Though you may not know it, stress is a major asthma trigger. For other asthma triggers, avoidance may be possible, but it is unlikely that you will be able to eliminate stress from your life completely. As the new year begins and we seek to create healthier habits, it is a good idea for people with asthma to assess which stressors in their lives can be avoided and which cannot. Also, to create a plan for managing not only the asthma symptoms, but the stress that may be contributing to them. Relaxation exercises such as breathing deeply and slowly is just one way to prevent stress and prevent making your asthma worse.
How Mental Health Affects Your Asthma
Someone’s mental health has a direct correlation to how often they have asthma flare-ups. Researchers know, for instance, that anxiety and depression can result in increased symptoms, increased use of healthcare services and frequent asthma exacerbations. Unfortunately, being diagnosed and managing a chronic lung disease, like asthma or COPD, increases the likelihood that a patient will experience anxiety, depression or panic attacks. Those dealing with anxiety and depression are often physically and emotionally drained, which may prevent patients from properly managing their asthma.
Stress also impacts our regular routines, so you may forget to take a controller medication or leave your quick-relief (rescue) inhaler at home. Both situations put you at risk of being unable to control an asthma flare-up. It is a vicious circle that cannot be ignored, so it is important that you find ways to manage stress.
Identifying Emotional Triggers
Feeling and expressing strong emotions, even positive ones, may result in asthma symptoms as they can cause your breathing to change. When your muscles tighten up or your breathing rate increases, an asthma exacerbation may occur. Just as anger, fear, shouting or crying may trigger an episode, so can laughing and excitement. So, instead of avoiding emotions, it is best to learn ways to deal with them.
Just like laughter and excitement, some stress can be a good thing. But chronic stress can impact your health, your immune system and your asthma. Chronic stress can be linked to social determinants of health or the conditions in the environment where people are born, live, learn, work, play and worship such as, financial stability, safe housing or transportation, education or job opportunities, access to healthcare, nutritious foods and physical activity, pollution and language or literacy. Aside from affecting your breathing, both acute or chronic stress triggers an immune system response, that raises cortisol levels, and can lead to inflammation in the lungs and body.
Tips to Reduce Stress and Control Your Asthma
- Practice relaxation techniques and mindful breathing. Performed regularly, relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation and imagery can successfully relieve physical and emotional stress and tension.
- Exercise often. Physical exercise is a quick and easy way to relieve stress-related tension. Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase chemicals in the brain that positively affect your mood. For those with exercise triggered asthma, yoga and stretching are other effective ways to relax tense muscles and reduce stress.
- Be social. Finding a healthy balance between work and play is important to lowering your stress level. Set aside time to spend with those you love, and whose company you enjoy.
- Make time for yourself. Spending even 10 minutes alone each day allows your inner voice to surface and can help put things into perspective.
- Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can leave you feeling out of control, making it difficult to regulate your emotions and possibly forget your normal self-management habits such as taking your controller medicines. Lack of sleep can also leave your body feeling tense and make you feel less equipped to deal with stressful situations. Night time awakenings due to asthma can also be a sign of uncontrolled asthma.
- Maintain a healthy diet. Stress can drain your energy, leaving you weak and fatigued both emotionally and physically. Avoid foods that make stress worse such as caffeine, alcohol and refined (processed) foods. Instead, provide your body with healthy nutrients by choosing fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Proper hydration is also key.
- Set short- and long-term goals. Choose realistic goals that you can track and meet. This will make you feel more in control of what you’re spending your time and energy doing. And you can always adjust your goals as your priorities change.
- Seek Support and Talk to someone when you feel overwhelmed. Don't let your problems build up. A support system is key to helping you identify and address your problems. Learn to ask for help or delegate tasks when life becomes hectic or overwhelming. Whether it is a trained professional or a loved one, a supporter can help you see a problem more clearly and think of practical solutions. If you are in need of more support, talk to your healthcare provider or connect with someone on our Helpline.
Find out more about how stress may trigger or worsen your asthma symptoms and how to deal with it on our website.
Blog last updated: February 1, 2023