Can Anxiety Stop Your Breathing?

A reader writes, “Thanks for your article on talking too much. You leave out one major thing: the nervous system. I talk too much sometimes because I am jumpy and nervous because of anxiety in certain social situations. It’s an unwanted ramp-up of the nervous system. I also feel like I can’t breathe in certain situations. I suffer from an anxiety disorder; I realize that. But there is a chemical reaction in the nervous system that increases the talking.”

My reply:

Let’s identify the three mistaken premises in your note.

Mistaken premise #1: The nervous system determines all. In fact, it doesn’t. The nervous system is in operation at all times while a person is alive. However, the nervous system is just as likely to be controlled by what you think as the other way around. In other words, do you feel anxious because your nervous system is disordered? Or does your nervous system accelerate and “heat up” because of what you’re thinking?

If I think everyone is deceitful and out to get me, my nervous system will be in one kind of state. If, on the other hand, I don’t think anyone is out to get me, then my nervous system will be in a different kind of state. This is only one of countless examples I could identify where the nervous system is determined by what I think, believe or feel — not the other way around.

Mistaken premise # 2: Symptoms are causes. Wrong again. Symptoms are consequences. If you cannot breathe, and there’s no medical explanation for it, then the cause is most likely emotional. Your emotions are manifestations of thoughts, ideas, premises and beliefs. You cannot say, “I have difficulty breathing. It’s the cause of my talking too much.”

But you can say, “I have difficulty breathing. It’s a symptom of my extreme anxiety. My extreme anxiety is caused in part by thoughts or ideas or beliefs I hold, beliefs that I’m in danger. These beliefs are probably exaggerated, if not outright false.”

Whether or not those thoughts, ideas or beliefs are objectively valid isn’t the main point here. The main point here is that you experience difficulty breathing because of what you think and believe. It’s possible that talking too much can be a symptom of anxiety. But even then, it’s not your nervous system making you talk too much. It’s the anxiety created by your (probably) false and/or exaggerated ideas that’s making you talk too much.

Mistaken premise #3: Mental states are equivalent to, or identical to, medical diseases such as flu, heart disease or cancer. If mental states were equivalent to medical illness, then it would make sense to say, “I suffer from anxiety disorder.” This would imply that something strictly biochemical or physical is giving rise to the symptoms of the illness. But mental states, by definition, are the manifestation of ideas and beliefs.

Even if you’re anxious because you just learned you have, or might have, a medical illness, it’s because of your belief that the illness threatens you that you’re anxious. You’ll be somewhat less anxious, or perhaps not anxious at all, if a doctor you trust tells you, “This is not malignant. You’ll be fine; no surgery is required.” But if a doctor you consider credible tells you, “This is malignant, and we’ll have to try surgery/chemotherapy,” then your emotional response of “danger ahead” is perfectly valid. However, in most cases with what’s called anxiety disorder, there is no valid basis for the anxiety. (Psychiatry classifies it as “adjustment disorder” if the anxiety is in response to an objectively valid stressor.)

It’s false to claim, “I suffer from anxiety disorder” if you’re implying, as this reader does, that physical factors are the cause your thoughts, beliefs or viewpoints. It’s a convenient escape from personal responsibility to claim, “It was my medical illness that made me feel it” when, in fact, it’s your actual habits of thinking (and sometimes behavior, as well) that make you do it.

Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest.