For people living with COPD, the physical challenges of managing the disease can sometimes affect their mood and emotional health. Most COPD patients experience feelings of sadness, fear and worry at times. This is common and normal when coping with a serious illness. But if those feelings don’t go away after a few weeks, or they start to affect your ability to keep up with normal activities and enjoy life, then you may be experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Recognizing Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety and depression are both more common in people living with COPD than they are in the general population, but unfortunately, they often go unrecognized and untreated by patients, caregivers and healthcare providers. Taking care of your emotional health does more than just improve your mood. Research shows that managing anxiety and depression can increase your ability to stick with your prescribed COPD treatment, improve your physical health and reduce medical costs.

Clinical anxiety is defined as constant worrying and anticipating the worst in a way that makes it hard to function. For people living with COPD, shortness of breath can cause anxiety and even panic attacks. Anxiety makes you breathe faster, which increases your shortness of breath. Experiencing worry about avoiding shortness of breath can make you less active, which in turn can worsen your fitness. When we are active, we strengthen our lungs, so becoming less active can make shortness of breath worse. Staying active can also have positive effects on our mental health, which can help keep anxiety and depression at bay.

Clinical depression is a feeling of deep sadness or emptiness that lasts longer than a couple of weeks. It affects your ability to enjoy your work, recreation, family and friends. Depression is a serious illness that affects more than just your mood.

Things You Can Do

Although anxiety and depression are common in people with COPD, they do not have to be inevitable and should never be ignored. There are positive steps you can take to help yourself feel better.

1. Talk to your healthcare team about your mood. Ask them to work with you to understand the cause of your feelings, and to identify coping strategies that will work for you. They may recommend you speak with a mental health professional such as a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

There are medications available to help with anxiety and depression, but they have not always been found to be effective for people with COPD. Counseling, or talk therapy, can successfully help people living with COPD change patterns of negative thinking and behaviors, improve quality of life and reduce anxiety and depression.

2. Take care of yourself. Even though you may not feel like it, staying active is well worth the effort for both your body and your mind. Try to see friends, get outside and keep doing the things that you enjoy as best you can. Exercise can help clear your mind and lighten your mood.

Manage your stress and reduce the feeling of shortness of breath by practicing relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. Writing in a journal or working on a coloring book can help you process your feelings and quiet your mind.
Ask for help when you are feeling isolated or overwhelmed. Most people in your life want to help, but they don't know how. Don't be afraid to ask your friends, family, neighbors and care team to help you through hard times.

3. Connect with others who understand what it’s like to live with COPD. Look for a Better Breathers Club or other COPD support group in your area. Going to meetings has the added benefit of getting you out of the house. You can also join an online support community like the Living with COPD Community on Inspire, which is available 24/7. Call or send an email to the Lung HelpLine to get free expert information and referral to resources from a nurse or respiratory therapist.

If You Are a Caregiver

Sometimes the best thing you can do as a caregiver is to listen. It might be tempting to try to problem solve, but sometimes just lending an ear is the best medicine. However, don't be afraid to suggest your loved one talk to a professional and call the doctor immediately if you believe they are a danger to themselves.

The stress of caring for a loved one with COPD can take a toll on your own mental and emotional health. As a caregiver, it is normal to struggle at times with feelings of anger, frustration and guilt. To avoid being overwhelmed, it is important to take the time to care for your own health and well-being.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: November 17, 2022

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