How to Cope With Stress When You Have Asthma

Woman with asthma using inhaler
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Living with asthma sometimes means living with additional stress. Living under stress can worsen asthma symptoms, making it harder to follow a self-management program to control asthma.

How Can Stress and Anxiety Affect People With Asthma?

People living with a chronic illness often experience some anxiety. But it's important to distinguish whether the anxiety is beneficial or interferes with your full participation in life.

Beneficial anxiety motivates necessary action, such as taking the proper steps to control a chronic condition, whereas excessive anxiety can complicate the medical condition.

Ongoing stress or difficulty in managing everyday stress can result in a variety of problems for people with asthma, including:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Poor physical fitness due to a lack of exercise
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Changes in appetite
  • Depression

When stress levels increase, so do asthma symptoms, such as wheezing and coughing. As asthma symptoms increase, so can anxiety, creating a downward spiral in health.

If stress is severe, anxiety can escalate into panic attacks, which are characterized by some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Feelings of smothering or choking
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shaking and trembling
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Hot flashes or cold chills
  • Chest pains
  • A feeling of unreality (such as being in a fog, in a cloud, or detached from one's surroundings)
  • Fear of dying, going crazy, or losing control

Ways to Better Manage Stress and Anxiety

Here are some tips to help you manage your stress and keep asthma symptoms under control:

  • Eat healthy foods. Sugar, caffeine, and alcohol can all raise stress levels. Avoid foods containing these ingredients as much as you can.
  • Breathe deeply. Try to breathe from the diaphragm as often as possible and pay steady attention to the breath. In a panic or anxiety attack, breathe slowly and deeply through the nose.
  • Exercise. Daily physical activity is a good way to work on anxiety.
  • Sleep. Most people do not sleep enough. Poor sleep, or lack of sleep, leaves less energy and fewer emotional and physical resources to cope with stress. For a better night of sleep:
    • Don't go to bed until tired
    • Follow a sleep routine
    • Use your bedroom only for sleeping (and for sex)
    • Don't exercise just before bed
    • Avoid caffeine
    • Don't nap during the day
    • Go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
  • Reduce the amount of stress. Identify what is causing the stress and then try to resolve the stressors. While stress is part of everyday life, there are ways to avoid it by becoming more time-efficient by delegating and setting priorities. Coping with the challenges of asthma can also be stressful. Successfully getting it under control may also lead to a reduction in your 
  • Change negative thoughts. Set a time limit for worrying. Telling yourself that you shouldn't worry is not going to change the fact that you will worry. Instead,  you might say: "After 15 minutes, I will stop thinking about this" and let yourself worry and get past it. There are also CDs, DVDs, and books that can help in learning to change thought processes. A mental health professional who specializes in behavioral therapy can teach you self-help methods to aid in changing negative thoughts for good.
  • Relax. Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and yoga, can also help lower stress levels. Classes, CDs, books, and DVDs are all available to help learn different techniques. Use a relaxation technique two to three times a day for 15 to 20 minutes each time.
  • Use positive affirmations. Think reassuring and calming thoughts, such as, "I am becoming calm. I can handle this."
  • Ask for help. Family and friends want to help. Remaining connected to those who are most important who can help reduce stress and anxiety. Consider joining a support group to meet other people in the same situation and learn from their experiences.
  • Seek professional help. If self-help techniques do not reduce stress and anxiety, consider seeking the help of a qualified mental health professional who can provide a combination of both cognitive (talk) therapy and behavior modification, and possibly also prescribe anti-anxiety medications.
View Article Sources
  • Public Education Committee of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. "Tips to Remember: Asthma Triggers and Management." 
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Breathing Better: Action Plans Keep Asthma in Check." Publication No. (FDA) 04-1302 May 2004. FDA Office of Public Affairs.