Asthma and stress

If you’re under a lot of stress, it could make your asthma harder to manage and trigger asthma symptoms

Health advice > Asthma triggers

Find out how stress can trigger asthma symptoms, how to recognise if it’s one of your asthma triggers, and how to lower your risk of stress affecting your asthma.

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What is stress?

Stress can sometimes be useful. A small amount can help us to get on with things or feel energised. It can help us to do well in exams, win the race, or move away from danger.

But sometimes we can have too much stress or feel that something is putting more pressure on us than we can cope with.

  • It might be acute stress – something demanding that doesn’t last long, like an exam.
  • Or it could be chronic stress – difficulties in life that go on for a long time.

Whether it’s work, illness, money problems, or relationships, there are lots of reasons we can feel stressed. Poor sleep and diet can also add to the problem.

If we think and feel a stressful event is too much for us to handle or we feel threatened by it, we’re more likely to react with worse asthma symptoms.

Find out more about the signs of stress.

How does stress trigger asthma?

We know that stress can mean you’re more at risk of asthma symptoms. In fact, people with asthma dealing with ongoing or severe stress are more at risk of asthma attacks or going to hospital because of their asthma.

Stress can mean:

“You can’t always control what stressful events come your way,” says Dr Andy Whittamore, our in-house GP. “It’s important to manage any stress as well as you can. Alongside a good asthma management routine, reducing stress could lower your risk of asthma symptoms.”

 

Find out more about stress at MIND.

Stress and panic attacks 

Too much stress, over time, can sometimes lead to panic attacks. In a panic attack, stress hormones are released to prepare us to either run away from danger or fight it (the "fight or flight" response). 

We react with physical symptoms such as a faster heart rate, tense muscles and breathing that is shallow and fast (hyperventilating).

This change to your breathing pattern can put you at a higher risk of all your usual asthma symptoms, such as tight chest and coughing.  

How do I know if stress is triggering my symptoms?

The first step is knowing that you’re under stress. Sometimes we don’t recognise the signs. Stress can make you feel more irritable, tired, and worried than usual. You might feel emotional, restless, or find it hard to make decisions. Talk to close friends or family. They may notice you’re stressed before you do.

The second step is understanding that stress levels can make your asthma worse. Sometimes we don’t make the connection between stressful events and our asthma symptoms.

To see if stress might be triggering your asthma symptoms try keeping a diary. Write down when and why you’re stressed alongside any asthma symptoms.

You might start noticing patterns. For example, you had asthma symptoms more when you were moving to a new home, or your asthma seemed worse when you had exams coming up. Try to notice whether normal stress situations or extreme stress situations, or both, triggered your symptoms.

 

Stress anxiety cycle

Stress and anxiety can make your asthma worse, which can make your stress levels worse. Ask your doctor or asthma nurse for support to break the cycle.

 

How can I lower the risk of stress affecting my asthma?

It’s impossible to cut out all stress from our lives. But you can lower the risk of it making your asthma worse.

Here are three top tips to help your asthma when stress is a trigger:

Stick to your asthma routine. Stress is most likely to trigger asthma symptoms if your asthma is not well managed in the first place. So, make sure you’re taking your asthma medicines as prescribed, taking your inhaler correctly, going for regular asthma reviews, and using a written asthma action plan. A written asthma action plan helps you keep an eye on symptoms getting worse and reminds you what to do if you notice any.

Talk to your GP or asthma nurse. They can support you in looking after your asthma well, even when stress levels are high. For example, they may suggest you take more of your asthma medicines for a while to keep your asthma steady during times of stress. They can also signpost you to counselling and wellbeing services.

Cut down stress in your life. Find out more about how eating well, doing exercise, and connecting with others can help with stress and well-being.  

Find out more about anxiety and asthma.

Find out more about depression and asthma.

For more advice about asthma and stress call our Helpline on 0300 222 5800, 9am-5pm, Mon-Fri. Or you can WhatsApp them on 07378 606 728.

 

Last updated April 2022

Next review due April 2025

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