Is It Asthma or Anxiety?

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If you suffer from asthma, you know that the feeling of not being able to breathe is very frightening. 

For some people, asthma and anxiety go hand-in-hand. It’s often difficult to unravel the connections between the two. That’s because both conditions cause similar symptoms, especially shortness of breath.

You might experience anxiety about when your next asthma attack will occur. The stress of an asthma attack can even lead to a panic attack.

If you know what triggers your asthma or anxiety symptoms, you can take steps to reduce the frequency of attacks and maybe even prevent them.

What is Asthma?

asthma is breathing difficulty and shortness of breath from inflamed airways. Asthma affects 22 million Americans and is one of the most common chronic conditions in children.

Many factors can affect asthma, including allergies, genetics and the environment. You doctor can help you identify your asthma triggers and learn how to master those asthma irritants, avoid them or calm them. 

It’s important to understand triggers because asthma triggers vary widely from person to person. 

Common asthma triggers include:

  • Allergies
  • Pollen
  • Dust
  • Mold
  • Pets
  • Pollution
  • Exercise
  • Stress

Nearly half of all people with asthma also have allergies. When you know the link between your asthma and allergies, you can better control both conditions.

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is feelings of worry or fear about an event or specific situation. We all feel anxiety at some point in our lives, and it is a normal reaction to stress. But if you become so overwhelmed with worry that you stop taking part in your regular activities, you should talk with your doctor. 

Women are twice as likely as men to develop anxiety disorders such as panic attacks. A panic attack is a feeling of extreme terror when there is no real danger. When you have a panic attack you may think you are having a heart attack.

Physical symptoms of panic attacks and other anxiety disorders include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Hot flashes
  • Dizziness

Many people with asthma also experience panic attacks. This occurs so frequently that panic attacks are considered to be an asthma symptom. 

Why does asthma cause panic attacks? Asthma attacks are scary. When the airways in the lungs inflame, you feel like you are suffocating. Even people used to having frequent asthma attacks may feel extremely scared during an episode. In fact, feelings of anxiety about a future asthma attack can trigger an asthma attack and also cause a panic attack.

Stress: A Common Factor

Stress can be a major contributor to asthma and anxiety. Studies show that stress and anxiety can trigger asthma attacks. At the same time, the wheezing and difficult breathing that you feel during an asthma attack can cause anxiety. In fact, 69 percent of people with asthma say that stress is a trigger for them, says Asthma UK.

When you experience stress, your body releases stress hormones that prepare you for “fight or flight” response. Your body reacts to the hormones with a faster heart rate, shallow and fast breathing and tense muscles. These changes in your normal breathing pattern can bring on an asthma attack.

Living with constant stress may also cause you to be angry or to drink or smoke more, in an effort to relax. These actions can also trigger asthma, especially if your asthma is not well managed.

Talk with your doctor about how to reduce your stress. Some actions you can take may include:

  • Making time for you
  • Exercising by walking, swimming or doing yoga
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Avoiding alcohol
  • Not smoking
  • Sharing how you feel with family and friends
  • Prioritizing and organizing your to-do list

If you (or a loved one) feel more stressed than normal or if your asthma is getting worse, think about what’s happening in your life. 

  • Are you dealing with a major life event, like getting married, buying a house or having a baby?
  • Are you facing changes in your body, such as those that come with menopause? 
  • Is your teenager adjusting to hormonal changes or the pressure of school?
  • Is your child reacting to a stressful event or dealing with constant background stress at home?

Stress from any of these situations can trigger asthma and anxiety. To better manage modern life, keep a written record of stressful situations and a symptom diary. This may help you to understand the kinds of events that trigger your asthma and anxiety.

Share your notes with your doctor. He or she can help you create a plan for how you can stay in control when life gets crazy.

Many people with asthma also experience panic attacks.

Living with Asthma and Anxiety

While managing asthma and anxiety can be tricky, there are treatments and therapies that aid in easing both conditions.Asthma or Anxiety small

Breathing retraining. Breathing retraining can help control asthma and calm anxiety, studies show. Difficulty with breathing is a symptom of hyperventilation, which occurs with panic, and is also a symptom of asthma. Breathing retraining teaches you exercises that change the speed and regularity of your breathing patterns. The therapy can improve asthma symptoms and pulmonary function, reduce airway hyper-reactivity and reduce bronchodilator use.

Heart rate variability biofeedback. Heart rate variability biofeedback is a therapy that works by teaching you to match your heart rate to your breathing. This training can improve pulmonary function, reduce asthma symptoms and reduce the need for asthma medicine. 

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavior therapy is a form of therapy that helps you change the way you think about your fears. CBT uses relaxation techniques and problem-solving to change the way you react to and behave during situations that create anxiety. 

Medicines. Your doctor may also prescribe medicines to treat your asthma and your anxiety. Many people who take asthma medicine also take anti-anxiety medicine to keep them calm.

Exercise. Movement and exercise can also improve your asthma symptoms and reduce stress. Talk with your doctor about the best exercise plan for you. 

You should also talk with you doctor about creating an asthma action plan for yourself or a loved one if one does not exist. An asthma action plan reminds you and those around you of the signs of a possible asthma attack and what to do if one occurs.

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