Overcoming Concerns about Breathing

By Deanne Repich

Do you feel short of breath? Do you often worry that you’re not taking in enough air?

Do you fear that you’re going to stop breathing and faint, or even die from feelings of suffocation?

You’re not alone. Concerns about breathing are common among anxiety sufferers. When you’re feeling anxious, it’s easy to believe that your shortness of breath means that you’re in grave physical danger, when in reality you’re not.

There are several things you can do to overcome concerns about breathing.

First, consult your doctor to determine if asthma, allergies, emphysema, obesity, or another illness may be causing the symptom and seek appropriate medical treatment as needed.

Once you’ve completed a medical examination and have confirmed that no other ailment is involved, educate yourself.

Finding out the reasons for your feelings can help alleviate your breathing concerns and reduce your anxiety.

Here are some breathing myths and realities that will help you breathe easier (no pun intended).

Myth: “If I feel like I’m short of breath, that means I’ll die from suffocation.”

Fact: Feeling short of breath and suffocating are two completely different things.

When the fight or flight response is triggered, the neck and chest muscles tighten, which can make it feel difficult to breathe.

This has nothing to do with suffocation. No matter how difficult it feels to breathe, it’s impossible for your chest muscles to be so tight that you suffocate. Even though feeling this way is unpleasant, it’s not dangerous.

Myth: “If I feel like it’s difficult to breathe, that means I’m not getting enough oxygen.”

Fact: If you feel like it’s difficult to breathe, it’s likely that you are overbreathing, also known as hyperventilation syndrome.

Your symptoms are caused by breathing too frequently, not from a lack of oxygen.

Overbreathing is an excessive rate of breathing that causes a loss of carbon dioxide. This loss of carbon dioxide results in intense physical symptoms such as feelings of choking, gasping, being smothered, panic, trembling, and feeling like you’re dying.

This pattern of breathing feeds on itself because the more you overbreathe, the lower your carbon dioxide levels get, and the more intense the symptoms become.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Hyperventilation syndrome is a common problem that is estimated to affect about 10% of the population.

It is not dangerous, and is easily alleviated by deep breathing. Deep breathing involves deliberately learning to slow your breathing rate and breathe from the diaphragm (a muscle in the lower abdomen).

Myth: “If I was hyperventilating, I’d know it.”

Fact: You may take shallow, frequent breaths and not even realize it.

Hyperventilation does not necessarily mean that you are breathing loudly or visibly gasping for air. Some people tend to overbreathe when they are in an anxiety-producing situation only.

Others overbreathe all of the time. Take a breath and observe yourself. If your chest or shoulders move when you breathe, you’re probably breathing from your chest, which can lead to hyperventilation.

If you take more than 15-17 breaths per minute while resting, this can also signal overbreathing.

Myth: “Feeling short of breath (like I’m suffocating, choking,etc.) is dangerous.”

Fact: These feelings can be scary and may feel uncomfortable, but they are NOT dangerous (assuming you’ve had a clear medical exam).

What’s important to realize is that if you feel short of breath or tend to overbreathe, you can learn to change it. YOU are in control.

Train your body to react more calmly using deep breathing and relaxation techniques.

Myth: “If I faint or stop breathing for a few moments, I’ll die.”

Fact: Our bodies are hard-wired to breathe. If you stop breathing your body’s built-in reflex mechanism will naturally kick in.

You’ll gasp for air and automatically start breathing again.

When you faint, your autonomic responses kick in and you start breathing automatically too!

So you see, although feeling short of breath is uncomfortable, it is NOT dangerous or life-threatening.

Myth: “If I feel short of breath, I need to breathe faster to getmore air.”

Fact: Some people think that when they feel short of breath they need to breathe more often.

The opposite is true. The more you overbreathe, the lower your carbon dioxide level becomes and the more intense your symptoms get.

Myth: “To get a deep breath, I should breathe from my chest.”

Fact: Chest breathing creates shallow breaths, not deep ones.

To get a deep, restorative breath, learn how to breathe from the diaphragm.

Myth: “I need to constantly worry about and monitor myself to make sure I keep breathing.”

Fact: As we discussed earlier, the body is hard-wired to breathe.

Stop watching yourself to make sure you continue breathing. You will! After all, your body can’t help but breathe. It’s a process that even babies do naturally, without thinking or worrying about it.

Concerns about breathing fuel anxiety and make it MORE difficult to breathe. Instead of worrying and constantly monitoring yourself, channel your thoughts and energy into a productive solution.

Learn deep breathing techniques. Practice them daily until they become second-nature to you.

When you think about your breathing, think thoughts that reflect the type of breathing you want to create.

Instead of worrying that you’re choking, for example, say to yourself: “My breathing is slow, deep, and restful. My throat feels open and it’ easy to breathe.”

Myth: “I’m the only one that feels this way. I should keep my concerns about my breathing secret.”

Fact: Millions of people feel the way you do. You are not alone. Whenever you are confronted with a fear about breathing or feel short of breath, remind yourself of the reality – you are NOT in danger.

By naming your fears about breathing and bringing them out into the open, they lose their power over you.

It’s important to realize that most causes of breathing difficulty can be easily corrected.

In addition to learning deep breathing techniques, challenging your fears with reality can help you breathe more easily.

© Copyright by Deanne Repich and the National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, Inc.


Deanne Repich is the Director of the National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, Inc., a former anxiety sufferer, and creator of the “Conquer Your Anxiety Success Program.”

The course is a ‘take-action’ self-study program that guides you step by step through over seventy practical strategies for overcoming anxiety.


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