When stress levels start to creep
upward -- whether it's over bills, work, or your kids -- jam-packed calendar --
asthma symptoms can kick into
overdrive. As the wheezing and coughing gets worse, your health becomes one
more reason to worry. Asthma and anxiety make for a vicious
circle, and one that can spiral downward quickly.
"Asthma is triggered by many things, and one of them is stress,"
says Pramod Kelkar, MD, a fellow with the American Academy of Asthma Allergy
and Immunology (AAAAI).
For many people, asthma attacks may happen more often in the winter.
"There are two challenges for people with asthma in the winter. One is that they spend more time inside. The other is that it’s cold outside," says H. James Wedner, MD, an asthma expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
While you’re indoors, you breathe in asthma triggers such as mold, pet dander, dust mites, and even fires in the fireplace. When you venture out, you could have an asthma attack from inhaling the cold air...
"So look at the big picture: just as you manage exposure to triggers
like cigarette smoke and pet dander to keep symptoms from getting worse,
stress -- as a trigger -- needs to be managed as well."
Stress and Asthma: What's the Connection?
"Stress can affect the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal,
musculoskeletal, immune, and central nervous systems," says Paul Rosch, MD,
president of the American Stress Institute. "In fact, it's difficult to
think of any disorder in which stress has not been shown to have an aggravating
Asthma is no exception.
Stress can create strong physiologic reactions that lead to airway
constriction and changes in the immune system, which can worsen asthma
"The mechanism between asthma and anxiety is many-fold," says
Kelkar, a physician at Allergy and Asthma Care in Maple Grove, Minn.
"Uncontrolled emotions can work the nerves and cause constriction of
muscles, like the smooth muscles of the airways in the lungs. They tighten up
and constrict, which can worsen wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness in
people with asthma."
Although stress and anxiety start in your mind, asthma is a physical disease
of the lungs.
"It is important to note that asthma is not a psychosomatic
disease," Kelkar tells WebMD. "It's not in your head. Stress can
trigger symptoms if you already have the disease, but if you don't have it,
stress does not all of a sudden cause a person to develop the disease of
The Brain's Impact on Asthma and Stress
The brain-body link between asthma and anxiety is starting to be better
understood. Led by researchers from the University of Wisconsin, a group of
scientists found that certain areas of the brain cause worsening asthma
symptoms when a person is under stress.