COPD and Emotional Health

Managing anxiety and depression can increase your ability to stick with your COPD treatment.

The physical challenges of managing COPD can sometimes affect your mood and emotional health. Most people living with COPD 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, Panic and Depression

Anxiety and depression are both more common in people living with COPD than they are in the general population. 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 continue with your COPD treatment plan, improve your physical health and reduce your medical costs.

Anxiety and Panic

Clinical anxiety is defined as constant worrying and expecting the worst in a way that makes it hard to function.  A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety. Panic attacks and anxiety can also cause you to have shortness of breath or change your normal breathing pattern. When this happens, you become trapped in a cycle when your shortness of breath triggers anxiety- making it more difficult to breathe.

To avoid having more COPD-related symptoms, you may start to change your day-to-day activities and become less active. When you are active, you strengthen your lungs, so becoming less active can make shortness of breath worse. Staying active can also have positive effects on your mental health, which can help keep anxiety and depression at bay.

Depression

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. If left untreated, it may greatly affect your ability to stay active and enjoy your life.

Things You Can Do

Although anxiety and depression are common in people with COPD, they should never be ignored and left untreated. There are steps you can take to help yourself feel better.

Ask your healthcare provider to work with you to understand the cause of your feelings, and to identify coping strategies that will work for you. Your provider 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, and you will need to talk to your provider about the most effective medications for your situation. Counseling, or talk therapy, has helped other people living with COPD change patterns of negative thinking and behaviors, improve quality of life and reduce anxiety and depression.

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. Taking care of yourself also includes eating a balanced diet, drinking enough water, getting a good night's sleep and keeping to a daily routine. 

Ask for help when you are feeling isolated or overwhelmed. Most people in your life want to help, but they don't know how or went to be most useful. Don't be afraid to ask your friends, family, neighbors and care team to help you through hard times.

Stress is a normal part of life and something you cannot control; however you can control your response to stress.  One way to manage stress is to create a coping strategy toolbox.

Coping strategies are skills and tools that help you handle stress. There is not a magic coping strategy that works for everyone, and you may need to use more than one. There are many different coping skills, some of which include deep breathing, taking a break, or journaling your thoughts. 

Look for a Better Breathers Club or other COPD support groups 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 their healthcare provider 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.

You Are Not Alone

If you have thoughts of hurting yourself, talk to your doctor right away or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you need immediate assistance, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for help.

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

Page last updated: May 23, 2023

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