Why might people living with a chronic lung disease experience more anxiety and panic attacks than other people? There may be a biological reason. Like the fight-or-flight survival response that boosts our adrenaline, dilates our eyes, and pumps extra blood to our limbs, a “suffocation alarm” may be hardwired into the human brain to warn us of dangerous breathing conditions resulting in too little oxygen to sustain life.
As explained by National Jewish Health, studies suggest that when the brain senses insufficient oxygen is being taken in, it sends a signal that creates a feeling of urgency to hasten us away from the dangerous situation or environment.* For those living with a chronic lung disease, the dangerous situation or environment is not one that can be escaped. Thus, the alarm button gets pushed over and over again, with unsettling frequency.
Worry = stress = more anxiety
Unfortunately, constant worrying about the disease can cause its own anxiety and have similar effects. The chronic stress from worry compounds the existing problem.
Take stock of your symptomatic behavior. If you are experiencing any of the following, then your level of worry is likely contributing to your episodes of panic and anxiety:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Suddenly feeling short of breath, even when quiet and still
- Worrying about when you will next experience shortness of breath
- Increasing fear about leaving the house
- Avoiding being around other people in order to avoid germs, fragrances, or other triggers of breathing difficulty
- Increasing fear of enclosed spaces with a lack of fresh air
- Worry increasingly interfering with your attention, work, and relationships
Managing your anxiety
Fortunately, there are ways to manage anxiety when it rears its head. Therapy can help you set goals, provide calming and coping techniques, and help your family members learn how best to support you. Many medication options are also available to assist in managing anxiety. A combination of therapy and medication is common, as well as the added support of mindfulness and breathing exercises.
It is possible to swing too far in the other direction, however. In an effort to avoid worry and overthinking, some people pay too little attention to the realities of their illness. They may slack off in their treatment and engage in such behaviors as:
- Giving up on their exercise routine
- Missing medication dosages and/or using less oxygen than indicated by their doctor
- Taking on too many, or too heavy, responsibilities
They may even go out of their way to forget their health condition, and drink alcohol or take recreational drugs, neither of which is productive for disease management.
The ideal course of action is to find a middle ground between practical concern, attention to the necessities for good health, and the calm that allows for enjoyment of the present moment. Fluctuations to each side are natural, but balance and well-being dwell in the center.
*National Jewish Health. Living with Chronic Lung Disease—Anxiety.