Asthma and Mental Health


Asthma can sometimes feel difficult or exhausting and it can also commonly cause feelings of stress and worry. As a result, asthma and anxiety are two conditions you may find yourself managing simultaneously. We realise that managing both your physical and mental health can at times be challenging, and that sometimes you may need some support so as to live well alongside a chronic physical health diagnosis.

Breathing is something most people don’t give a second thought to. It is something you do daily without having to focus on it, but you may become more aware of your breathing when you find it difficult to carry out that usually simple function. It’s terrifying when your chest begins to tighten. You become anxious as you feel breathless. You’re wheezing and it feels awful. It’s a scary feeling when you feel like you can’t breathe, but around 300 million people worldwide have felt this way when experiencing asthma. 

According to the charity Asthma+Lung, there are 5.4 million cases of asthma in the UK. It is very common, but it doesn't make it any less worrying when you, or someone you know, has difficulty managing the condition. Having asthma may make you feel anxious and it is important to try and focus on breathing and remaining as calm as possible even when it feels difficult to do so. This will help to make your asthma symptoms more manageable and it can also help to prevent anxiety attacks or panic attacks that can feel like an asthma attack.

Asthma and anxiety

Asthma is a condition that for the most part, is manageable with medication like inhalers. However, because asthma can affect you emotionally as well as physically, you may find that managing your asthma can feel challenging or overwhelming. If you don’t have good management on your asthma, it can mean that you are more at risk of developing a mental health condition like anxiety or depression.

Research shows that in 48% of cases, those with asthma were also experiencing feelings of anxiety, showing the close link between the two conditions. It is possible that you may find yourself in a vicious cycle trying to manage them simultaneously, because your asthma may cause you to feel anxious, but feeling anxious can make your asthma feel worse.

The NHS website says there are a lot of asthma triggers which include: dust, smoke and exercise just to name a few, but stress induced asthma is also very common.

How mindfulness techniques can help

When you do feel anxious about your asthma, mindful breathing can be really helpful as you may be able to feel calmer by focusing on your breath and controlling it. There are other mindful techniques that can also be useful in remaining calm and may help you control the anxiety of managing asthma.

One of our Smile therapists, Charlie O’Brien suggests, “instead of putting headphones in or listening to music or a podcast while you're walking, or perhaps sending emails on your phone or thinking or worrying about things, pay attention to how the ground feels beneath your feet. What colours can you see? Can you touch anything? What can you smell? What natural smells can you smell? Sort of just really paying attention to your environment and you may notice things you've never noticed before.” There are lots of ways to be mindful and focusing on something that isn’t the symptoms of your asthma can be really helpful to manage any feelings of anxiety associated with the condition.

Severe asthma and the effect on your mental health

Asthma can sometimes feel exhausting to live with, and having an asthma attack can be especially traumatic as it may put you in a life threatening state. If you are someone with severe asthma, you may find it even more challenging.

Severe asthma is when your symptoms are harder to control and medicate as typical asthma medication may not be effective enough. It can be considered life threatening and is treated as more of an emergency, and an asthma attack could be fatal. It can make the condition feel very hard to manage.

It is a possibility that if you have asthma, it can develop into severe asthma, which you may find yourself worrying about. This is more likely if you have difficulty managing your asthma well.

The effects of asthma on your general health

Something that can make people more anxious about their asthma, is that as a result of the condition, your lungs may not be functioning as well as other people’s lungs. This will make fighting off common infections like cold and flu harder. Usually common illnesses are easy to get rid of in a small amount of time, but when you have asthma, because your lung capacity might be weaker, the symptoms of the sickness can be much more severe. For example, in especially serious situations, you may develop pneumonia after having the flu and this could potentially lead to a medical emergency and hospitalisation.

The knowledge of these potential health implications can be really daunting but it is also worrying that when you are fighting a common infection, not only might that be harder to get rid of, but it may make it harder to control your asthma and your breathing as well.

Other common asthma worries

Sometimes you may feel limited to what you can do with your asthma, for example those who enjoy sports might worry that they can’t incorporate that into their day to day life as the exercise may trigger their asthma. It is important to understand that exercise is a great way to improve your general wellbeing and so exercise should be enjoyed in moderation.

Another worrying factor for people with asthma is that whilst the condition is much more likely to occur in your childhood, asthma can also develop when you are an adult, and at that stage in your life it will be an ongoing condition that will not go away. Managing those constant challenges of asthma may feel overwhelming, particularly if you are struggling to manage it well. 

If you have asthma as a child, there is a possibility that your asthma will get better, but if this is the case, there is still the chance that it could come back in the future. It may be upsetting to know that if you had asthma as a child, it could return again later in your life and you may worry about this.

Some people, particularly teenagers and younger people, can feel embarrassed about their asthma and worry about being judged. One of the most common worries about using an inhaler in public is that it explicitly highlights your physical health condition, and therefore you may decide that you don’t want to use your inhaler when out, to avoid potential mocking from your peers. Or in some cases you might find yourself socially isolated if you choose not to interact with others in case you have to use your inhaler in front of them.

This will of course cause negative health implications, and according to the Queen Mary University of London website “the chance of an asthma attack is reduced when a person uses their preventer inhaler more than 80 per cent of the time as recommended by their GP or asthma nurse” proving just how important an inhaler is to your physical health.

Using an inhaler is a big part of managing your asthma and something you have to remember as part of your daily life, in case you need it. There are many other factors of asthma that affect your day to day life as well. These include the fact that one common symptom of asthma is tiredness, which can have negative effects on your day to day life as you may feel lethargic and unmotivated. This may affect how you perform at school or work. 

You may need to visit the hospital or GP for monitoring, treatment or emergency care and this might create disruption in your life, which may cause you to miss commitments you have, again creating disruption in things like work. As a result, this may have financial impacts on you and your family, which will create anxiety and worry. 

 Managing your wellbeing as a parent of a child with asthma

There is a lot of responsibility as the parent of a child with asthma as you have to make sure that your child is managing their asthma well. There can be a lot of pressure on you to make sure that they know how to manage the condition well so that they will continue to do so when they are an adult, should the condition continue into their adult life. 

It can be scary to see your child not being able to breathe and it can be traumatic to see them having an asthma attack. They will be reliant on you to look after them, and you may find yourself worrying or experiencing guilt that you aren’t doing enough for them. If this is a feeling you are experiencing, it is vital you do not blame yourself in any way, as you are doing your best to support your child.

To help overcome these difficult feelings, Dr Francesca Sawer says, “If you were to zoom out, look at the whole picture, everything that you've already done, that you are currently doing, does the guilt you are currently carrying around with you really equate to your actions? Is the sentence that you are giving yourself, does that match what you did?” You have to avoid these feelings and continue giving your child the support they need, so as to limit the impact of their asthma symptoms and attempt to avoid asthma attacks because they can be scary for both you and your child.

How to get mental health support when managing asthma

People with asthma are three times more at risk of developing anxiety and depression, and 25% of those people are likely to experience panic attacks as a result. It is evident that there is a common link between mental health conditions and asthma and therefore it is important that in order to manage asthma well, people have the right support in order to do so. There are many tools that could be helpful, like breathwork and yoga which can be really good for focussing breathing and practising feeling calmer when you feel anxious.

In addition to working on your breathing techniques, you may find that you need some extra support to manage the mental implications of asthma. At Smile, we have a range of content and expert-led workshops that may help you manage some of the feelings you are experiencing as a result of your condition.

Our therapists have created content such as an introduction to mindfulness, managing feelings of guilt, understanding thoughts so that you can identify negative thought patterns and stop them from worrying you and discussing your child's health when you have a child who may be managing the condition. Living with asthma may make you feel anxious sometimes, but with the right resources and support, it is possible to manage your physical and mental health together more effectively. 

Smile is a mental health app for people managing chronic physical health conditions. To access the resources mentioned above, download the app now from Google Play or ​Apple App store.