By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 14 February 2014)
Asthma is an inflammatory disease that adversely affects the airways, which leads to difficulty breathing at times. Being unable to breathe is scary, and the shortage of oxygen, combined with the fear that breathing difficulties bring, can trigger anxiety or even full-blown panic.
Stress, anxiety, and asthma are three problems that can feed one another, magnifying their unpleasant effects. Stress doesn’t cause asthma, but it can make it much worse, increasing the frequency and intensity of attacks, and anxiety tends to increase overall stress levels. Asthma attacks, in turn, can increase stress and anxiety, creating a vicious circle.
Anxiety disorders are more common among asthma sufferers than in the general population (Kotrotsiou et al., 2011; Ten Thoren & Petermann, 2000), and those with asthma are also more likely to suffer from depression (Kotrotsiou et al., 2011).
How Stress and Anxiety Can Trigger Asthma Attacks
There are a number of ways that stressful situations and anxious feelings can increase the likelihood of suffering asthma attacks (Peter Gergen, MD, cited by Kam, 2009):
- Intense emotions cause certain chemicals to be released in the body (histamine and leukotrienes) that cause the airway to narrow.
- Higher levels of stress hormones in the body make it more difficult to fight off respiratory infections that can trigger asthma attacks.
- People may forget to take preventative medications in times of stress.
Stressful situations that may provoke asthma attacks include conflict with friends or family, public speaking, school exams, disasters, and witnessing or being a victim of violence. However, there is evidence that simply worrying can trigger or worsen an attack.
The brain-body connection with anxiety and asthma has been proven by researchers who exposed asthmatic volunteers to asthma attack triggers. When their symptoms began, the researchers had them read words, some of which were designed to cause negative emotional responses (e.g., “lonesome”), no response (e.g., “curtains”), or worries specifically about asthma (e.g., “wheezing”). Reading asthma-related words actually increased inflammation among the subjects (Hatfield, 2007). This research shows how important it is for asthma sufferers to manage anxiety surrounding the condition.
How to Reduce Both Asthma Attack Risk and Anxiety
If you are experiencing serious anxiety problems, speak to a doctor about treatment options. There are also a number of things that you can do on your own to reduce both the risk of asthma attacks and overall anxiety levels:
- Get more exercise (see Exercise as an Anxiety Treatment for more on the link between exercise and anxiety and the Canadian Lung Association’s Exercise and Asthma page for information on the benefits of exercise for asthma and ways to reduce the risk of having asthma attacks while exercising ).
- Get more sleep or better sleep (see How to Get Better Sleep for tips).
- Reduce or eliminate as many stressors as possible (see How to Reduce Stress for more information).
- Engage in complementary relaxation approaches such as yoga, meditation, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, and calm breathing.
- Cultivate mindfulness.
- Seek cognitive behavioural therapy for serious anxiety problems.
- Switch to an anti-anxiety diet.
For a full list of natural anxiety remedies, see the main Anxiety and Panic Disorder Remedies page.
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical or psychiatric advice. Medical concerns should be referred to a qualified doctor.
- Hatfield, H. (Author), Grayson Mathis, C.E., MD (Editor). (2007, March 1). “Stress and Asthma.” WebMD.com.
- Kam, K. (Author), Nazario, B., MD (Reviewer). (2009, June 22). “Asthma, Stress, and Anxiety: A Risky Cycle.” WebMD.com.
- Kotrotsiou, E.; Krommydas, G.; Papathanasiou, I.; Kotrotsiou, S.; Paralikas, T.; Lahana, E.; & Kiparissi, G. (2011). “Anxiety and Depression in Teenagers and Young Adults with Asthma.” Health Science Journal, 5(3), 229-236.
- Ten Thoren, C., & Petermann, F. (2000). “Reviewing Asthma and Anxiety.” Respiratory Medicine, 94(5), 409-415.