Asthmatics know that feeling. It is hard to breathe, tightness in their chest, and an overall fear of dying all rolled into this physical and mental experience that no one should ever feel. For some asthmatics, anxiety can be a real trigger. And asthma can be a real trigger for anxiety. Which comes first may be the only way to reduce the other, but what if you aren’t even sure what you are experiencing is your asthma or a panic attack?
Panic attacks, although in that moment feel horrific, are harmless. They don’t stop you from breathing. They cannot stop your heart. They won’t make you pass out. They are overreactions to, for the most part, an irrational thought or belief. To say a panic disorder is treatable is accurate. You can even treat a panic disorder without pharmaceuticals. The same cannot be said about asthma, though.
Asthma is a is a condition in which your airways narrow and swell and produce extra mucus. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath (Mayo Clinic, 2017). Asthma can be caused by an allergy for some sufferers. Asthma can also be triggered by exercise. Extremes in temperature is another big component for some asthmatics. Treatment for asthma is usually medications to help reduce inflammation and constriction. There are inhalers, oral medications, and even injections used to prevent attacks and some to help during one.
If a person experiences both an asthma attack and a panic attack it can sometimes blend together where the symptoms are difficult to read. If you feel tightness in your chest, the immediate thought for an asthmatic is they are about to have an attack. Sometimes though it may not be asthma causing your tightness but anxiety. How can you tell the difference? Some of the asthma medications can even make an anxious person more anxious. So what do you do?
The first thing with many issues people are inflicted with is mindfulness. Being aware of how you feel, knowing what triggers you may have come across and be able to discern between a real asthma issue and potentially anxiety. If you need your inhaler, you can use it, but if it is panic, that feeling may not go away. Anxiety disorders are more common in asthmatics and have a considerable influence on asthma management because they influence symptom perception (Petermann, 2000). The treatment beyond medical help comes down to prevention. Cognitive-Behavioral therapy will help relieve the panic aspect and anxiety symptoms along with meditation. Both meditation and CBT can also help reduce asthma by teaching patients how to stay calm and relax. Inflammation is reduced when a person is calmer. Meditation is shown to be an almost cure for many with a panic disorder. If a person feels in control, they are more likely able to forgo emergency medical treatment and experience a better quality of life.
Having a system in place for your asthma such as a home nebulizer when your asthma is indeed out of control is one way to feel more secure if an attack occurs. Knowing the difference and prevention are the easiest way to feel more in control. Calmly breathing to see if the symptoms subside is also key in potentially stopping one condition or the other. Self-awareness, calmness, and preparation, all ensure an asthmatic is safe and their panic or anxiety is reduced.
Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Asthma. Retrieved June 7, 2017 from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asthma/basics/definition/con-20026992
Petermann, C.T. (2000). Reviewing athma and anxiety. Respiratory Medicine, Vol. 94, Issue 5, May 2000, Pgs 409-415.