Anxiety with COPD: The Physical Effects
Last updated: September 2020
Four years ago when I was diagnosed with COPD I started to have panic attacks such as I described in my first anxiety article. The anxiety from the pain, from the chronic fatigue, from the shortness of breath were – and are – terrible. But it was while I went through the process of applying for Social Security Disability Income that my anxiety went through the roof. Having to live without my paycheck, not being able to afford health care or insurance for a portion of the time, and not knowing if the Social Security appeal judge (I was turned down and then appealed) would agree that I was too sick to work was incredibly stressful. I didn't know what we'd do if my appeal was rejected. It felt like life or death, and the anxiety affected me not only mentally, but physically as well.
How does anxiety physically manifest in COPD patients?
Before it happened to me, I was only dimly aware that mental ill health could translate into physical ill health. Here are the effect severe anxiety had on my body:
High blood pressure
Every time I went to the doctor my blood pressure would be a few points higher than the time before. It stayed higher than I and my doctor were comfortable with. I was also experiencing arrhythmia in the form of flutters in my heart, or skipping a beat. If you've ever had the same, you know it is not a pleasant feeling. My doctor finally prescribed a medication for the blood pressure which helped immensely.
I started to notice that my hair was falling out more than normal. Every time I brushed my hair the brush would fill. When I ran my hands through my hair, strands would fall out. When I washed my hair strands would fall out. My hair is already thin and while I'm not vain I don't think bald is a good look for me.
So I went to the doctor and she told me the hair loss is normal for a woman my age (Hooray, another “plus” of getting old.) She also told me that severe stress can cause hair loss. The Mayo Clinic explains that there are three types of hair loss that are associated with severe stress:
- Telogen effluvium. In telogen effluvium (TEL-o-jun uh-FLOO-vee-um), significant stress pushes large numbers of hair follicles into a resting phase. Within a few months, affected hairs might fall out suddenly when simply combing or washing your hair.
- Trichotillomania. Trichotillomania (trik-o-til-o-MAY-nee-uh) is an irresistible urge to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other areas of your body. Hair pulling can be a way of dealing with negative or uncomfortable feelings, such as stress, tension, loneliness, boredom or frustration.
- Alopecia areata. A variety of factors are thought to cause alopecia areata (al-o-PEE-she-uh ar-e-A-tuh), possibly including severe stress. With alopecia areata, the body's immune system attacks the hair follicles — causing hair loss.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to do to stop the loss or regain hair except to decrease the stress and deal with its underlying problems. Which we all know is easier said than done.
I started having panic attacks. A lot of us with chronic illnesses have them. Not only are the attacks terrible but they can make breathing even more difficult which then feeds into the anxiety – in a vicious circle. Some of the symptoms can also mimic heart problems with palpitations, which again feeds the anxiety. I had both trouble breathing and heart palpitations, which landed me in the ER twice.
Luckily, there were things I could do that helped. I talked with my primary care doctor about the attacks and she prescribed a medication that soothes me instantly. I took it as soon as I felt the attack coming on and the panic attacks disappeared quickly. Thank god. I also learned some relaxation techniques. My favorite is progressive muscle relation.
Bad Eating Habits
Some days I didn't eat at all, or only ate one meal. Other days I used junk food, especially chocolate, to induce a food coma (Postprandial somnolence) that sent me to a dazed, happy place. I am definitely what is called an “emotional eater.” I gained weight pretty quickly and lost even more energy. Bad eating habits are linked to stress and anxiety.
A lot of people eat food, especially unhealthy food, for the euphoria that comes with it. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill to stop eating badly, or for weight gain. Darn it. This really disappoints me. Only reducing the anxiety and a conscious effort to eat right will help. It has to come from within. I am still working on this one. Pizza really calls to me. It texts me sometimes too. Yeah, we're friends.
I also broke out in hives in random places at random times which was really nice. I mean, if you like being tortured with red spots that itch worse than poison ivy. I don't.
Chronic hives is a condition known as urticaria. Anxiety and anxiety-related stress can cause this condition. The website Dermatology Times from ModernMedicine.com has an informative article that explains the condition. Again, there was a vicious circle with the hives. They were caused by my anxiety, but the itchiness and the randomness caused more anxiety.
I am lucky; I never had migraines. Until I went through this period of severe anxiety. Then, hello, tension headaches. I got to feel like a Victorian invalid many times, lying in a dark room with a cool cloth on my forehead, moaning and thinking – when it didn't hurt to think – “Oh, woe is me.”
When I found the right combination of medication to kill the headaches I was eternally grateful for modern medicine.
I survived my disability hearing and was consequently approved. It was proven that I had been disabled for over two years so I was able to sign up for Medicare immediately. My anxiety level plummeted. My hair quit falling out long before Mr. Clean started giving me the side eye for plagiarism. The panic attacks rarely visit and the hives didn't let the door hit them on the rear when they left.
Potential long term effects of anxiety with COPD
I still need the high blood pressure medication and I still get migraines. I consciously try to eat better but I still get junk food coma cravings, especially on difficult days. And I still live with a certain level of anxiety day to day.
But I'm trying. I use relaxation techniques every day. They are helpful. I am on a great anti-anxiety medication. I grow lavender and dry it so I can smell its soothing scent throughout the year. And having my serenity grove outside where I watch the birds and smell the flowers – and photograph both – is probably my best remedy.
I hope you find yours.
Do you know the difference between a COPD exacerbation and lung function decline?
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