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Why Do I Feel Like I Can’t Breathe?


Updated June 02, 2014

Many people with panic disorder, as well as some other anxiety disorders, report feeling like they can’t breathe. Most people describe this as a feeling that they can’t get enough air into their lungs or a sensation of smothering. Since we need to breathe to sustain life, feeling like you can’t breathe can quickly bring about a sense of panic and fear. If you feel like you can’t breathe, it may seem logical to conclude that you may faint or even die from lack of oxygen. But, in reality, these sensations are not life-threatening or dangerous.

Why Do I Feel Like I Can’t Breathe?

The majority of time, anxiety-related breathlessness can be linked to the way you are breathing. When experiencing anxiety, your breathing may become quick, short and shallow. This is called chest (thoracic) breathing and can result in 'over breathing' (hyperventilation). Hyperventilation reduces the level of carbon dioxide and available calcium in the blood. This causes the brain's blood vessels to constrict and leads to physical symptoms, including dizziness, numbness, headache and others.

When most people think of someone hyperventilating, they tend to visualize a traumatic scene with someone outwardly gasping for breath. While this type of hyperventilation may occur, it can also be much more subtle and not easily identified. You may not be gasping for air, but you may sense that your breathing is not as productive as it should be, and you feel a little short of breath. You may experience disturbing symptoms that you may not even associate with the way you are breathing.

What Can I Do When I Feel Like I Can’t Breathe?

You can counteract your breathing troubles by learning to breathe properly. The technique of proper breathing may be called deep breathing, belly breathing, abdominal breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. Despite these different terms, the technique is the same. By learning to take slow, deep and even breaths, you will be able to breathe easier. This is the way newborn babies naturally breathe. You are also probably using this pattern of breathing when you are in a relaxed stage of sleep.

The next time you’re feeling anxious try this simple relaxation technique:

  1. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Your abdomen should expand, and your chest should rise very little.

  2. Exhale slowly through your mouth. As you blow air out, purse your lips slightly, but keep your jaw relaxed. You may hear a soft "whooshing" sound as you exhale.

  3. Repeat this breathing exercise for several minutes.

You can perform this exercise as often as needed. It can be done standing up, sitting down or lying down.

If you find this exercise difficult or believe it is making you anxious or panicky, stop for now. Sometimes people with panic disorder, or other anxiety disorders, initially feel increased anxiety while doing this exercise. This may be due to anxiety caused by focusing on your breathing, or you may be unable to do the exercise correctly without some practice. If that happens to you, stop for now. Try it again in a day or so and build up time gradually.

It is important to know that breathing difficulties can have a number of medical causes. It is vital that your doctor rule out medical conditions that may be causing your breathlessness. Some of these conditions may be serious and require medical treatment.


Carbonell, D. "Panic Attacks Workbook: A Guided Program for Beating the Panic Trick" 2004 Ulysses Press: Berkeley, CA.

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