Psychological stress has been suspected as being an asthma trigger for a long time, but recently there is compelling scientific evidence to validate this theory.

Asthma can be affected by stress, anxiety, loneliness, as well as by environmental irritants or allergens, exercise, and infection. It is also linked to high prevalence of anxiety and depressive disorders. (1)

Rather than stress directly causing the asthma symptoms, it is believed that stress modulates the immune system to raise the amount of the airway inflammatory response to allergens and irritants.

Asthma is a disease that affects the airways that transport air to and from your lungs. It is an incurable ailment, but with proper management a person with asthma can lead a normal and progressive life.

In this article we will be looking at some of the psychological implications of asthma and how it can be controlled.

For many years, asthma had been questioned whether it was really a disease or was it just a psychological condition. Before the twentieth century, incidents of asthma were rare, and people with asthma lead healthy lives. An asthma attack was considered to be triggered by stress and was viewed as a superficial condition, especially among children who would simply throw a tantrum and trigger a consequent asthma attack. Some remedies of the past to control initial asthma attack included breathing into a brown paper bag and using distraction or relaxation. They believed it could be kept under control purely from a psychological perspective.

Now, asthma has reached epidemic proportions in all developed countries despite major advancements in effective asthma drugs.

In a study conducted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), there has been evidence that adult inception of asthma, especially among women, is connected to chronic stress.

Some alternative methods like Buteyko breathing techniques perceive asthma as a stress-related condition that is influenced by our emotional and psychological state of mind, directly affecting our breathing.

Modern sedentary lifestyle promotes minimum physical activity. As a result we are faced with stress which leads to gradual accumulation of muscular tension leading to hyperventilation. The Buteyko method confirms that hyperventilation as an exacerbating aspect in asthma.

However, The British Thoracic Society (2) considers the Buteyko method to help patients manage the symptoms of asthma, but states there is insufficient data showing an intentional improvement in previous studies.

Psychological factors

Asthma can take psychological toll on a person’s life. Some of contributing factors include:

  • how severe the asthma is
  • the degree to which day-to- day activities are constrained
  • the quality of support available from family and friends
  • at what age the asthma began
  • the patient’s knowledge about asthma
  • the person’s overall personality and skills used to cope with the condition

Each asthmatic’s experience with the ailment is unique. There is a bit of social stigma attached to asthma, as most sufferers, mostly children, tend to develop low self-confidence. They are wary of their surroundings and feel embarrassed when an asthma attack is triggered. Most asthmatics strive hard to fit in the society. This could lead them to ignore their present condition or restrict them from managing their asthma.

Lack of full knowledge about asthma is the main reason why asthmatics feel anxious about themselves. They need to gain a thorough understanding of their condition and educate others around them. This way, everyone benefits and becomes more compassionate towards the sufferer.

With regard to child asthmatics who often feel embarrassed about the ailment, parents can play a vital part by requesting their school teacher to talk to students about the condition. Once the children are informed about asthma and how it is like to live with it, it is less likely they will make fun of a child with asthma.

Strategies to cope with the psychological aspects of asthma

1. Learn to accept – Asthmatics need to accept how they feel about their asthma condition and face the situation with courage. Ignoring the emotions won’t help at all; in fact, it’ll make matters worse. Child sufferers should be encouraged to open up and talk about how they exactly feel and label their emotions.

2. Be informed – It is important to learn about asthma and how it is triggered. The more informed you are, the healthier you can aim to be. Try to make lifestyle adjustments that will help keep asthma under control. It will help in reducing asthma and make you a confident person.

3. Be inquisitive – Instead of going into a shell and feeling miserable about the condition, reach out to others. Most people are happy to help and support you. All you have to do is ask. Try and form close social networks and build healthy relationships to remain positive.

4. Learn to relax – Relaxation and breathing exercises have been proved to reduce asthma-related stress and anxiety. In certain cases, they can actually cut down the physical symptoms of asthma. If you feel anxious about attending social events, you could try meditating for 15-20 minutes to reduce anxiety.

5. Find a good medical practitioner – A friendly and reliable medical practitioner is worth his/her weight in gold. You need to feel comfortable and be supported. Someone who understands how you are feeling and can explain things, can make you feel better both psychologically as well as physically.

Asthma rates rise in the US

Asthma affects 7.85% of the population, an increase of approximately .5% every 3 years, according to a new government study. (3)

17.5 million American adults currently have asthma (4). The number of American children who have asthma is 7.1 million.

Of course, if the asthma sufferer is a young child, he or she may not be able to deal too well on their own with some of the psychological problems of asthma, so it is very important that a parent or a guardian teach them how to better cope and manage it. And its not just young children that need to learn to cope. One of the problems of asthma with teens and young adults is that there is a tendency to make the worst of what it is. They allow the asthma to play on their minds so triggering it. Sometimes the best treatment is to set yourself free by occupying your time with other things.

1) National Institutes of Health
2) The British Thoracic Society
3) American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
4) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention