“All of us at anxietycentre.com have experienced debilitating anxiety. But we’ve also overcome it and returned to normal and lasting health. Because we know the hardship anxiety unwellness can cause, we are committed to helping others, with over 30 years of service.” - Jim Folk, President, anxietycentre.com

Asthma and Anxiety

Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: October 14, 2019


asthma symptoms anxiety

Asthma and its symptoms can be symptoms of anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and others.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your anxiety symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test or Anxiety Disorder Test. The higher the rating, the more likely it could be contributing to your asthma symptoms and attacks. Moreover, asthma could be contributing to your anxiety attacks and symptoms.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and asthma.

Asthma symptoms, attacks and anxiety

Common asthma anxiety symptoms descriptions include:

  • You notice your asthma symptoms or attacks get worse and more persistent in association with your anxiety.
  • You might also notice your overall asthma symptoms have increased, that you are experiencing more asthma attacks, or your asthma condition is more problematic overall than normal when your anxiety is more problematic.
  • You have noticed a connection between your anxiety or stress and an increase in asthma symptoms or attacks.

Asthma symptoms include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Coughing up mucus
  • Chest tightness
  • Rapid breathing

Many find their asthma symptoms increase more in the early morning or at night. Asthma attacks, however, can occur at any time and can be triggered by a number of factors.

Asthma is caused by a narrowing and swelling of the airways, which can also cause a production of mucus that makes it difficult to breathe.

Some medical sources have linked the swelling of airways to inflammation, which can be triggered by an overly sensitive/reactive immune system. Because stress can suppress the body’s immune system,[1] stress can play a role in the degree and prevalence of asthma.

During periods of stress and anxiety, asthma attacks occur more frequently, and asthma control is more difficult.” - Peter Gergen, MP, MPH, a senior medical officer at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Can anxiety cause asthma symptoms?

Yes. In two ways:

1. Anxiety can cause symptoms similar to asthma symptoms

Anxiety can cause symptoms similar to asthma symptoms, such as:

2. Anxiety can trigger asthma symptoms and attacks

Anxiety can trigger asthma symptoms and attacks, and can aggravate existing symptoms and attacks.

Additionally, experiencing asthma symptoms and attacks can cause anxiety if you believe your survival could be in danger because of asthma, its symptoms, and attacks.

This scenario can cause a vicious cycle of anxiety triggering asthma and asthma triggering anxiety, with one fueling the other.

Why does anxiety aggravate asthma symptoms and attacks?

At this time, the cause of asthma is unknown. Many sources suggest there is a combination of factors that cause asthma, such as environmental and genetic. But the condition of asthma is well understood. “Asthma is an inflammatory disease of the airways,” says Bradley Chipps, MD, pediatric pulmonologist and allergist in Sacramento, California.

Even though the cause of asthma is unknown, there are many aggravators and triggers of asthma symptoms and attacks, including as mentioned above, stress.

Anxiety is also linked as an asthma aggravator because of how apprehensive behavior affects the body.

Apprehensive behavior, such as worrying, fretting, and being afraid create anxiety. Anxiety activates the stress response, which gives the body an “emergency boost” when in danger – to either fight with or flee from it – which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response.[2][3]

Because of the many body-wide changes the stress response brings about, stress responses stress the body. Consequently, stress, including anxiety-caused stress can aggravate asthma, asthma symptoms, and asthma attacks.

Furthermore, behaving anxiously too often can cause the body to become stress-response hyperstimulated (also referred to as “hyperarousal” or “nervous system dysregulation”).[4][5] Hyperstimulation can chronically stress the body. Chronic stress is a common trigger for asthma symptoms and attacks.[1]

How can I reduce my asthma symptoms and attacks?

Due to the link between asthma, anxiety, stress, and chronic stress, asthma symptoms and attacks can be reduced by reducing stress and addressing your anxious behavior.

Some short-term strategies include:

  • Stress reduction
  • Regular deep relaxation
  • Rest
  • Getting good sleep
  • Regular light to moderate exercise
  • Spending more time doing the things you love
  • Unplugging from electronics

And so on, can all help reduce stress.

The most important, however, is addressing the underlying factors that motivate anxious behavior so that your body’s stress CAN diminish (continued stress responses triggered by unidentified and unresolved underlying anxiety factors can prevent meaningful stress reduction).

Behaving less anxiously, reducing your body’s stress, and giving your body ample time to respond will bring about the desired stress reduction effects over time.

As the body recovers from stress and chronic stress, it could reduce your susceptibility to asthma, its symptoms, and attacks, if stress is a major cause of your asthma symptoms and attacks.

Unfortunately, there are NO quick ways to eliminate hyperstimulation (chronic stress). Eliminating chronic stress takes time, and more time than most people think.

Because worrying, fretting, and becoming emotionally upset stress the body, these types of behaviors can interfere with stress reduction and recovery from hyperstimulation.

How do I cope with anxiety during an asthma attack?

Asthma can cause a shortness of breath. Being short of breath can trigger an involuntary panic attack, as well as a voluntary panic attack if you believe your survival is at risk.

You can remedy this by having rescue medication available, understanding how long it takes for your medication to work, knowing when to seek emergency help, and by calming yourself down. It’s also helpful to make an ‘action plan’ in collaboration with your doctor ahead of time so that you don’t have to try and figure things out during an asthma attack.

Gergen says, “The best stress reliever is having your medications and an action plan and knowing how to use it.

If you are concerned that asthma may prevent you from living a normal life, you may want to talk with an anxiety disorder therapist to help you address this concern as well as help you devise strategies on how to best manage asthma while living a normal life.

The combination of stress management, learning to behave less anxiously, and managing asthma well could allow you to live a normal life without any, or minimal, restrictions.

When asthma is managed well, “Self-limiting isn’t really necessary,” says Gergen.

For more information about involuntary and voluntary panic attacks, the stress response, stress-response hyperstimulation, and additional recovery strategies and tips, we have many chapters that address this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.


 


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.


Additional Resources:


Return to Anxiety Disorders Symptoms section.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety and its symptoms, including the link between anxiety and ashtma.


REFERENCES:

Chen, Edith and Miller, Gregory. "Stress and Inflammation in Exacerbations of Asthma." Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 9 May 2009.

2. Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.

3. Folk, Jim and Folk, Marilyn. “The Stress Response And Anxiety Symptoms.” anxietycentre.com, August 2019.

4. Hannibal, Kara E., and Mark D. Bishop. “Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2014.

5. Justice, Nicholas J., et al. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder-Like Induction Elevates β-Amyloid Levels, Which Directly Activates Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Neurons to Exacerbate Stress Responses.” Journal of Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 11 Feb. 2015.