Allercy and Asthma Health
The Official Publication of AAN - MA

Don't Let Stress Make Your Asthma Worse

by Debbie Bunch


Okay, we’ve gotten through the busy holiday season, so that means our stress levels should have decreased, right?

While the holidays are known for provoking stress, the new year can bring on bouts of stress and anxiety as well, as we all get back to work and school and find new challenges waiting for us.

For people with asthma, stress and anxiety can be particularly difficult because both are known triggers for asthma attacks. Although stress in and of itself does not cause asthma, it does increase inflammation, including the inflammation in the airways that is always present in people with asthma and becomes worse with triggers. You can’t avoid stress completely, but you can take lots of steps to help keep it in check.

Coping mechanisms

The best way to manage stress is, of course, to reduce the things in your life that cause it. Dealing with a busy schedule by delegating tasks at home or work, for example, can go a long way toward easing stress. But some stressors, such relationship issues or money problems, are more difficult to cope with and call for coping mechanisms to help you better handle the situations you are facing.

One great way to handle stress is to practice relaxation exercises such as diaphragmatic and pursed lip breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, and repetitive phrases that trigger physical relaxation. Your respiratory therapist can help you learn diaphragmatic and pursed lip breathing, and can also help you find information on other techniques.

Yoga, meditation, and even just listening to music or taking time out to do something you enjoy can ease stress as well. The idea is to distract yourself from stressful thoughts by concentrating on more pleasurable experiences instead.

Follow healthy habits

You can also reduce your stress levels by getting regular exercise, eating right, and getting enough sleep. Walking, swimming, or other forms of exercise burn off stress and are good for your asthma and overall health. Avoiding junk food, coffee, and sugary soda, and eating lots of lean meats, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables instead makes for a healthier diet and keeps you from that drained feeling you get after tanking up on unhealthy food. If you are allergic to any foods, though, be sure to avoid them in your diet.

Poor sleep can make stress worse because you are too tired to deal with the issues that cause it. Break your bad sleep habits by following these simple steps:

  • Don’t go to bed until you are really tired enough for sleep.
  • Form some bedtime rituals and follow them every night to create a consistent path to sleep.
  • Don’t watch TV, read, or eat in bed.
  • Avoid strenuous exercise right before bedtime.
  • Don’t drink caffeinated beverages prior to bedtime.
  • Don’t nap during the day.
  • Go to bed and get up at the same times everyday.

If you snore loudly at night your poor sleep might be due to a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, so be sure to tell your doctor about your symptoms and ask whether you should have a sleep test. Effective treatments exist for sleep apnea that can help you get a much better night’s rest. 

Ask for help

Stress can also be eased by sharing your thoughts and anxieties with those closest to you. Confiding in friends and family members can help take the burden off your shoulders and can also help distract you from the issues in your life that are causing you to be stressed out. Once other people know about your stress, they may be more likely to help relieve you of some of the tasks that may be making it worse, such as helping out with household chores.

If nothing seems to ease your stress, consult a health care professional about getting help. Trained professionals have many tools at their disposal to help you overcome stress and anxiety.

Lastly, make sure you take all your asthma medications as prescribed by your doctor. Nothing causes stress like an asthma attack or worsening asthma symptoms, and taking medications as prescribed can help avoid those situations. If you feel like your asthma isn’t in good control, don’t just chalk it up to stress, though – you need to see your doctor for a full assessment. Those worsening symptoms may be a sign that your medications need to be adjusted, not that your stress is making them worse!

Debbie Bunch is a health writer in Dallas, TX. She has written articles for the American Association for Respiratory Care since 1977.

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