Asthma and stress

If you have asthma, keep an eye on your stress levels - 43% of people with asthma tell us stress triggers their symptoms

Whether it’s work, illness, problems where we live, or planning a big event like a wedding, there are lots of reasons we can get stressed. Poor sleep and diet can add to the problem.

If you have asthma and you’re stressed, it can make your asthma symptoms worse.

Why is stress an asthma trigger?

Stress makes you more likely to react to your usual asthma triggers – like pets, pollen or colds and flu.

It can trigger symptoms indirectly too. You may get angry more easily when you’re under stress, and anger is an emotional asthma trigger.

For some of us stress means we drink or smoke more, both things which put us more at risk of asthma symptoms.

And if your stress levels stay high for a long time, you may notice you react to asthma triggers more often, and with worse symptoms.

Too much stress can sometimes lead to feelings of anxiety or 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 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.  

How do I know if stress is triggering my asthma 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, more worried than usual. You might feel teary, restless or find it hard to make decisions.

The second 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, perhaps you got asthma symptoms more when you were moving to a new house, or your asthma seemed worse when you had exams coming up.  

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

When is stress most likely to trigger asthma?

Stress can affect any of us at any time. But there are times in our lives when we’re more likely to react to stressful situations. For example:

  • Teenagers and young people might be dealing with hormones as well as peer pressure, exams or problems at home. This can all add to their stress levels at an age when they’re less likely to manage stress well.
  • Children with asthma exposed to stressful events are more at risk of having an asthma attack, especially if they have a lot of background stress in their life.

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

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

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

  1. 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 sticking to your asthma medicines as prescribed, taking your inhaler correctly, going for regular asthma reviews, and using a written asthma action plan.
  2. 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.
  3. Cut down stress in your life. Find out more about how eating well, doing exercise, avoiding alcohol and connecting with others can help with stress. 

Need more advice about asthma and stress?

You can speak to one of the asthma nurse specialists on our Helpline by calling 0300 222 5800, 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday.

Or you can WhatsApp them on 07378 606 728.

Find out about other organisations that can support you here

 

Last updated March 2019

Next review due March 2022