Panic Disorder Symptoms Why Panic Attacks Cause Shortness of Breath By Katharina Star, PhD Katharina Star, PhD Facebook LinkedIn Katharina Star, PhD, is an expert on anxiety and panic disorder. Dr. Star is a professional counselor, and she is trained in creative art therapies and mindfulness. Learn about our editorial process Updated on November 23, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Armeen Poor, MD Medically reviewed by Armeen Poor, MD Armeen Poor, MD, is a board-certified pulmonologist and intensivist. He specializes in pulmonary health, critical care, and sleep medicine. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents Characteristics What Causes Shortness of Breath Treatment Coping During a panic attack or sudden anxiety episode, the fight-or-flight response is activated, which can lead to an intense cascade of uncomfortable symptoms, including shortness of breath and hyperventilating. Whether you have had a single panic attack or have been diagnosed with panic disorder, experiencing shortness of breath can feel incredibly unsettling and frightening. Better understanding shortness of breath and its link to panic attacks and anxiety may help you or a loved one find appropriate resources, support, and strategies that aim to reduce and/or eliminate symptoms. Characteristics When experiencing a change in your breathing pattern during a panic attack, you may feel as if: You are gasping for airYour breathing feels shallow and restrictedYour breathing pace is quicker than usualYou can't slow your rapid breathing downYou feel as if you are choking or being suffocated In addition to experiencing shortness of breath and/or hyperventilation, you may feel faint, dizzy, and lightheaded. You may also experience other symptoms of a panic attack or panic disorder during this time. Shortness of Breath vs. Hyperventilating Shortness of breath, also referred to as dyspnea, and hyperventilation, also known as overbreathing, are intimately connected to each other. When you feel shortness of breath, you may breathe faster, which can lead to hyperventilation—and, in turn, hyperventilation can trigger or worsen shortness of breath. Hyperventilation: Can intensify feelings of panic, stress, and anxietyCan decrease the carbon dioxide in your bloodCan lead to faintness, nausea, numbness or tingling, and dry mouthCan lead to feeling restricted and tight in your chestCan lead to feeling confused and out of itCan disrupt your sleep What Causes Shortness of Breath Breathing can be a good marker for an individual's internal state, so it makes sense that if an individual is experiencing panic, anxiety, and/or high levels of stress, their breathing will reflect that. According to research, changes in breathing can trigger a panic attack, increase levels of anxiety, and intensify a panic attack that has already begun. Studies indicate that: Shortness of breath is linked to the body's fight or flight response as the body attempts to take in more oxygen and prepares to defend itself.Shortness of breath in the context of panic attacks and panic disorder have a genetic and/or hormonal component. Can Anxiety Cause Shortness of Breath? Anxiety can both cause and exacerbate shortness of breath. Symptoms of anxiety can include feeling short of breath, air hungry, and a smothering feeling. In turn, feeling short of breath can also increase your anxiety. In terms of panic attacks, shortness of breath may take place prior to the onset of a panic attack, or increase during one. Treatment If you or a loved one are experiencing panic attacks, know that there are many treatment options available. Because the root cause of panic attacks and panic disorder will vary from individual to individual, it's best to try multiple treatment options or combinations to figure out which one is the best fit. When to Talk to Your Doctor Experiencing shortness of breath or hyperventilating during a panic attack can be terrifying. Because panic attacks and panic disorder can be associated with other underlying diseases or disorders, it's important to speak with your doctor so they can identify what is causing your shortness of breath. Medication Medication may be effective for some individuals in treating panic attacks and panic disorder. Medication may help reduce overall anxiety, decrease the frequency and intensity of panic attacks, and reduce the anxiety associated with panic attacks. Medication options that have proven efficacy in treating panic attacks and panic disorder in some individuals include: Tranylcypromine Paroxetine Clonazepam Alprazolam Escitalopram Psychotherapy Psychotherapy may be used in conjunction with medication, or on its own. Which route someone opts to try in terms of treatment may depend on the intensity and frequency of their symptoms as well as their personal preferences. Psychotherapy may address individual, couples, and family issues that have been impacted by panic attacks and panic disorder. Therapeutic techniques used to treat panic attacks and panic disorder include: Cognitive behavioral therapyCognitive behavior modificationRational emotive behavior therapyPracticing mindfulnessTranscranial magnetic stimulation Alternative Treatment Options Therapeutic techniques such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) and equine-assisted psychotherapy are other treatment options to consider. Coping Experiencing shortness of breath during a panic attack can feel stressful, isolating, and scary. Because panic attacks can begin without a known trigger, it's important to have a tool kit of techniques to stop or manage a panic attack. If you are having difficulty with daily activities and/or are having thoughts of harming yourself or others, it's important to connect with a professional immediately. During the start of a panic attack, recite a mantra to yourself that you can repeat (for example: "This will pass" or "I'm going to be okay"). Practice a relaxation technique when you are not having a panic attack. Practicing in a more relaxed state may help you feel better prepared to use your strategy when you feel a panic attack beginning. Begin practicing mindfulness meditation to help you gain better insight into your thoughts in a non-judgmental way. Track your symptoms with a panic attack diary to better understand your unique panic attack experience. During a panic attack, try to reconnect to your body and surroundings by doing an exercise of threes. Count three things you see around you, three things you feel, three things you can hear, and three things you can smell. After a panic attack, call a supportive friend or loved one to talk through your experience. Consider calling your therapist or doctor if this particular panic attack was especially intense or if the frequency of your panic attacks is increasing. What Can You Do When You Feel Short of Breath? Mindful breathing may help you return to your typical breathing pattern during a panic attack or ground yourself afterwards. Follow these basic guidelines:Notice your breath. Visualize yourself beginning to slow your breathing down. You may picture your stomach rising and falling at a very slow pace.Place your hands on your rib cage. Now, inhale slowly through your nose, filling your rib cage with air. Slowly exhale through the nose, taking note of how the rib cage contracts.Repeat several breaths, counting to 10 as you inhale and 10 as you exhale. With each breath, try to notice any tension in your face, neck, and shoulders. Imagine your breath flowing through any tension within your body.Place your hands on your belly. Stay with your deep, smooth breathing. Take a deep breath in for 10 seconds and fill your belly with air. Notice how your belly rises into your hands as you inhale and how your navel pulls into the spine as you exhale for 10 seconds. Repeat for several more breaths. Deep Breathing for Panic Disorder A Word From Verywell Although panic attacks can feel terrifying in the moment, especially when your breathing is impacted, keep in mind that a panic attack is not life-threatening. However, chronic high levels of stress and anxiety can be very detrimental to your overall health and well being, so it's critical that you prioritize seeking appropriate treatment for your panic attacks and connect with your doctor regarding any breathing-related issues. 4 Sources Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Paulus MP. The breathing conundrum-interoceptive sensitivity and anxiety. Depress Anxiety. 2013;30(4):315-320. doi: 10.1002/da.22076 Johnson PL, Federici LM, Shekhar A. Etiology, triggers and neurochemical circuits associated with unexpected, expected, and laboratory-induced panic attacks. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 2014;46:429-454. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2014.07.027 Kim Y-K. Panic disorder: Current research and management approaches. Psychiatry Investig. 2019;16(1):1-3. doi: 10.30773/pi.2019.01.08 Rodrigues PA, Zaninotto AL, Neville IS, et al. Transcranial magnetic stimulation for the treatment of anxiety disorder. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2019;15:2743-2761.doi.org/10.2147/NDT.S201407 Additional Reading Bourne EJ. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 6th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications; 2015. Davis M, Eshelman ER, McKay M. The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. 6th ed. CREATESPACE PUB; 2009. Seaward BL. Managing Stress: Principles and Strategies for Health and Wellbeing. 7th ed. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning; 2011. By Katharina Star, PhD Katharina Star, PhD, is an expert on anxiety and panic disorder. Dr. Star is a professional counselor, and she is trained in creative art therapies and mindfulness. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for Panic Disorder Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.