Stress & Asthma -- What's the Connection?
Last updated: July 2018
Has anyone ever told you -- or at least hinted -- that your asthma is "all in your head?" Luckily, this doesn't happen too much these days, but there was a time when people believed "if you would just calm down, you wouldn't have asthma." Of course, we know now this is not really accurate. Asthma is a physical condition related to an inflammatory response of your airways to certain triggers, not solely an emotional illness.
However, evidence suggests that strong emotions and psychosocial stress can be a trigger for asthma symptoms and can also worsen existing asthma symptoms. Some researchers have theorized that stress itself can trigger hormonal responses that may have an impact on inflammation and other physical changes in your airways and cells.
Another researcher proposed that stressful experiences might accentuate inflammatory responses to allergic, infectious, and chemical triggers, thus triggering asthma symptoms.
It seems that more research is needed to nail down the exact relationship between stress and asthma. However, I believe we can all agree that stress is something we all need to learn how to deal with effectively. Coping with stress in a positive manner can affect your quality of life. It can also help you maintain asthma control more easily.
What Is Stress?
Stress has been described in many ways. Remember that it is normal to have stress in our lives. Sometimes stress can even be a positive motivator.
It's when you are unable to manage your stress that it starts to influence your health. In other words, stress occurs when the demands from your environment challenge your ability to cope.
Stress triggers what is called a "fight or flight" response, with such symptoms as:
- Rapid heart rate
- Tense muscles
- Shallow, fast breathing
The change in your breathing pattern can make asthma symptoms like wheezing, chest tightness and coughing more likely to occur. But stress can also affect your asthma because of how it makes you act. For instance:
- You might forget to take your asthma medicine or decide it's not as important as dealing with the things that are causing your stress.
- Stress might increase or trigger anxiety, anger, and depression, all of which can further magnify asthma symptoms.
- You may engage in unhealthy coping behaviors, such as drinking alcohol to excess, smoking cigarettes or using street drugs.
Healthy Coping With Stress
So, what can you do to make sure stress does not affect your asthma control? Following are some basic tips to help you cope more effectively with the things that stress you.
Identify your stressors. Knowledge is power! Pay attention to the kinds of things that raise your stress level or make you feel anxious or angry. If you're not sure, keep a diary for a couple of weeks. Then review it to spot your personal stress triggers.
Work on your mindset. Our thoughts are powerful controllers of our feelings and our behaviors. Pay attention to what you say to yourself. You can change your thought pathways to a more positive, upbeat path that will improve your resilience and strength in dealing with stress.
Avoid the stressors that you can. Just as we advise you to take steps to avoid your asthma triggers, it also makes sense to do what you can to avoid stressful situations, places, and people. It's not possible to remove all stress from your life, but any actions you take will help. Taking time to plan and incorporate time management into your life can also improve your stress level. Don't be afraid to say no. And be sure to take time for yourself!
Practice a healthy lifestyle. Get plenty of sleep at night, at least 7 or 8 hours. Add some exercise into your life, finding something you enjoy doing. Exercise is one of the best known (and healthiest) stress relievers! Make healthy food choices and don't rely on chemicals to improve your mood.
Learn how to relax. There are a number of ways to build more relaxation into your life. This can help you decompress when stress can't be avoided. For some people, a hot bath with candlelight and soft music may do it. Other people benefit from meditation and deep breathing exercises. Personally, I love the peacefulness of yoga and tai chi. The important thing is learning how to "let go."
Talk about it. None of us will cope well all by ourselves all the time. It's OK to seek out support in dealing with stress. Whether it's just a chat with your health care provider or a family member or friend or formal counseling from an expert, talking about stress can greatly relieve it.
Stress is part of life. It's the coping with stress that is the key. When stress takes over your life, even if just temporarily, it can bring on asthma symptoms or make them worse. Don't let that happen. Learn how to identify stress as it begins and then take positive steps to deal with it. Better asthma control will be the result!
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