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Coping with COPD Anxiety

For someone with COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, anxiety is an emotional state that can have physically dangerous consequences. Unfortunately, it is also one of the hardest emotional states to avoid, due to the overwhelming physiological and psychological stresses that accompany the disease.

In psychological terms, it becomes difficult to think positively about the future, which often leads to fatalistic thinking with accompanying stress-causing concerns about providing for loved ones and getting one's final affairs in order. Physiologically, even formerly minor environmental stressors such as having to move quickly or coming across an overpowering scent can lead to full-scale panic attacks resulting in oxygen deprivation.

Coping with Anxiety

Talk to your doctor about how to best control COPD, and if you're looking for more information on how to cure your anxiety, consider my free 7 minute anxiety test now.

Start the test here.

Different Degrees of Anxiety

Anxiety is the type of condition that occurs in degrees, and may affect those that have COPD and those that develop it. Never complete any treatment until you've spoken with your doctor, since COPD is not the type of condition to leave to chance. Also, take my anxiety test to learn more about how anxiety can affect you.

In order to cope with COPD anxiety, it is important to have a thorough understanding of the mechanics of the disease and to avoid the environmental and emotional stressors that can worsen the disease's effects.

Anxiety Symptoms vs. COPD Symptoms

The effects of COPD and the effects of anxiety can be hard to tell apart, particularly because they may act as triggers for one another.

  • Anxiety Anxiety is characterized by a feeling of worry or panic that arises from negative thoughts that are unrealistic or do not have immediate relevance. For a person with COPD an example might be "I am struggling to breathe, so I must be about to die."

When the body experiences panic, the brain sends out fight-or-flight signals. This causes the heart rate to increase. The heart then requires extra oxygen to feed to the blood pumping more rapidly through the body, which means you may find yourself gasping for breath.

  • COPD COPD is the occurrence of the lung diseases chronic bronchitis and/or emphysema causing the airways to narrow over time. The narrowing of the airways results in a more limited capacity for air to enter the lungs and bloodstream.

In cases where emphysema is predominant, the lungs themselves stiffen and lose flexibility, whereas in cases where bronchitis dominates, mucus buildup and the thickening of the lung walls limit the amount of air that they can process.

Experiencing anxiety as someone with COPD can be disastrous. Difficulty breathing causes stress, which tells the brain you need more air, causing the body to panic further because it can't get the air it needs to sustain its increased heart rate. The two conditions feed off one another and can ultimately lead to asphyxiation.

However, you can protect yourself against this vicious cycle by taking care to avoid the physical and emotional stressors that risk setting them off.

Environmental Stressors to Avoid

Make sure that your environment is free of the following irritants:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Industrial workplace dusts and gases
  • Welding fumes
  • Areas with heavy air pollution (I.e., large cities)
  • Cooking fire smoke

These irritants can make it harder to breathe and set off COPD-related coughing attacks, which are dangerous by themselves but especially so when the coughing attack leads to an anxiety attack.

Avoiding the consumption of caffeinated beverages is also advisable to help you maintain a steady heart rate, which requires less oxygen.

Emotional Stressors to Avoid

Emotional stressors are just as important to avoid as physical stressors. Though it may seem like your emotions are "all in your head" and don't have any real bearing on your physical well-being, emotional reactions can have physical effects.

If you are a naturally combative person, it may be time to take a course in anger management or meditation practice to help you release some of the tension you may be unconsciously building up within yourself.

If you find yourself within a tense situation, even if you are not a naturally combative person, let the other person (or people) know (even if they are friends or family) that you need to excuse yourself from the room or area. You can use any excuse, but being as polite and non-confrontational as possible in these situations will help to avoid escalating the emotional atmosphere.

Familiar environments and familiar people (who are aware of your condition) will be the least likely to cause you undue stress. However, your condition may understandably cause stress in people close to you, which may be difficult for both them and you to cope with constantly.

For this reason, it is also advisable to contact a professional counselor or therapist: someone who you can talk to without judgment and will listen patiently and non-reactively to what you say.

The Power of the Positive

It is a well-known fact that positive thinking can have a powerful beneficial impact on your emotional well-being, but for people with COPD, it may actually be a lifesaver.

Cultivating positive mental pathways is crucial for those with COPD. As opposed to negative mental pathways, characterized often by negative circular thinking and thoughts that spiral out of control, positive mental pathways will help you "think your way out" of panic attacks and into a calmer state of being.

Creating positive mental pathways in your brain can take time, but as long as you stay aware of your mental patterns and consciously change them, it is a very effective way to keep yourself calm. Every time you have a disturbing or negative thought, notice what led to it and consciously look at the situation from a more positive angle, even if you frame it as "Well, at least I (…)."

Looking at life, there's a lot to feel good about, even when you are suffering. For example, the beauty and happiness that you have experienced, the people who care about you, or the existence of your favorite things (perhaps music, poetry, sports, animals, or art). In a world of advanced and advancing technology, few things are beyond the reach even of people experiencing physical limitations.

The simple act of "building" these positive mental pathways and taking control of a situation that may feel beyond your control will help to relax you, which can stop an attack before it starts and decrease the frequency of attacks in the long term.

Medicating your COPD Anxiety

Talk to your doctor about the different forms of anti-anxiety medications, supplements and programs available to you to help you maintain a relaxed state of mind. Some common medications include:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Herbal remedies such as kava extract, magnolia bark, phellodendron bark, St. John's Wort, and Passionflower

Though there is no cure for COPD, it is a treatable disease. Your doctor should provide you with information about and, if necessary, prescriptions for the following treatments:

  • Bronchiodilators
  • Corticosteroids
  • Antibiotics
  • Supplemental oxygen
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation programs (regimes of mild exercise, disease management and counseling designed to benefit the individual's specific case)

These treatments can be highly beneficial, but they are even more effective in combination with the mental and physical efforts you can make yourself to keep your mind and living space anxiety-free.

Learning Anxiety Coping Behaviors

But perhaps one of the most effective ways to control anxiety from COPD is to make sure that you're actively learning how to cope with anxiety symptoms.

For that, I strongly recommend you take my free 7 minute anxiety test now. This test will show you exactly how to start coping with COPD and what you can do about treatment.

Start the test here.


Withers, Nicholas J., Sharon T. Rudkin, and Roger J. White. Anxiety and depression in severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: the effects of pulmonary rehabilitation . Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention 19.6 (1999): 362-365.

Light, Richard W., et al. Prevalence of depression and anxiety in patients with COPD. Relationship to functional capacity . CHEST Journal 87.1 (1985): 35-38.

Livermore, Nicole, et al. Panic attacks and perception of inspiratory resistive loads in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease . American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine 178.1 (2008): 7-12.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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