Living With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

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Living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can be challenging since the disease can dramatically impact your daily life. A diagnosis of COPD can lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. As the disease progresses, physical activity or social interaction may become more difficult. But all of this doesn't mean you can't improve the quality of your life with COPD. By implementing lifestyle changes and learning ways to cope, you can slow the progression of the disease and continue to live, one day at a time, to the fullest extent possible.

Emotional

A diagnosis of COPD is sure to bring a roller coaster of emotions along with it. Fear, anxiety, sadness, grief, and shame may be just a few of the feelings you're experiencing. All of these emotions are perfectly normal and understandable, and they will most likely get easier as you make changes in your life and feel more in control of your health.

However, it's good to be on the lookout for the potential to develop more serious depression, anxiety, or fear, for which you may need additional treatment. Staying on top of your mental health is important because it affects your physical health.

Watch for Depression

Depression is a real illness caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain. It's different from ordinary sadness. If you have COPD, you may be at risk for depression, so you need to be especially careful with symptoms of depression since being depressed puts you at a higher risk for COPD exacerbation. You may need medication, counseling, or both.

Remember, you don't have to suffer alone. If you have any of these symptoms for two weeks or more, talk to your doctor as soon as possible:

  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Social isolation
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness

Monitor Anxiety Levels

Anxiety is incredibly common in people with COPD, and like depression can increase your risk for COPD exacerbation. For some people, real physical symptoms, such as an increased heart rate and sweating, accompany an anxiety disorder. However, you may also suffer from some not-so-typical symptoms of anxiety, including:

  • Muscle tension often found in the neck, shoulders, back, and jaw muscles
  • Problems with digestion, including constipation or diarrhea
  • Changes in sleep patterns, which can mean an inability to sleep, difficulty falling asleep, or early awakenings
  • Panic attacks, which are different from generalized anxiety and include a suddenly racing heart, numbness, and unusual physical sensations

If you have any of these symptoms, talk to your doctor. You may benefit from medication and/or counseling.

Deal With Fear

We all have them—certain fears that can cause us unusual dread and worry. Fear is our most basic and primitive human emotion. But while having a fear or two is normal, when your fears start to interfere with your daily life, it's time to talk to your doctor.

Irrational fears are known as phobias. Symptoms of phobias include intense anxiety, the preoccupation of your thoughts on the source of anxiety, and an overwhelming sense of doom or terror. For people with COPD, fear is often related to breathing difficulties. If you feel that fear is taking over your life, a mental health professional may help you see things more clearly. You can also try joining a COPD support group. Talking to others can help distill some of your fears and make life much more enjoyable.

Give up Remorse

Remorse is defined as a sense of regret for past mistakes. Many people with COPD share that they feel intense remorse for their disease. Because COPD most often is caused by smoking, other people can make insensitive remarks, and these only serve to make the feelings of remorse worse.

If you feel overwhelmed with remorse, try to forgive yourself. In forgiveness, there lies peace and comfort. We all make mistakes, even the best of us. Living life with regret is a waste of energy that you could be putting into something more constructive, like developing healthy habits and taking better care of yourself. There is life after COPD, and it's time that you started to live it.

Learn About COPD

Educating yourself and your loved ones about COPD can help you feel more in control of your health. Learn everything you can about how COPD affects your lungs and your life and share it with your friends and loved ones so they can understand how best to support you, whether that's by running errands or helping you remember to take your medication.

Reduce Stress

Reducing the stress in your life can help keep exacerbations at bay. Here are some tips:

  • Make time to keep doing activities and hobbies that you enjoy.
  • Try relaxation exercises such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Get the amount of sleep you need to feel rested and rest during the day when needed.
  • Handoff some of your responsibilities to others, at least some of the time. This can include anything from hiring outside help to creating a rotating schedule so that each family member takes turns doing certain tasks. Being overloaded makes you feel more stressed.
  • Watch your diet. Too much sugar and high-calorie junk food can sap your energy, leading you to feel unproductive and anxious.
  • Pinpoint areas of your life that cause you stress. This could be money, social situations, having too many responsibilities, or grief over your diagnosis. Work on fixing or eliminating these sources of stress and if you need help, ask for it.

Physical

There are ways to cope with COPD physically that can enhance your quality of life as well.

Maintain a Safe Environment

Maintaining a safe environment is an important part of COPD management and should be moved to the top of your priority list. Safety, both inside and outside the home, will help to preserve your health and assist you in carrying out your activities of daily living in a safe manner. Things that you can do to foster safety around your home include:

  • Remove all throw rugs from the floors.
  • Place safety bars inside bathrooms, showers, and bathtubs and along walkways both inside and outside your home.
  • Use a raised toilet seat.
  • Remove all cords and other debris from pathways inside and outside the home.
  • Ensure that there's adequate lighting in and around your house.
  • Use non-slip slippers or shoes when moving about your home.
  • Discard any medication that's expired or not in use in a safe place.
  • Do not allow yourself to be near anyone who smokes (especially if you're on oxygen).
  • Write down emergency numbers and place them in a visible place.

Practice Effective Communication

Most of us take our ability to communicate with others for granted. But with COPD, communication may become difficult due to extreme shortness of breath. Remember that it's OK to take your time speaking. Talk in short phrases or sentences and pause in between to rest if necessary.

Conserve Your Energy

Breathlessness is understandably the most frightening aspect of COPD. Unlike healthy people, breathing for a COPD patient involves a conscious effort and can be extremely challenging. Practicing energy conservation techniques will help you pace yourself so you can complete your activities of daily living without getting so out of breath.

Avoid Shortness of Breath During Meals

If you're getting short of breath while you're trying to eat, you're not alone. This is a frequent problem in people with COPD and one of the most important to overcome, as malnutrition is one of the more common complications of COPD. You may also be trying to restrict your fluid intake to avoid unnecessary trips to the bathroom that can leave you breathless, but this can result in dehydration. The following guidelines may help:

  • Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day.
  • To have more energy, rest before you eat.
  • Chew your foods completely and eat slowly.
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to eat.
  • Avoid foods that force you to chew excessively.
  • Purchase a commode chair to avoid all those extra toilet trips.
  • Since many people who suffer from COPD frequently eat less, try focusing on eating foods that are high in calories to maximize your caloric intake.
  • Supplement your diet with liquid meal preparations, like Boost or Ensure.
  • If your appetite is less than normal, avoid drinking fluids until after you're finished eating.

Exercise Often

Exercise is an essential part of our daily lives. When you have COPD, it's especially important. Implementing simple stretching and breathing exercises or a daily walk will help you maintain your physical and emotional well-being. Many of the benefits of exercise are important to your health, including:

  • Improving your quality of life: Exercise gives you a feeling of control over your life and helps you to maintain your independence.
  • Helping you use oxygen more efficiently: Exercise strengthens the muscles you use for breathing as well as your other muscle groups, helping you expend less energy.
  • Helping you maintain or lose weight: Carrying more weight around than you should make it harder to breathe. Exercise helps you control your weight, helping you breathe easier.
  • Improving your mood: Exercise is associated with alleviating depression and relieving stress, giving you a mood boost.
  • Improving your sleep: If you sleep better at night, you will have more energy during the day. Exercise helps all of us sleep better.

Social

Finding a support group, whether online or in your community, can help you deal with the changes COPD may bring to your life. It helps to hear others' stories, share your own, and to know you're not alone. You can also see a therapist for one-on-one counseling to help you cope and learn to adjust to your diagnosis. Couples therapy is a good option if your COPD diagnosis is causing tension in your marriage.

Additionally, making time for your friends and loved ones is important. Isolating yourself will likely make you feel worse and could pave the way to stress, which can cause exacerbations. Consider taking friends or loved ones to your doctor's appointments or involve them in your daily exercise. Talk to them about how you're feeling and what fears you may have. Having the support of friends and family relieves stress and keeps you engaged and vital.

Practical

Fortunately for all of you travel bugs, living with COPD doesn't mean you can never enjoy traveling again. The key to an enjoyable trip is safety through planning and preparation. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Travel to a safe and healthy location.
  • Make sure to have a checkup with your doctor before you leave.
  • Don't forget your medication.
  • Get your medical equipment serviced before you leave.
  • Carry an oxygen prescription with you if you're on oxygen.
  • Bring the proper clothing for the climate to which you are traveling.
  • Eat, drink, and be merry in moderation.
  • Get enough sleep.

If you are oxygen dependent and planning to travel by plane, certain restrictions will apply to each airline. Most won't let you bring your own oxygen on board, and will, therefore, require a prescription and/or letter from your doctor prior to departure. Make sure you contact the airline prior to your travel date to find out what is required. Remember too, that altitude may affect your oxygen requirement. Discuss this with your doctor at your pre-travel appointment.

Caring for Someone With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
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