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Short of Breath? Tips for COPD Breathlessness

Stay calm to breathe easier with COPD.
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WebMD Feature

Whether you have COPD or someone you love has COPD, an episode of breathlessness can wreak havoc with your emotions.

Breathlessness is a common symptom of a COPD exacerbation. Since we all need oxygen to live, the feeling of not being able to get enough air can trigger a “suffocation alarm.” The natural response is anxiety and panic. But the more someone panics, the more muscles in the body tighten. That makes it even more difficult to breathe.  

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There are things a person with COPD can do to breathe more easily. And there are ways a caregiver can help. But both the person with COPD and the caregiver must remain calm. To be ready for the possibility of a sudden episode of breathlessness, it’s important to know how to relax. And learning to control anxiety and panic will help you deal with the sudden occurrence of a COPD exacerbation.

Anxiety and COPD

Anxiety can be a sign that someone is not getting enough oxygen, says Laurence Smolley, MD, in the book Breathe Right Now. But anxiety is not particularly helpful. Smolley is the chairman of the department of pulmonary medicine and the medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cleveland Clinic in Florida. He explains that because anxiety tightens muscles, it makes it even harder to breathe.

When a person is fearful, respiration quickens. Yet taking a deep, slow breath can have a calming effect and reduce this stress.

It’s like cutting your finger. You may not feel pain until you look at the finger and see blood. Then the anxiety caused by seeing the blood can help trigger a response of pain.

With COPD, the fear of breathlessness -- even if breathing is not currently a problem -- can cause an increase in a person’s heart rate and quicken breathing. The added stress can make the respiratory system work harder. And the harder it has to work, the more difficult it becomes to breathe and the more likely it is someone will experience breathlessness.

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