Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D
Sometimes, asthma can cause anxiety or a panic attack. Other times, anxiety or a panic attack can trigger an asthma attack. Incidentally "attack" is an alarming word, therefore, I will just refer to it as "asthma episode." Chronic stress, anxiety, or panic attacks have a direct impact on breathing. Seeing an asthma episode coming, a person may experience anxiety or a panic attack, which may lead to further aggravation of its symptoms. Breathing is immediately affected when we sense even the slightest danger. Therefore, in an anxiety or a panic attack, patients often experience severe problems with their breathing, described as, "shortness of breath," "smothering," "choking," "can't get enough air," along with complaints of dizziness, lightheadedness, chest tightness or severe chest pains.
Many adult asthma patients report that having had several weeks or months of absence of symptoms, they begin to feel that their asthma is well under control, and then, suddenly, "out of the blue," it's back. This leads to a renewed phase of worries and concerns. They get very anxious and feel they've lost control over it because it can come from behind and grab them unawares.
But, was it really out of the blue or did something stressful happen just before an asthma flare up? The answer, most likely, is "yes." Therefore, one shouldn't feel that one does not have any control over one's asthma. Often stress has something to do with these "out of the blue" asthma episodes. When you understand the relationship between stress and asthma and know some ways to manage your stress, you are likely to have better control over your asthma.
In your mind, does asthma equal suffocation and probable death? Cancel that thought.
Let's look at the physiology of asthma. Some people are predisposed to hyperactive airways. In some cases, anxious thoughts can send a stream of nerve impulses to the airways causing bronchial constriction. At this point a person may feel tightness in the chest and difficulty in breathing. Tension would further constrict the airflow in and out and symptoms might get worse. The muscles lining the airways further tighten. The lining of bronchial tubes swells and becomes inflamed. The mucous that lubricates the airways becomes thick and sometimes may even plug them up.
So, it gets more and more difficult to exhale. The air that was not exhaled, that is, the accumulated carbon dioxide, becomes trapped in the lungs, which leaves little room for fresh air to enter. This is the point when people feel they can't breathe in because there is hardly any room in the lungs for fresh air.
Change the language in which you talk to yourself about asthma symptoms. Instead of sending frightening message to your brain, which would then see it as life and death emergency, figure out the message your symptoms are conveying to you. These messages are about taking some action at that moment such as, "take a puff of my broncho-dilator," "relax" "purse my lips and blow my breath," etc.
Thinking such catastrophic thoughts as "my life is in danger" or " I could've died" escalates anxiety for the next time. Due to such catastrophic thoughts in the mind, the body is more likely to go in into a state of emergency, and when that happens mild symptoms rapidly escalate into a full-blown asthma episode.
Recognize that all asthma episodes are not catastrophic or even severe. A person can often prevent them from becoming severe by maintaining a calm and assured attitude of mind. It will prevent the mental factors from complicating and intensifying the breathing difficulties. Going about it in this manner may result in a milder episode.
Begin seeing asthma symptoms as your "friend" rather than "enemy." It is not beneficial to see asthma or any other illness episode as some kind of monster that's out to destroy its owner. Symptoms are messengers calling for attention and action. Instead of ignoring a messenger until it's right in one's face, it is better to see it from a distance and gear up for action. Often, when the asthma "messenger" notices the early preparation and the individual geared into prompt action, it may turn back and leave. Therefore, for asthma patients, peak flow meter reading, as the first thing in the morning, is helpful to stay in a state of readiness for prompt action. Controlling and modifying anxious feelings and taking steps to calm the mind may help to some extent in modifying the hyperactive lungs.
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