Stress and anxiety

Sixty-nine per cent of people with asthma tell us that stress is an asthma trigger for them.

Most of us will feel stress at some point in our lives because there are so many situations and experiences that can put extra mental or emotional pressure on us. Feeling lonely, anxious or worrying a lot can lead to stress, as can poor sleep, diet, or problems with money.

If you have asthma, and you're going through a stressful time, keep an eye on your asthma symptoms - 69 per cent of people with asthma tell us stress is an asthma trigger for them.

Why is stress an asthma trigger?

Stress causes a surge of stress hormones in our bodies. These are released to prepare us to either run away from danger or fight it (the "fight or flight" response). We react with symptoms such as a faster heart rate, tense muscles and breathing that is shallow and fast (hyperventilating). This change to our breathing pattern can put us at a higher risk of all our usual asthma symptoms, such as tight chest and coughing.

Another reason why stress can trigger someone's asthma is because of the things people do when they're stressed. You may notice that you lose your temper more easily when you're under stress, and anger is itself an emotional asthma trigger. Stress can mean we drink or smoke more, both asthma triggers in their own right. People with asthma who are stressed may also feel less able or willing to take their asthma medicines as prescribed, especially if long term stress means they're also dealing with anxiety and depression.

How do I know if stress is triggering my asthma symptoms?

It's usually not that difficult to recognise the things that are making us stressed. But sometimes we don't make the connection between stressful events and our asthma symptoms.

  • If you think you might be under more stress than usual, ask yourself if your asthma's feeling worse than usual.
  • If you've noticed your asthma is feeling worse than usual, consider what's going on in your life at the moment. Could a stressful situation have triggered your asthma symptoms?
  • Try keeping a record of stressful situations alongside a symptom diary - this might show a pattern and help you recognise stressful situations or events that trigger your asthma symptoms.

A written asthma action plan helps you keep an eye on worsening symptoms and know what to do if you notice any.

When is stress most likely to trigger asthma?

Stress can affect any of us at any time, and especially around big life events such as moving house, getting married, starting a new job, illness, redundancy and bereavement.

Someone who is constantly under stress is more likely to react with "fight or flight" reactions to stressful situations, meaning they'll be at more risk of asthma symptoms.

There are also certain times in our lives when we're more likely to react to stressful situations: women might find they're more stressed at certain times in their menstrual cycle, or during menopause. Teenagers and young people are dealing with hormones as well as peer pressure, exams or problems at home which can all add to their stress levels at an age when they're less likely to manage their stress levels well.

Studies show that stressful experiences in a child's life trigger asthma attacks and this is worse if the child has a lot of background stress all of the time and is exposed to a negative life event.

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

Stress is most likely to trigger asthma symptoms if your asthma is not well managed. So make sure you're managing your asthma as well as you can, by taking your medicines as prescribed. Speak to your GP or asthma nurse for advice. You can also talk to one of our asthma nurse specialists on the Asthma UK Helpline on 0300 222 5800, 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday if you're worried about your asthma.

Be prepared. We don't always have control over stressful life events or circumstances. But if you know there's something coming up that's stressful for you, or you're going through a difficult time, talk to your GP or asthma nurse about how to deal with any asthma symptoms, or how you can stop asthma symptoms developing in the first place. You may need to take more of your asthma medicines for a while until you feel less stressed.

"Stress is one of my main triggers for my asthma symptoms. A couple of years ago after seeing a chest consultant, I was referred to a physiotherapist who taught me a breathing technique - where I count my breathing to help me slow it down if I'm feeling anxious or think I might be at risk of an asthma attack. I use it every day and it really helps me to stay calm." - Faye Chown

Top stress tips

We can't always avoid stress in our lives but there are things we can do to help manage it. Whatever's going on for you, being aware of how stress is affecting you and your body is the first step to managing it. There's lots of advice on stress in books and online and plenty of methods you can try that may help you feel better and help you learn coping skills.

Finding ways to reduce stress in your life is good for you and your asthma. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. Recognise your stress triggers. If you're not sure what's causing your stress, keep a diary and make a note of stressful episodes for two to four weeks. Then review it to spot the triggers.

2. Me time - take some time out for you and do something you like doing but don't usually get time to do. Taking a step back from things can help you to relax and to feel more in control so you're able to deal with it all better when you go back to it.

3. Stay healthy

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet, with plenty of fruit and vegetables. Try not to eat sugary, processed foods because these can cause your blood sugar levels to go up and down too quickly, which makes your stress symptoms worse.
  • Do some exercise - even if it's only a walk round the park, exercise is great for stress. Try yoga, or go swimming. Try to learn some relaxation exercises too.
  • Try not to drink alcohol - you might be tempted to have a drink to calm yourself down, but alcohol actually increases stress levels.
  • Try not to smoke - if you're a smoker and you're under stress, you might be more likely to reach for the cigarettes. Smoking is high risk for your asthma. It's not only bad for your asthma - it actually makes feeling stressed worse, not better. If you can cut down, or better still, stop altogether, you'll be helping both your stress levels and your asthma.

4. Talk to friends or family - Don't be afraid to talk to a good friend or someone in your family about how you're feeling. Other people can often help us see things in a new way. Most people feel a bit better about things after talking them through with someone.

5. Organise the things you have to do - writing down everything you have to do helps clear your head and gives you back some control over what you have to do. Do the most important things first.

Can I talk to someone about how stress affects my asthma?

Speak to your GP or asthma nurse if you feel that stress is making your asthma worse. You can also speak in confidence, to one of our asthma nurse specialists on our Helpline on 0300 222 5800, 9am - 5pm, Mon - Fri.

Last updated May 2016

Next review due May 2019