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Short of Breath? Tips for COPD Breathlessness

Stay calm to breathe easier with COPD.

Worry, Airway Constriction, and the Need to Relax

Still, who doesn’t panic when it’s hard to breathe? Studies show that emotion or worry causes the body to produce the chemical acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter. One effect of acetylcholine is to cause the airways to constrict even more. Smolley says that just worrying about breathlessness may actually trigger shortness of breath. The power of suggestion is that strong.

Smolley says that researchers once told a group of people with asthma that they were being exposed to pollens and other aggravating triggers. Then the researchers stood back and observed the participants.  More than half of them developed a full-blown asthma attack -- although no pollens or other triggers were actually present. For someone with COPD, learning how to control worry and negative responses to stress may help improve breathing.

When you have breathlessness or sense the start of a COPD exacerbation, it can help to go into a dark room and sit there alone while listening to classical music, says pulmonologist Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of the Respiratory Care Department at Mount Sinai Center in New York City.

Schachter says that the more sensory inputs, such as bright lights and noises, a person has, the higher the level of anxiety can become. “If you use music to unwind, avoid melodies that make you tense or that cause uneasiness,” he cautions.

Enjoy a Hobby

Schachter also says that a hobby can help distract someone with chronic breathing problems from the fear of breathlessness. “People with COPD should focus on doing what they enjoy,” he says. This may be working on a favorite hobby or spending time with grandchildren.”

Some experts recommend pet therapy for relaxation. But it’s important to make sure that the person with COPD doesn’t also have allergies or allergic asthma. If the person does, Schachter says, pet dander could trigger breathing problems. Talking to the doctor before adopting a furry creature is the right thing to do for someone with COPD or asthma.

Consider Mind/Body Therapies

In Breathe Right Now, Smolley recommends learning relaxed breathing and panic control techniques with yoga and tai chi.  Modern biofeedback may help in treating anxiety attacks, especially important for those with COPD who “fear” a COPD exacerbation or breathlessness.

In addition, therapeutic massage has been used for decades to loosen the thick phlegm that accompanies asthma, bronchitis, and COPD.

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