Healthy Heart

Shortness of Breath and Panic Attacks

Shortness of Breath and Panic Attacks

Key Takeaways

  • Panic attack is the most well-known symptom of panic disorder.
  • When panic attacks occur, breathing becomes restricted and shallower.
  • Shortness of breath is also referred to as hyperventilation.

A panic attack is the most well-known symptom of a panic disorder. Oftentimes, panic attacks come unexpectedly and are usually accompanied by various frightening physical sensations, including hyperventilation or shortness of breath. They are sudden periods of intense fear and anxiety. Panic attacks themselves are not dangerous. They can occur due to a number of reasons, including a panic disorder, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, drug use, and various other medical problems. Psychological stress and smoking are two factors that put someone at risk of having a panic attack. The diagnosis of a panic attack should involve ruling out other potential causes or reasons for displaying symptoms, which may include hypo and hyperthyroidism, heart disease, and lung disease. 

Experiencing shortness of breath is a terrifying symptom. It’s feeling as though you are unable get enough air into the lungs and breathe. A lot of people describe the shortness of breath during panic attacks as a smothering, choking or suffocating feeling. Sufferers report feeling as if they're drowning or having a heart attack, claiming flashing visions or nausea. Some people also suffer from tunnel vision due to decreased blood flow to the brain. 

A panic attack is a response of the sympathetic nervous system, which is one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system's job is to regulate the body and keep it in homeostasis, or equilibrium. It's primary function is the governing of the body's 'fight-or-flight' response. 

Some people may feel like they may pass out or possibly die when suffering from shortness of breath, and as a result it makes them panic more or heighten their level of anxiety. Moreover, some people are concerned that they may have an underlying health condition such as heart problems or asthma. But, shortness of breath is one of the most common symptoms of panic attacks and typically does not indicate a serious medical condition.

What Causes Shortness of Breath?

Shortness of breath that happens while having panic attacks as well as anxiety is usually caused by a change in the normal breathing patterns of a person. Normally, people are not conscious of their own breathing. However, when anxiety and panic attacks occur, breathing becomes restricted and shallower. Quick and shorter breaths are experienced rather than filling the lungs with full, complete breaths. There are various causes of panic attacks, including:

  • Phobias: Coming into contact with one's phobias is one of the most common reasons for experiencing a panic attack. Common phobias are arachnophobia (fear of spiders), coulrophobia (fear of clowns), hydrophobia (fear of water), nyctophobia (fear of the dark) and acrophobis (fear of heights).
  • Marijuana: According to studies, approximately a third of those smoking marijuana have reported feeling anxiety or stress-related panic attacks within a few hours of smoking marijuana.
  • Situational attacks: When an individual is exposed to something that triggers remembrance and memories of traumatizing events, or finds themselves in a situation reminiscent of a painful one, it can trigger a panic attack.
  • Short-term hardship: Personal problems such as loss of a loved one, a traumatic event, or jolting life changes can all trigger the onset of a panic attack.

Shortness of breath is also referred to as hyperventilation. When a person hyperventilates, it means that the body has an excess of oxygen. Thus, it causes a decrease in the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. When people with panic attacks hyperventilate, they do not give the body enough time to retain the oxygen in the lungs so the body is not able to use the oxygen that it has. A decreased reservoir of carbon dioxide can lead to symptoms such as chest pain, dry mouth, tingling and numbness.

Shortness of breath can also result in dizziness, confusion, lightheadedness and a feeling of faintness. An individual experiencing shortness of breath can begin taking loud and quick gasps of air. But, many people only present slight signs of shortness of breath, like rapid breathing and coughing.

People having panic attacks can aggravate their shortness of breath because they become conscious of their breathing. Doing so makes them feel that their chest is expanding for a full breath. As a result, they need to take in more air than what they need.

Treatment should be directed at the underlying cause of panic attacks. Counselling or medication might be used to help treat the patient. Those affected by panic attacks are at a higher risk of suicide. In Europe, about 3% of the population is affected by panic attacks each year, while 11% of the United States do the same. They are more common in females and often begin in puberty or late adolescence. Children and the elderly are less likely to be affected. 

Symptoms of Panic Attacks Accompanied by Shortness of Breath

What To Do

One of the most important things to do if you’re experiencing shortness of breath is to make an effort to calm yourself, even if it is so difficult to do so.

Experiencing shortness of breath can be a frightening feeling. But, being anxious and fearful will only augment your panic attacks. Although panic attacks come unexpectedly, it is better to be prepared to deal with the physical symptoms as well as the thoughts that can further provoke anxiety.

There are many techniques to get through a panic attack. Picking a strategy that suits you is important. You must practice that strategy regularly. For best results, the best relaxation technique for you must be practiced when you’re not having panic attack. When you practice when you’re relaxed, it will make you more prepared for the next panic attack. Breathing exercises can be extremely effective in bringing the heart rate back down to normal and regulate air intake again.

For long-term treatment, it is widely believed that cognitive behavioral therapy is the most effective way of heavily reducing occurrence of panic attacks. Accompanied with cognitive behavioral therapy, reuptake inhibitors of serotonin can be administered. For a long while, breathing into a paper bag was widely-thought to be a good remedy for shortness of breath. However, in recent years it has been discovered that this can actually potentially worsen the panic attack and impede blood flow. Instead, a professional recommends the 5-2-5 technique, which consists of inhaling for five seconds, holding your breath for two seconds, and then exhaling for five seconds, and repeating the process until one calms down. The point of this exercise is to concentrate on breathing and slowly lower the heart rate. 

Exercise has also been shown to have a positive effect on those suffering from panic attacks with shortness of breath. Exercising consistently releases regular endorphins that keep the body in a 'positive' state, leading to reduced risk of panic attacks, hyperventilation, and shortness of breath. See your doctor or general physician for advice on how to incorporate exercise into your daily routine if you find yourself suffering from panic attacks often. Panic attacks should definitely be brought to the attention of your doctor when they have been constant and have started to impede your daily life and activities. See a doctor immediately if shortness of breath is something that affects you many times.