The Relationship Between Chronic Stress & COPD Exacerbations

Kenneth Knowles, MD
Medically reviewed by Kenneth Knowles, MDFebruary 14th, 2020
Stressed Senior Woman

The shadow of anxiety that hovers around big to-dos throughout any given day is unnerving for most. For those living with chronic stress, this shadow is an ever-present fear—rearing its ugly face at the most inopportune moments. While an acute level of stress can be useful in certain circumstances, stress on a more continuous basis can significantly debilitate a person’s emotional and physical wellbeing—leading to depression, increased irritability, and a weakened immune system. These negatives of chronic stress are particularly dangerous for those living with an already stressful and progressive condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Read on to learn more about the importance of managing your stress levels and the dangerous relationship between chronic stress and COPD exacerbations.

What is COPD?

Imagine the feeling of repeatedly having the breath knocked out of you. That tight, pinched feeling in your chest and the overwhelming panic that follows is one that those living with COPD experience on a regular basis. Uncomfortable, right? We agree.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a chronic and progressive condition that slowly impacts the airways and your lungs—causing frequent shortness of breath and potentially leading to serious, long-term disability.

What is Chronic Stress?

Chronic stress can wreak havoc on your mind and body, as it presents a scenario that keeps your body in constant fight-or-flight mode. While stress is a natural alarm system that works to keep you safe from potential threats, constant stress can control your life. Once triggered, adrenaline will increase your heart rate, elevate your blood pressure, and boost your energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary hormone released when the mind and body are stressed, will increase sugar in your bloodstream, alter immune system responses, and can even suppress the digestive system. All of these alerts work together to communicate with regions of the brain that control mood, motivation, and fear. An oversupply of any of these functions can alter health and increase the risk of many health-related problems, including:

Chronic stress in those with potentially life-threatening comorbidities, like COPD, can face even greater dangers. That’s why it’s incredibly important to learn healthy ways to cope with your stressors.

The Dangerous Relationship

Life is stressful. Add a progressive and/or chronic disease to the mix, and chronic stress can quickly begin to feel like a natural response to everyday situations. Plot twist: it shouldn’t be. Those with COPD should be especially cautious against chronic stress, as it can cause more frequent COPD exacerbations. These flare-ups can cause more stress and panic, aggravating your shortness of breath, which can make you feel even more anxious. This is one vicious cycle that you want to try to avoid at all costs. Fortunately, there are techniques that can help you overcome and manage your chronic stress in relation to COPD.

Take a Chill Pill: Stress Management 101

To minimize the negative effects of chronic stress, familiarize yourself with stress management techniques. This practice centers around controlling the way you react to stressors—events that can cause

COPD flare-ups and anxiety. COPD, in and of itself, is already a stressor for most individuals, as it’s a condition that forces you to make changes in your life. Other things and common situations that can cause stress include:

  • The inability to perform ordinary tasks
  • Toxic relationships
  • Financial situations
  • Sleep habits
  • Living situations

It’s important to understand that everyone has different stressors. Taking the time to recognize what impacts your mental and physical well-being or noting down situations that have caused your COPD flare-ups in the past can help you learn and avoid future exacerbations. It can also help you develop unique coping mechanisms that work for times when you find yourself in the middle of a stressful situation.

Breathing Techniques

Once you’ve identified the stressors in your life, you can find ways to cope with your chronic stress before it causes a

COPD exacerbation. According to the

COPD Foundation, one of the most effective ways of reducing stress is to practice breathing techniques. There are many methods of breathing that can positively impact your stress levels; it’s up to you to find a practice that best suits your unique situation and needs. Here are some of the most popular breathing techniques to try:

Belly Breathing

In this exercise, your breaths should come from your belly. Place one hand on your abdomen and imagine slowly filling up your belly and lower lungs with air. Your abdomen should rise when you breathe in through your nose and should lower when you breathe out through your mouth. As you breathe, try to regulate your breath by following a steady and slow rhythm. Repeat until your heart rate is down.

Pursed-Lips Breathing

This technique is ideal for helping you stay focused and calm during any activity that makes you feel short of breath. Breathe deeply through your nose, like you smell something bad, for about two seconds. Pucker your lips, and exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat.

Recognizing Your COPD Exacerbations & At-Home Treatment

While having all of these stress-fighting tools in your basket are a great defense against chronic stress, sometimes they aren’t enough to keep your COPD exacerbations at bay. That’s why it’s so important to recognize your presenting symptoms before they manifest into extreme flare-ups. For prompt, at-home attention for your

COPD exacerbations, turn to DispatchHealth. Our on-demand medical service prioritizes patient comfort by providing advanced healthcare in a familiar setting. Simply contact us via phone, mobile app, or website for our services. Once reached, we will dispatch a professional medical team to your home. Equipped with nearly all of the tools and technologies found at a traditional ER, our staff can treat a wide range of symptoms—helping you feel better sooner.

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To learn more about our on-demand medical services, contact DispatchHealth today!


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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