Shortness Of Breath Can Be Emotional Or Medical

Shortness Of Breath Can Be Emotional Or Medical

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Shortness of breath is a symptom related to a mental condition such as anxiety or panic disorder or a medical condition such as heart or lung disease. If you ignore the symptom, you won't know what you are dealing with!

Sometimes shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain. This muddles the waters even more because chest pains, too, can be caused by emotional as well as medical reasons.

That's not all of it. Consider the people who have an anxiety disorder as well as heart disease or a lung disease. They have to get really good at telling when the breathlessness is caused by the anxiety or the medical condition. They have to ask themselves each time "Am I breathless because of my heart, or is my anxiety acting up?" Sometimes, it is a combination of both.

If you experience shortness of breath and suffer from both medical and emotional conditions, you may benefit from developing positive and relaxed awareness for the medical as well the emotional cues.

But, such awareness must be positive and relaxed. Some people simply ignore the disconcerting cues such as minor changes in chest pressure or breath flow. Since such cues forebode trouble, some choose to pay no attention until the "elephant in the living room" can't be ignored."

Thus, slight chest pressure can escalate into severe chest pain and slight acceleration of breathing into a feeling of choking or hyperventilation.

In saying this, we should also say that one does not want to become overly alarmed about these cues. Overly sensitized people regard the slightest escalation in the chest pressure or the rate of breathing as a sign of a heart attack or a panic attack.

Sharpen your internal observation skills; learn to read subtle cues from the body or mind without becoming an alarmist.

To illustrate the advantage of internal observation, let's take the example of a person with heart disease and anxiety disorder. With good observation skills, the person experiencing chest pain or breath acceleration may be able to tell whether it is the heart or anxiety acting up. He or she may then take such timely steps as exiting a stressful situation, taking relaxed breaths or taking aspirin and calling the doctor.

Positive and relaxed awareness says that you should be able to observe the earliest signs and symptoms without overreacting and take positive steps for the management of the problem.

Shortness of breath may require professional attention. There may be a medical condition underlying the symptom. In some cases, breathlessness is progressive. If not treated properly, breathlessness is likely to get worse.

The majority of people tend to ignore slight to moderate breathlessness. A small percentage of people ignore even severe breathlessness.

Research shows that when people find that an activity or exercise makes them breathless, they either simply drop that activity, or continue to exercise and think nothing more about it. They start cutting corners instead of taking positive action. For example, if walking from the parking lot to the mall entrance makes them uncomfortable, they will likely park closest to the entrance to avoid walking so far.

Denial is an interesting phenomenon. To continue with the above example, the "corner cutters" may not even recognize that breathlessness was the real reason for parking so close to the entrance. They may explain it away to themselves in some such way as, "I don't feel like walking that far. "

Some wrongly attribute shortness of breath to aging or arthritis. Some overweight people attribute even severe breathlessness to the excess pounds, which may or may not be accurate.

Such lack of awareness about breath and consequent neglect of proper treatment can have far reaching effects on health. For example, stress and anxiety-related breathlessness can develop into a full-fledged panic disorder or agoraphobia. Likewise, untreated heart or lung related breathlessness can result in severe under activity making the problem worse.

Our culture does not promote breath awareness. Since breathing can be done automatically without conscious involvement, we try to keep it that way. The problem with totally automatic breathing without ongoing oversight is that you don't receive a "heads up" about a problem until it becomes a major problem.

Do you drive a car with cruise control? If you do, I am sure you don't cruise all the time. Even if you put it on cruise, you continue monitoring the road conditions and decide when you should take over. Likewise, you should monitor your breathing. When you monitor the breath, you can decide when you want to leave it on the "automatic pilot" or take over the charge and regulate your breath with awareness.

Just as you wouldn't leave your most valuable assets in the care of subordinates without some level of oversight, don't leave your breathing to the subordinate faculties without some supervision.

Return to Self Help 

Copyright 2003, Mind Publications 
Posted December 2003


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