Stress and breathlessness – an unhelpful cycle

Stress is a common feeling we all have from time to time. It is impossible to take away stress completely, but there are lots of ways to manage stress levels when they start to get out of hand.

Often we become stressed when we think about things that may happen in the future. This worry can then cause changes in our bodies like tense or tight muscles, an upset stomach, dizziness and shallow, faster breathing.

It is common for people with health problems and their carers to feel more stressed than other people. This is because they are faced with extra challenges, day-to-day.

Stress can be particularly unhelpful for breathlessness because together they can create a vicious cycle, feeding one another.


Picture this . . .

Chris notices he is feeling breathless.

He worries that he might not be able to catch the next breath and starts to feel stressed and anxious.

As part of the stress, Chris’ muscles start to tighten and his breathing gets faster. These bodily changes caused by stress make it harder to breathe and lead him to feel even more breathless.

As the breathlessness gets worse, he becomes more and more worried about not being able to breathe. Chris is stuck in a stress-breathlessness cycle.

What you can do to help the patient

Remember that if the patient is stuck in this stress-breathlessness cycle, there are lots of things you can do to help them break out of it.

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Page last reviewed: 08/05/2020