Feeling You Can't Breathe as an Anxiety Symptom

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Believing you can't breathe properly is yet another symptom which some anxiety sufferers have unwittingly trained their survival instinct to see as a threat.

The symptoms which an anxiety sufferer becomes aware of when anxious or when panicking vary from person to person.

Nevertheless, whichever symptoms they do notice, then become linked to the danger signal and they will focus on and look out for that same symptom on later occasions.

Some people have a habit of gasping and taking a series of short sharp breaths when feeling panicky. They often interpret this in their own minds as having an inability to breathe.

Because they then believe they have difficulty breathing, they take more short sharp breaths in an attempt to correct it. What this does is cause light headedness, which also scares the sufferer and makes them even more anxious.

When we breathe we take in oxygen from the air and pass it around the body in the bloodstream.

When we breathe out we get rid of the carbon dioxide which we don't need.

When people get afraid that they can't breathe they tend to gasp. Each gasp takes in more oxygen-rich breath. Gasping causes there to be too much oxygen in the body and that's what makes you feel light-headed.

To get the balance back, you need to take in less oxygen. In order to do this, the popular answer is to breathe into a paper bag.

woman breathing into paper bag to control anxiety

Breathing into a paper bag ensures that you breathe back in the breath you just breathed out. Because some of the oxygen has already been removed by the body the first time around, there is less remaining the next time. Thus the balance in your body gets the chance to reset itself.

I am often bemused when I see this technique applied in dramas on TV because invariably the paper bag is held only over the mouth. This will do no good at all. The bag has to cover both the nose and the mouth for the treatment to be successful. Obviously the bag must be made of paper as any sort of plastic would be extremely dangerous to inhale from.

If there is no paper bag to hand, you can also obtain relief by breathing more slowly and ensuring that the 'out' breaths are longer than the 'in' breaths. It is also helpful to just cup your palms over your nose and mouth and trap the out breathe that way so you can breathe it back in.

Another contributing factor to feeling as if you can't breathe is tightness in the chest. There is further discussion of this under chest pains. There is often also a large anxiety component in asthma attacks. I recall a report of some research which I read several years ago which claimed that asthma sufferers who had been prescribed diazepam (Valium) were likely to have more serious asthma attacks than those who weren't. The conclusion drawn was that diazepam made asthma worse!

To me this appeared to be a false conclusion. It is likely that those sufferers who had been prescribed diazepam were more likely to have anxiety tendencies in general (possibly having inherited a quick acting arousal system) and so tended to panic when having an asthma attack.

If you have an asthma attack and you also panic about the fact that you can't get your breath, you will make the attack worse. Those sufferers who did their best to remain calm when having an attack would help to alleviate the symptoms and so would appear to have less severe attacks.

Please note that feeling an inability to breathe can also be due to various physical causes and you must always get checked out by your doctor before assuming that it is due to anxiety alone.

Common Symptoms of Anxiety

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  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Anxiety Symptoms
  3. Can't Breathe