Stress & COPD: What Can You Do?
Last updated: February 2021
When you have COPD, it's perfectly common to feel stressed emotionally. After all, you may be worried about your future and that of your family. You may also be worried about it being hard to breathe well as you go about your daily activities. You might also feel overwhelmed by the need to follow a new treatment plan.
Everyone, even healthy people, feel stressed at times by life or the people around them. When this stress comes and goes, it's referred to as "acute stress," and is generally not harmful. In fact, the "fight or flight" reaction that comes with acute stress can actually help protect you1. Hormones are released on a short-term basis that prepares you to stand and fight or to flee a threat. And then when the threat is over, your body returns to its usual functioning.
Chronic stress is not healthy
But when stress is more chronic, the effects can build up over time. Chronic stress weakens your immune system and makes it more difficult to get the sleep you need. It can also lead to mood changes. All of these things can trigger a COPD flare-up, where your symptoms worsen.
In fact, a study out of the University of Edinburgh found that even low to moderate levels of stress could greatly enhance the risk of COPD and other chronic diseases2.
A vicious circle
In some ways, stress and COPD symptoms can be a vicious circle. When you have trouble breathing, it can be quite scary. I know this even as an asthmatic, but my symptoms come and go, mostly with exercise. I imagine that being chronically short of breath much more frightening.
So, as your symptoms worsen, you get more stressed. And, as your stress mounts, your breathing gets worse too. And so on and so on. Another study found that life event stress had more negative effects on physical and mental health, as well as the quality of life in people with COPD3.
Triggers of stress
Besides your COPD symptoms themselves, here are some other common life event stressors:
- Changes in relationships, including marriage, divorce, death
- Financial challenges
- Changes in work, including retirement, being laid off, etc.
- Difficulty sleeping
- Trouble with sexual relations
- Moving or changes in where/how you live
- Having trouble with performing your daily activities of living
- Being verbally or physically abused
You may be able to think of others, depending on your unique situation. It's important to figure out exactly what does stress you, especially if it's an ongoing or long-term situation. Knowing what stresses you will make it easier to avoid or manage.
What can you do?
First of all, recognizing that we all have some stress in our lives is key. But, also know that you don't have to just accept chronic stress. You can take action to lessen your stress and protect your respiratory health.
Here are a few steps you can take to manage your stress effectively:
Practice breathing and relaxation exercises. There are many methods that can help with this. It may take some trial and error to find what works best for you. Focused breathing, yoga, and meditation are a few methods you may want to explore.
Get plenty of sleep. When you're well-rested, it gives your body time to rest and recharge and arm itself for the "battles" of the following day. Avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol before bed. Make sure your bed is the place for sleeping, not watching TV, cruising the internet on your iPad or even reading. Establish a regular sleep schedule and limit your naps during the day.
Stay active. It can be harder to exercise with COPD, but you should still do your best. Regular activity can help you sleep better. It will also strengthen your heart and lungs and improve your muscle tone and strength. Plus, exercise can improve mood.
Be social. Don't isolate yourself; that will only lead to more stress. Keep in touch with family and friends, if not in person, at least over the phone or through social media. Share your feelings and your COPD experience openly and honestly.
Ask for help when needed. Try not to take on too much. As your COPD progresses,you may find it harder to do all of the things you used to. Be willing to accept help from others with household chores and errands if you need it. Accepting help can be a positive experience not only for you but for those you allow to show they care about you.
Take charge of stress
Stress is unavoidable, especially when you have a chronic illness. But you can take charge of the stress, rather than letting it take control of you and your COPD. Maintaining a positive, proactive approach can make all the difference in your quality of life and the overall progression of your illness.
Where do you stand with your COPD?