Can stress trigger asthma?

7 min read

Ayana Martins

Certified breath coach

Stress is an inevitable part of life. Whether it’s an exam or the demands of work and parenthood, everyone gets stressed. Can stress trigger asthma? We are here to determine the relationship between stress and asthma.

First of all, what happens when we get stressed?

Stress affects us in many ways, either through acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) stressful situations. It also affects us directly or indirectly.  In principle, it is a way for our body to react to threatening situations. Suppose you are handling an emergency or being chased by a lion. In that case, the additional adrenaline and other changes in your body will help you to respond more effectively. However, if this reaction is disproportionate to the situation or if there is prolonged exposure to stressful situations, these changes become unhealthy.

Many circumstances in our lives, such as work, relationships and money problems, can trigger stress. Illnesses are also a common source of stress, so asthma will not only respond to stress but can cause it. 

When stressed, we tend to over or under-eat, have angry outbursts and explode at those closest to us. This can lead to a snowball effect in which the consequences of stress cause even more stress. Our body reacts by increasing heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tension.

But how does stress affect asthma?  The science

Stress can make your asthma worse.  It makes it more likely for you to react to common asthma triggers, such as colds or even COVID and worsen your symptoms. If stress is severe or prolonged, it can even cause a serious asthma attack.

Asthma is an inflammatory disease, and stress makes inflammation worse. Controlling stress, eating healthily, and exercising regularly can help you manage your asthma by preventing inflammation. But, in the ups and downs of life, these things can be hard to achieve.

Stress is also an asthma trigger. Triggers are unique to each person, so stress may be a trigger for you or not. The short-term changes in our bodies that come with stress, such as a higher breathing rate, can by themselves trigger asthma symptoms. Stress can cause asthma cough, shortness of breath or any other asthma symptom. A coughing attack on the bus or train can last longer and be stronger due to the stress of coughing on public transportation. This effect was particularly noticeable to many of us during the highest point of the COVID pandemic.

Finally, stress can be associated with symptoms that overlap and can be similar to asthma symptoms. For example, stress can lead to a panic attack. For many people, it is difficult to tell apart an asthma attack and a panic attack.  

How does stress affect our asthma?  Practical aspects

When coping with extreme or prolonged stress, we do whatever we can to get by. We may find it harder to stick to our asthma treatment routine with so much going on. 

Also, stress can lead to increased exposure to triggers. It can:

  • decrease our immunity, increasing our chance of catching respiratory infections.
  • lead us to drink and smoke more.
  • lead us to experience more extreme emotions more often.
  • leave us less time to control dust and other allergens at home.

Respiratory infections, alcohol, smoke, emotions and dust are all possible asthma triggers.

Stress often comes with reduced time and resources for a healthier lifestyle. Poor sleeping and eating habits and lack of exercise can lead to increased inflammation, which can worsen asthma.

Can stress cause asthma?

We are already covered that stress can exacerbate asthma in people who have already been diagnosed. It may also contribute to developing asthma in the first place. A 2017 study suggests that prolonged stress is associated with a future asthma diagnosis, providing evidence that asthma can be caused by stress. 

What can I do?

Knowing that stress can induce asthma flare-ups and put us at risk of serious asthma attacks, it’s important we learn what we can do when we’re in stressful conditions. You may feel caught in a loop, and reducing stress and its effects is often difficult. There are, however, some things that you can try.

Record to rule out 

If you are unsure if stress is an asthma trigger for you, you can keep a diary to help you find it out.

It can be electronic or manual. One approach is to rate your stress levels every day, for example, before bed. Then, whenever you notice that your symptoms are getting worse, you can look back in your diary to check if you see a pattern.

How to manage stress

Stress is often brought up by events that we cannot control. However, the amount of stress that we experience is related to how we react to these events. Our lifestyle and life circumstances can make us more resilient or vulnerable to stress.

  1. Relaxation techniques

    There are many relaxation techniques to try out. Some basic techniques include controlling your body’s reactions through awareness and visual imagery.

    To do this, find a phrase that calms you. Focus on calming your body down while picturing a tranquil landscape. 

Besides that, meditation, yoga, and deep breathing techniques are useful and can be done in the comfort of your own home, making it convenient and relaxing.

If those don’t do the trick, modify your environment by drawing a soothing bath, using essential oils such as lavender, or playing white noise in the background to help you focus and relax.

  1. Breathing exercises

Stress is the way your body responds to situations that need urgent attention. What is important is that you are able to step back and let go when needed.

There are breathing exercises that help you to exercise this balance between activating and deactivating your stress-response system. This effect is connected to a measure called heart rate variability.

For most people, breathing at a rate of 6 breaths per minute can help them balance their stress response. The Balance exercises of the Airlyn app guide you to breathe at this rate and were designed specifically for people with asthma. You can download the Airlyn app here today for Google Play, and here for the App Store! 

  1. Reframing your thoughts

Different people can react very differently to similar stressful events. This difference sometimes lies in how we think about life, the world and how we see ourselves.

If you feel guilty about things that you cannot control, this can cause you to experience stress with higher intensity.

There are different exercises and online resources that you can try to develop thinking patterns that make you more resilient to stress levels. You can also work with a therapist, such as a cognitive behavioural therapist.

  1. Sleep, eat, exercise

    Our physical health plays such a huge role in keeping us stress-free. Besides eating right, reducing our caffeine and alcohol intake is crucial to keep ourselves stress and anxiety-free. 

If you need your daily cup of coffee, try a rich, creamy cup of matcha instead. Besides a caffeine hit that will not cause jitters, matcha boasts of many health benefits. It has a high antioxidant content, gives you better skin, an energy boost, and facilitates your body’s natural detoxification process. 

Aim to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as starches low in glycemic index (low GI), such as oats, sweet potatoes, and long-grained rice. 

Sleep is one of the most effective anti-stress remedies around. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule reduces stress, invigorates the body and enhances the ability to make sound decisions. When you get enough shut-eye, you function better under pressure. 

Getting too little shut-eye might make you edgier, more impulsive, and more susceptible to the negative effects of your environment, according to studies. These sleep-related cognitive deficits may lead to stress in a variety of ways, from affecting personal relationships to your productivity at work.

  1. Support system 

Growing up, we become more independent. However, it’s important to remember that we’ll always have friends and family there for us when we need them.

Allocate your time and energy to spend time with your friends or take a weekend off for a trip.

Spending time with our loved ones helps boost our self-confidence, reduce our stress levels, and honestly, it’s just great spending quality time with the family!

After learning how to identify and manage stress, pick a few methods most suitable for you and your current lifestyle. 

The bottom line is there is definitely a link between stress and asthma. Every person with asthma has a unique experience, so only you can find out how it affects your symptoms.   If you can use these or other techniques to keep your stress levels in check, you may notice that your asthma also improves.

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