing pattern. Begin by slowing down your breath: Take a deep inhalation through your nose, filling your lungs with breath. When you can't take in any more air, slowly exhale all the air out through your mouth. Continue for a few minutes with this deep, purposeful breathing. Notice how your center rises as you inhale and contracts as you breathe out. Through this simple breathing exercise, you may begin to feel relaxed and return to a more natural breath.
  • Relaxation Techniques: Breathing exercises are the foundation for many other relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), meditation, and visualization. These techniques are meant to reduce feelings of tension and stress by eliciting a sense of calm. Relaxation techniques work best when practiced regularly, including at times when you're not feeling anxious. Through practice and persistence, relaxation techniques can be an effective strategy for getting through panic attacks.

    Seeking Professional Help

    If you're regularly experiencing shortness of breath during panic attacks, it's important to seek medical attention. Although commonly associated with panic disorder, panic attacks are also often experienced with other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder (SAD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Only your doctor or qualified mental health professional will be able to appropriately diagnose you. Your doctor will help you form a treatment plan that may include options such as prescribed medications, psychotherapy, and self-help techniques. 

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