Can you hear anxiety?

Can you hear anxiety? Yes you can, according to findings from a live experiment run by our team from the Cicely Saunders Institute of Palliative Care, Policy & Rehabilitation at King's College London during the ON EDGE: Living in an Age of Anxiety season.

All of us get breathless at some point in our lives, whether running for a bus, cycling to work, or climbing the stairs. Some of us will also experience breathlessness as a symptom of an underlying illness such as lung disease, or a mental health problem like anxiety or panic.

In our experiment we wanted to explore how people were affected by listening to the sounds of different types of breathlessness. We produced recordings of breathing in different situations – someone who was anxious, someone exercising, someone with lung disease, and someone approaching the end of their life, at which time breathlessness can also be present.

Two people sitting with headphones looking at tablets

Listening hard to recordings of breathlessness

We conducted an experiment at Science Gallery London over 3 weekends asking visitors to listen to our recordings and see if they could guess why each person was breathless just by listening to their breathing. We also asked people to rate how breathless they felt before and after listening, to see whether listening to other people being breathless might make participants feel breathless themselves.

Having never done an experiment with the public before we weren’t sure what to expect, and we were excited that so many people were interested. Over 250 people took part over the 3 days, and some people even made a special trip to the Gallery to do so. Immediately afterwards, most people described feeling no different, however some felt quite profoundly affected by listening to the recordings.

Whilst we can’t share the full results yet, we have noticed some potentially fascinating findings coming from the data. One of our questions was ‘can you hear anxiety?’ and we found that broadly speaking the answer is yes – most people correctly identified the recording of an anxious person breathing. It was also interesting that a large majority of people felt they had experienced anxiety in the past, and people who had experienced anxiety felt more breathless after listening to the recordings than those who hadn’t.

We’re hoping that the findings of this experiment will increase our understanding of the link between anxiety and breathlessness. By understanding how people are affected by hearing breathlessness, we may be able to improve how chronic breathlessness is managed in future.

Three people standing in front of a sign that says 'and breathe'

Researchers Natasha, Simon and Cheng-Pei in the Gallery

About the authors

Natasha Lovell is a PhD Clinical Training Fellow at the Cicely Saunders Institute of Palliative Care, Policy & Rehabilitation at King’s College London

Simon Etkind is a PhD Clinical Training Fellow, Cicely Saunders Institute.

Anna Johnston is Research Project and Coordination Assistant at the Cicely Saunders Institute,