Anxiety is one of the most common conditions affecting mental wellbeing in the UK, and people with asthma often experience it. It can affect your breathing, and if it causes a panic attack it can be hard to know if those symptoms are your asthma or your anxiety.
“We’ve got some useful information and tips here to help people with asthma deal with anxiety, but for expert mental health support visit our support page for a full list of organisations that can offer you free and confidential information and advice,” says asthma specialist nurse Kathy.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear. Feeling anxious now and then if you’re taking an exam or your teenager’s slightly late home from a party is natural, and won’t have a big effect on your life. But if you feel anxious a lot, or the fear or worry starts to feel overwhelming, then it can be a problem. It can make it hard to cope and/or cause panic attacks, and may mean you don’t enjoy your life as much.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include:
- a racing heart
- tense muscles
- breathing that is shallow or difficult.
Why do we feel anxious?
Feeling anxious is the body’s way of preparing us either to make a run for it or put up a fight (known as the ‘flight or fight’ response).
For our ancestors, this response was useful in helping us survive life-threatening attacks by wild animals.
For us, most problems we come across in daily life aren’t dangerous, but our bodies can still react as though we’re under attack. Some people have symptoms of anxiety even when they’re just thinking about something worrying or frightening.
Are you anxious about asthma?
“If you’re feeling anxious about your asthma, you don’t need to put up with asthma symptoms that are worrying you,” says asthma specialist nurse Kathy. You can:
- Talk to your GP or asthma nurse about how you’re feeling so you can get the all-round help and support you need. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re feeling anxious − struggling to breathe is frightening and even if you haven’t had an asthma attack before or for a long time, it’s natural to worry.
- Write down how you’re feeling. If you find it too difficult to talk about it, you can take your written account to your appointment with your GP or asthma nurse.
- Make sure your asthma action plan is up to date. If you’re confident that your symptoms are well managed you’ll feel less anxious about having the condition.
- Ask your GP or asthma nurse to check your inhaler technique – or use our handy videos – so you know you’re using your inhaler(s) in best way and getting the full benefits of your medicines.
- Double check that you and the people around you know what to do if you have an asthma attack as feeling prepared may help you to feel less anxious. Talk to other people who have asthma about how they feel too by joining our HealthUnlocked community.
Chat to one of our friendly asthma nurse specialists on 0300 222 5800 or message them via WhatsApp on 07378 606 728 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm).
Are you anxious about having another asthma attack?
“If you’ve had an asthma attack it’s common to feel worried that it will happen again,” says asthma specialist nurse Kathy. “You can do some simple things to help cut your chance of another asthma attack, and feel more in control.” It’s important to:
- Speak to your GP or asthma nurse within 48 hours of an asthma attack so you can review your treatment plan.
- Take your medicines exactly as prescribed so you’re more likely to stay well with your asthma.
- Make sure you take your reliever inhaler (usually blue) with you wherever you go so it’s always on hand to treat any symptoms.
- Avoid your triggers where it's possible.
- Keep a diary of activities and symptoms to help spot any patterns or signs that your asthma is getting worse.
Find out more about what to do after an asthma attack here.
Is anxiety making your asthma worse?
If you’re going through a stressful time in your life, such as a divorce or redundancy, or you’re feeling anxious even if you don’t know why, this can make your asthma symptoms worse. This may mean you have to take asthma medicines more often, and may have to go to hospital or see your GP more frequently after having had an asthma attack.
Taking steps to get back on track emotionally is important because it can be easy to get stuck in a vicious circle: you feel anxious, anxiety makes your asthma symptoms worse, and you then feel more worried and anxious and on it goes.
You don’t have to put up with anxiety − you can:
- Talk to your GP or asthma nurse about how you’re feeling. They may be able to suggest ways for you to cope with it.
- Write down any symptoms of anxiety you’re having and when. This can help your GP or asthma nurse to get a good idea of what you’re going through.
- Ask your GP if you can be referred for counselling or a course of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the recommended treatment for most people with anxiety.
- Talk to other people who have asthma about how they feel too − join our HealthUnlocked community.
- Call our Helpline and speak to one of our friendly asthma nurse specialists on 0300 222 5800 or message them via WhatsApp on 07378 606 728 (Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm).
- Eat well − foods high in sugar and caffeine can increase feelings of anxiety.
- Avoid drinking too much alcohol.
- Keep active − exercise can help ease anxiety.
- Build in some relaxation time such as meditation or yoga.
- Try some breathing exercises as they can be helpful for anxiety and panic.
What’s a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden extreme attack of anxiety. A panic attack may make you feel dizzy, faint, sick or breathless. You may have palpitations or sweaty palms and you may shake.
Panic attacks can happen in situations where you feel anxious, such as on a crowded bus or train. Some people get panic attacks in social situations, or medical environments, or as a result of health worries. Sometimes feelings of panic seem to come out of the blue for no obvious reason.
Although a panic attack can be frightening, it usually passes quickly, especially if you slow down your breathing, stay where you are and let the panic subside.
Avoiding situations where you feel you can’t cope is not the answer: this only makes getting back to a panic-free life harder in the long term.
Is it an asthma attack or a panic attack?
Because a panic attack has some of the same symptoms of an asthma attack, it’s important to know your own asthma symptoms and how to spot when they’re getting worse. This can help you to feel more confident about telling them apart.
Signs that you’re having an asthma attack:
- Low peak flow
- Your blue reliever isn’t helping, or you need to use it more than every four hours.
Signs that you’re having a panic attack:
- Tingling in fingers/lips
- Feeling faint
Common to both:
- Shortness of breath
- Tight chest
- Feeling tense or anxious
- Racing heart
- Unable to complete a sentence.
What to do if your asthma symptoms are getting worse
What to do if you’re hyperventilating (breathing really fast)
One symptom of a panic attack is hyperventilation − where you’re breathing really fast or “overbreathing”. In hyperventilation your lungs are getting too much oxygen and you will feel quite breathless.
If you have anxiety and start breathing really quickly your GP may recommend simple breathing exercises. Some people also find it helpful to count from one to five during each in-breath and out-breath.
If you’re having an asthma attack, your lungs may not be getting enough oxygen, so you need to take action straight away to treat your symptoms.
Asthma specialist nurse Kathy says: “You should refer to your written asthma action plan which tells you everything you need to know about signs and symptoms of an asthma attack and how to get help.”
What to do if you’re not sure what’s causing your symptoms
If you’re not sure whether your asthma symptoms are getting worse or you’ve got symptoms of anxiety, it’s very important to talk to your GP or asthma nurse.
- If you mistake your anxiety symptoms for asthma, it could mean that you take more asthma medicine than you need. Some people find that they have palpitations, trembling hands, tingling fingers or lips, or feel a bit nervy and on edge after repeated doses of their reliever inhaler. Symptoms like these could make you feel more anxious.
- If you mistake your asthma symptoms for anxiety, you may not be treating your asthma symptoms correctly and this could lead to a potentially life-threatening asthma attack.
Last updated June 2019
Next review due June 2022