Your family has been going through a lot lately– bills, stressing over job security, raising kids in an increasingly complicated world. On top of that, you have to deal with daily fits of coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath. You may wonder if stress and anxiety could be related to all of this. You may also wonder if this is just “all in your head.”
I’m happy to say it’s not “all in your head.” There is a strong relationship between your asthma symptoms and anxiety.
While stress and anxiety do not cause asthma directly, they can worsen asthma symptoms if you already have the disease. Additionally, stress might bring out the symptoms for the first time in patients prone to asthma, but it has gone unrecognized to this point.
Asthma appears to increase your risk of having an anxiety disorder if it is poorly controlled. Even with good control, some studies in adults find an increased risk of anxiety among asthmatics. It’s important to understand the relationship between asthma and anxiety in order to understand why poor control of anxiety may lead to poor control of your asthma. Once you understand the relationship, you will better see how efforts to control one condition may lead to better control of the other.
What is Asthma?
Like anxiety, asthma is a common chronic disease. More than 22 million people, and some six million children, in the U.S. have asthma. On a daily basis, people will miss work, get hospitalized, and even die from an asthma attack.
Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the airways of your lungs that can cause difficulty breathing and symptoms such as:
- Chest tightness
- Chronic cough
- Shortness of breath
Asthma symptoms are primarily due to narrowing of the airways and tightening of the respiratory muscles due to inflammation, swelling, and accumulation of mucus.
Not all who wheeze have asthma, so it’s important that you do not attribute asthma symptoms to anxiety or depression without first seeing a doctor and having him or her make a proper diagnosis.
Now that we’ve defined what asthma is, let’s look at three ways that asthma and anxiety may be linked.
1. Asthma and Anxiety Share Common Symptoms and Alarms
We all have times in our everyday life that are anxiety provoking. These situations cause our body to release chemicals that may trigger inflammatory reactions in our bodies and cause asthma symptoms such as shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Taking an exam, presenting at a business meeting, or arguing with a child or spouse—all moments that can trigger anxiety—can also cause the release of histamine or leukotrienes, chemicals known to play a part in the pathophysiology of asthma.
2. Anxiety Affects Asthmatics’ Preventative Routines
Stress, anxiety, and depression sometimes interrupt our regular preventive routines. Being too stressed out can clutter your mind. For example, you might be so concerned about the plants getting watered and the mail getting brought in while you’re out on vacation that you forget to pack your inhaler. Forgetting to take preventative medications and precautions easily puts you at risk of an attack.
3. Poor Control of Asthma is Coupled with Increased Anxiety Symptoms
Poor control of asthma has been associated with increased anxiety and depressive symptoms. Alarmingly, poorly controlled asthmatics also appear more likely to smoke, which will further functional impairment and worsen asthma symptoms. Large surveys have found that symptoms of anxiety may occur twice as often in asthmatics compared to patients without asthma. However, these studies did not account for how well asthma can be controlled.
Living with Anxiety and Asthma
I’ve reviewed how anxiety and asthma are connected. The way asthma disrupts everyday life can be frustrating, and oftentimes, you may think you can’t control it. But this isn’t the case. In my next installment, I will teach you some valuable tips and tricks on how to manage your asthma and lower your anxiety.
Other articles in this series include:
Dr. Pat F. Bass, M.D., is the Chief Medical Information Officer and Associate Professor at Louisiana State University Health Science Center. He holds degrees in Medicine, Instructional Systems Design, and Public Health. Dr. Bass is dedicated to patient education and enhancing the healthcare experience. His work includes freelance medical content, writing for About.com, reviewing for Everyday Health and HealthDay, and publishing research articles. He focuses on asthma education and empowering patients to collaborate effectively with healthcare professionals to improve their quality of life.