Can depression cause shortness of breath? (+ 5 tips)

In this article we will answer if depression can cause shortness of breath, also called dyspnea by health professionals, and cover topics such as what research says about it and what strategies a person with depression can use to deal with the shortness of breath.

Can depression cause shortness of breath?

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Yes, depression can cause shortness of breath. Although it is mostly related to anxiety, it’s known that when depressed one’s breath becomes very shallow when compared to the breathing pattern of someone who is not depressed. 

  • It is said that depression is connected to a smaller oxygen flow in the body and although it is not clear yet what comes first, the decrease of oxygen or the depression, it is possible to establish a relationship between the shortness of breath and depression.

What does the research say?

Depression is a mental illness that affects in a negative way how you feel, how you think, and how you behave. It is characterized by:

  • Lost of interest in people and things
  • Apathy
  • Loss of energy
  • Feeling SAS, worthless, or guilty
  • Having death thoughts or suicide ideas
  • Change in eating pattern
  • Unexplained physical problems, usually pains and headaches
  • Trouble concentrating on activities
  • Change in sleep pattern
  • Emotional outburst, could appear as anger, frustration, and irritability

Aside from all the symptoms listed above, researchers say that depression can affect a person’s brain in different ways, from inflammation to oxygen restriction, interfering with the breathing pattern. 

To explain how the shortness of breath happens in a depressed person, researchers have discovered that the shortness of breath occurs when the emotional breathing turns into a process of excessive inspiration, meaning when a person tries to catch a lot of air. When this happens, there will be big inflation of the airways causing a sense of dyspnea.

What is called dyspnea by the health community, is called shortness of breath to other people and this is described as an intense tightening of the chest. 

Different studies have established a relation between the two. In one  study done by Leader and colleagues in 2014 with 2270 people it was observed the most common respiratory problems people with depression and anxiety have, they are:

  • Wheezing
  • Breathlessness
  • Nightly symptoms (nocturnal chest tightness and dyspnea)

Let’s outline how different groups of people can experience depression and shortness of breath. Such as:

  • Women
  • Elderly people

Women with depression and shortness of breath

Several studies related shortness of breath to women with depression. In one of the, made by Leader and colleagues in 2014, with 2270 people, men and women whose age ranged between 20-44, were done. In the study of Leader and colleagues, they tried to establish a relationship between breathing difficulties, anxiety, and depression. It was discovered with this study a higher occurrence of shortness of breath in women dealing with depression. 

The researchers have proposed some causes for that, one might be that women have a smaller lung capacity and the other relates the higher occupancy of shortness of breath in women to hormones, saying that since women produce more progesterone, a hormone recognized as a respiratory stimulant, they can experience the feeling of shortness of breath more frequently than men.

Elderly people with depression and shortness of breath

Shortness of breath was also observed in elderly people with depression in a study done by Blazer and Hybels in 2011 with 2926 elderly people. The goal was to evaluate, on long-term research, divided into two periods, one at the baseline and a 3-year follow-up.

After analyzing both the baseline and the 3-year follow-up The researchers found that shortness of breath is a common symptom of depression in the elderly population and it is usually a long-lasting one in elderly people with depression.

Because of the follow-up, it was possible to discover that the shortness of breath in depressed elderly can last longer, even after some of the symptoms of depression are gone.

How can one deal with shortness of breath when depressed?

Some strategies can be used as a way of decreasing the anguish and terrible feeling one experiences when faced with shortness of breath when you are dealing with depression, here we will outline 5 ways one can try to use on their day to day life to feel a little better:

4-7-8 breathing exercise

A good way to relief the shortness of breath is by doing a very easy breathing exercise, that can be done anywhere, at any time, and can help you deal with the shortness of breath, giving you a sense of calm when faced with a difficult situation, is the 4-7-8 breathing. 

To do this type of breathing one should sit or lie in a comfortable position, with the back aligned, and let all the air come out through your mouth slowly, after that close your lips and inhale through your nose and count to four while you do it. Once you fill your lungs, count to seven holding your breath, and exhale completely through your mouth with a count of eight.

One should do this exercise in four cycles so you can feel a relaxation response. It can be done as many times a day as a person would want, actually, the more you practice you may start to feel the benefits of it during your day.

Relaxing the body

To help you deal with the shortness of breath, you can do a massage, a warm bath, or progressive muscle relaxation. That activity consists of tensing and relaxing muscle groups one by one, so feet, legs, stomach, arms, by tensing and relaxing your muscles consciously you will send your body the message that it is okay to relax. 

It might even help with your sleep pattern, something that can be so difficult when you are feeling depressed.

Mindful meditation

Mindful meditation is a good way of slowing your breathing because it is based on the principle that you should focus on what is happening right here and right now. Notice the noises around you, how your body feels right now, how your breathing is going. The main focus of this is to just take note of what is going on around you and embrace it, without trying to change it.

Moving your body

Doing a few exercises like Yoga that combine controlling your breathing and moving your body will help with the shortness of breath; other exercises that might help are hiking, since it helps you separate from the agitated life and puts you in a more peaceful area. 

But sometimes something simple, such as short walks, can help you focus on the right here, right now.

Psychotherapy

Anyone facing depression should look for a mental health professional, a therapist, and in some cases, when medication is also needed, a psychiatrist. Having the help of those professionals will create a space of caring and trust to enable you to focus on yourself, in that environment you can develop your unique strategies to deal with what you are going through and have someone you trust who will listen and share your process. 

Together both of you can understand a little better why you are feeling how you feel, discover what triggers your shortness of breath and any other symptoms you might be experiencing because of the depression, and try to find a way out of this situation that brings you so much suffering.

Frequently asked question (FAQ): Can depression cause shortness of breath?

Can anxiety and depression cause breathing problems?

Yes, anxiety and depression can cause breathing problems because when you are dealing with anxiety and/ or depression you can often feel a sense of being overwhelmed, that tragedy might be close or that you are at risk, that fight or flight feeling, even if nothing real is happening at the moment.

When you experience those feelings, you can notice an alteration in your breathing pattern that can cause hyperventilation or shortness of breath.

How do I stop overthinking breathing?

When we are depressed it is common to be so trapped in a line of thought that you can’t change it, thinking something bad might happen can take up all your energy. 

Once you face breathing difficulties it can put you on alert for when this might happen again, and you turn yourself and all your focus, something that is very common in depression, on waiting for that bad thing to happen again.

A good way to stop overthinking about your breathing is breathing calmly through your nose so you can send a message to your brain that you are not in a high-risk situation. You can also count down to calming, counting down from 10 each time you exhale thinking of the word relax. By the time you reach 1 think of all the stress leaving your body.

Can shortness of breath related to an emotional condition last for days?

No, the shortness of breath related to an emotional condition usually doesn’t last long.  When you have depression or anxiety it can cause shortness of breath, but in those situations, it is usually an intense moment that lasts around 30 minutes, during which a lot of energy is drained from your body, but the better you find ways to manage the shortness of breath, the less it will last and inflict anguish on you.

The rule here is to learn how to focus on your breathing and restart it slowly as a way of learning that you are not in a real dangerous situation right now and get, little by little, a sense of control of your body and your breathing.

Why, even if I can breathe, sometimes it feels like I’m running out of air?

Although you have a regular oxygen level if you check it, sometimes you might feel like you can’t catch your breath. When you are living with depression and/or anxiety because your body is always in alert mode, expecting the worst, your heart rate can go up and you can find it hard to catch air.

Does a person’s brain repair itself after a depression?

Studies have shown that even though the brain doesn’t respond well when someone is depressed, showing it has inflammation, lack of oxygen and it’s not as responsive as other people’s brain, once the person starts recovering from the depression, the brain follows and it can recover itself little by little over time.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is possible to say depression can cause shortness of breath among other breathing difficulties but through developing strategies and the practice of breathing exercises it is possible to learn ways to cope and improve your breathing pattern when dealing with depression. 

It is also important to highlight that the feeling of shortness of breath can be caused by other problems, such as heart or lung conditions so it is always important to check your physician to rule out any of those other issues.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to do your comments in the section below.

References 

Blazer, DG; Hybel, CF. Shortness of breath as a predictor of depressive symptoms in a community sample of older adults. Int J Geriatric Psychiatry. 2010 Oct; 25(10): 1080-1084.

Leander M, Lampa E, Rask-Anderson A, Fraklin K, Gislason T, Oisin A, Svanes C, Torén K, Janson C. Impact of anxiety and depression on respiratory symptoms. Respiratory Medicine.2014 Nov; 108(11): 1594-1600.

https://www.healthline.com/health/shortness-of-breath-anxiety
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326831
https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/16942-shortness-of-breath-dyspnea
https://www.webmd.com/depression/physical-symptoms
https://www.healthline.com/health/depression-physical-effects-on-the-brain#Brain-shrinkage
https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/uz2209

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