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Anxiety Can Aggravate Asthma and Vice Versa

Marilyn Folk BScN medical review

Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Updated March 28, 2019

A new study by the University of Cincinnati has found that anxiety can aggravate asthma and vice versa. This cross aggravation can become circular and make each worse.

Researchers found that when anxious people have asthma, their suffering can be far more debilitating and dangerous, because they have difficulty managing their asthma.

The study by Alison McLeish, a University of Cincinnati associate professor of psychology, Christina Luberto, a recent doctoral graduate from UC and clinical fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Emily O'Bryan, a graduate student in the UC Department of Psychology, will be presented at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) 49th Annual Convention. The convention takes place Nov. 12-15 in Chicago.

The researchers recruited 101 college undergraduates who reported having asthma. The experiment aimed to mimic asthma symptoms by having study participants breathe in-and-out through a narrow straw, about the width of a coffee-stirrer straw.

As expected, people who reported higher anxiety sensitivity – being afraid of anxiety and fear - not only reported greater anxiety during the straw-breathing task, but also experienced greater asthma symptoms and decreased lung function. "Anxiety sensitivity not only helps explain why we see higher rates of anxiety disorders, but also why anxiety is associated with poorer asthma outcomes," says McLeish.

As a result, the study recommended interventions for anxiety sensitivity aimed at reducing anxiety. Examples of reducing anxiety sensitivity include addressing both levels of anxiety disorder recovery, which includes an element of well-timed exposure therapy – working at desensitizing the fear of anxiety and its sensations and symptoms by facing and working through the actual the threat.

Safety controls were in place during the straw-breathing exercise and all participants were required to have their inhalers with them in case they experienced an asthma attack. Students were told they could stop at any time during the straw-breathing exercise.

The UC presentation at the ABCT Convention is part of a Nov. 14 symposium titled, "Motivation Escape and Avoidant Coping: The Impact of Distress Intolerance on Health Behaviors." The research will be published in an upcoming special issue of the journal Behavior Modification and is currently featured ahead of the print issue in the journal's online first section.

Funding for the research was supported by the University Research Council at UC.

Based on our personal and professional experiences with anxiety disorder, this phenomenon is not exclusive to asthma. There are many medical conditions where anxiety can make them worse and vice versa, such as stomach and digestive conditions, balance conditions, and heart-related conditions, to name a few.

In all cases, however, just as anxiety sensitivity can aggravate medical conditions and create a negative cycle, overcoming anxiety sensitivity can improve medical conditions and create a positive cycle, including improving the overall quality of life.

Moreover, anxiety unwellness is often the cause of medical conditions. Therefore, overcoming anxiety unwellness issues can contribute to the elimination of medical conditions. Examples of these medical conditions include IBS, arthritis, persistent heart palpitations, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stomach and digestive problems, migraine headaches, and ringing in the ears, to name a few.

There are many benefits to overcoming a struggle with problematic anxiety, including a reduction and elimination of common medical problems.

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The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.

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