Stress is part of life for most people. However, when you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—a chronic lung disease that causes breathing problems—stress can mean the difference between keeping your symptoms under control and experiencing a flare.
COPD often causes frequent coughing and wheezing, excess phlegm, and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you’re stressed, these symptoms can get worse and happen more often, says Destry Washburn, D.O., a pulmonologist with Riverside University Health System. “Stress can make you breathe faster, and that can make you feel short of breath,” he says.
The stress hormone cortisol can also make your heart pump faster, says pulmonary critical care expert Reynold Panettieri, M.D., director of the Institute for Translational Medicine and Science at Rutgers University. If your COPD is already limiting your oxygen intake, this can mean even more work on the heart. “That can end up causing more or exaggerated symptoms of COPD,” he says.
Bottom line: The more you can avoid stress, the better you’ll be able to manage your condition and its symptoms. Here’s how Drs. Panettieri and Washburn, along with other experts, recommend keeping your calm.
Identify your stressors.
Knowing you feel off is one thing, but figuring out that it’s due to stress is another. “Talking about and labeling feelings is the key to keeping it all sorted,” says licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D., author of Hack Your Anxiety. Clark suggests confiding in a close friend or family member; this person can help you untangle your feelings and what’s causing them, and help you feel heard.
Pinpointing the source of your stress also makes it more likely that you can actually do something about those negative emotions, Clark says. For example, if you realize crowds make you nervous, shift the bulk of your shopping online and hit the grocery store during off-peak hours.
Develop good sleep habits.
Stress and anxiety can lead to sleep issues, but not getting enough rest can also fuel stress, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). In one study, workers who slept for five hours or less felt significantly more stressed than their well-rested counterparts.
The NSF recommends that most adults get between seven to nine hours of sleep a night. But it’s equally important to ensure your sleep quality is good, says Lavannya Pandit, M.D., a pulmonologist and assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine. If you feel tired in the mornings instead of refreshed, you know you have some work to do, she says.
To dial in good sleep hygiene, Dr. Pandit recommends:
- Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day (even on weekends).
- Soundproofing your bedroom from outside noise (a white noise machine can help).
- Avoiding electronics before bed, which can suppress the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps you fall asleep.
- Exercising regularly to help promote deeper, restorative sleep.
- Reducing the amount of alcohol you drink at night, which can interfere with deep sleep.
Avoid taking on too much.
While it’s easy to get sucked into helping out friends or tackling a lot of things for your family, these commitments can also make you feel overwhelmed—and ultimately exacerbate your symptoms, Dr. Washburn says.
Clark recommends being mindful of how much you take on, and trying to say “no” or asking others for help more often. Building in time for yourself is also critical for your mental health, Clark adds, and can be as simple as doing a daily activity just for you—a walk, reading a book, a soak in the bath.
Prioritize your social life.
This one is tricky during a pandemic, but Dr. Pandit says it’s important to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, even if it’s through a phone call, text, or video chat. Isolating yourself makes it more difficult to work through stress and anxiety and can raise your risk of depression, Clark says.
Connecting with others can also get your mind off of your COPD, Dr. Pandit says. “Try to maintain social activities—especially things that encourage not thinking about your chronic disease all day long,” she says.
Get regular physical activity.
Workouts can be one of the best ways to bust stress and boost your mood. That’s because exercise produces endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers to reduce stress levels, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Even five minutes of aerobic exercise a day (like walking) can reduce anxiety, the ADAA says.
Exercise can also improve your circulation, help your body use oxygen more efficiently, and increase your stamina so you can do more without becoming short of breath, Dr. Washburn says. Because the symptoms of COPD can make some activities more difficult, he recommends talking to your doctor about specific exercises and programs that could work well for you.
Consider joining a support group.
“I’m a big fan of group therapy for patients,” Dr. Panettieri says. “Getting into groups where other chronic COPD patients are allows you to talk about your anxiety and fears with people who are going through a similar experience.”
Your doctor should be able to refer you to a support group for COPD patients, or if you’d like to search on your own, the American Lung Association recommends looking for a Better Breathers Club. There are also online support group options, like Living with COPD Community.
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