(Last Updated On: May 24, 2023)

Can Stress Trigger Asthma?


Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It causes inflammation and narrowing of the airways, leading to breathing difficulties, coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness. Many factors can trigger asthma symptoms; stress is one of the most common and significant ones. 

stressed business woman having asthma attack

The relationship between the two is complex, as stress can affect the immune system and cause inflammation in the airways. While not everyone with asthma is at risk for stress-induced asthma, those with a history of acute events or increased sensitivity to allergens may be more susceptible. Stress can also lead to increased muscle tension throughout the body, including in the muscles around the airways. This tension can further exacerbate asthma symptoms and make it even more difficult for a person with asthma to breathe comfortably.

Some common triggers of stress-induced asthma include anxiety, fear, anger, and frustration. The good news is that there are effective ways to reduce stress levels and control asthma symptoms. Also, several medications are available for stress-induced asthma.

Understanding the Relationship between Stress and Asthma

Evidence suggests that stress can cause inflammation in the airways, making it harder for someone with asthma to breathe properly. Stress is a natural response to challenging or threatening situations. It can be triggered by various factors such as work pressure, financial problems, relationship issues, or health concerns. When we experience stress, our body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that prepare us for the fight-or-flight response. While this response can be helpful in short-term stressful situations like running from danger or giving a presentation at work, prolonged exposure to stress can have negative effects on our physical and mental health.

High levels of stress can have a significant impact on the respiratory health of people with asthma. When someone experiences stress, their body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis becomes activated, leading to an increase in HPA activity. This can trigger changes in the body that may worsen asthma symptoms.

Glucocorticoid resistance is also a common feature of stress-induced asthma. This condition occurs when the body becomes less responsive to glucocorticoids, which are anti-inflammatory hormones produced by the adrenal gland. Glucocorticoids play a crucial role in suppressing inflammation in the airways.

Symptoms of Stress-induced Asthma

Stress can trigger airway inflammation in asthma patients, which can lead to the onset of asthmatic symptoms. The most common symptoms associated with stress-induced asthma include coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include chest tightness, difficulty speaking, and rapid breathing. The symptoms of stress-induced asthma can vary from person to person and may depend on the severity of the condition.

Stress can also trigger airway inflammation in people with asthma by releasing certain chemicals into our body called cytokines, which causes inflammation in our lungs leading to bronchospasm (narrowing), making it difficult for us to breathe properly. During an attack, the muscles around the airways tighten up, making it difficult to breathe. The lining of the airways may become inflamed and swollen with excess mucus production, causing further obstruction in airflow.

Identifying Triggers of Stress-induced Asthma

Stressful experiences can trigger asthma exacerbations in individuals with high-stress levels. Chronic stress and chronic stressors can lead to an increased risk of asthma attacks. Stress hormones such as cortisol can trigger asthma symptoms by causing inflammation in the airways. Psychological stress and life events can also cause stress-induced asthma in susceptible individuals.

Anxiety is a common emotional trigger for stress-induced asthma. When we are anxious, our body releases adrenaline and other hormones that can cause the airways to narrow and make it difficult to breathe. This narrowing of the airways can lead to wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. Studies have shown that up to 70 percent of people with asthma report experiencing anxiety or panic attacks at some point in their lives.

Strong emotions such as anger or fear can also trigger asthma attacks. When we experience these emotions, our body’s natural response is to release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. These hormones cause the muscles around the airways to tighten, making it harder to breathe. Some common emotional triggers include job-related stress, financial worries, relationship problems, and major life changes like moving or starting a new job.

Identifying emotional triggers can help manage stress-induced asthma. Keeping a journal of your symptoms along with any emotional triggers you may have experienced before an attack can identify patterns and avoid future triggers.

Management Strategies for Stress-induced Asthma

Individuals with stress-induced asthma need to work closely with their healthcare provider to develop an individualized treatment plan that addresses both their asthma and stress management.

Managing Stress 

While it’s not always possible to avoid stress entirely, there are many ways to manage stress effectively. Managing stress-induced asthma can be challenging, but several strategies can help individuals control their symptoms and improve their quality of life. Working with a healthcare provider to develop coping strategies can help reduce the impact of emotional triggers on asthma symptoms. Many techniques exist to help reduce stress levels and promote relaxation, which in turn may reduce asthma symptoms. It’s important to have a plan of action.

Asthma Action Plan

One essential tool for managing stress-induced Asthma Action Plan. This plan outlines the steps to take when experiencing an asthma attack and helps individuals identify their triggers and symptoms. This plan should be shared with family members, friends, and healthcare providers to ensure proper management of the condition. The action plan should include a working model, including coping mechanisms, for stress management techniques that can help decrease the frequency and severity of asthma attacks.

Breathing Exercises

To control asthma symptoms, it is essential to learn how to breathe properly. Breathing exercises can help improve lung function and reduce stress levels. One effective technique is called diaphragmatic breathing, which involves taking deep breaths from the abdomen instead of shallow breaths from the chest. This technique helps relax the airways and prevent asthma attacks. Another technique is pursed-lip breathing, which involves inhaling through the nose and exhaling slowly through pursed lips like blowing out a candle. This technique can help slow down breathing and reduce shortness of breath.

Relaxation Exercises

Relaxation exercises such as yoga or meditation can help reduce stress levels and improve breathing. Yoga involves stretching exercises that promote relaxation and flexibility, while meditation focuses on calming the mind and body through deep breathing techniques. Both practices are effective in reducing stress levels and improving overall well-being.

Low-Stress Lifestyle

Maintaining a low-stress lifestyle can prevent asthma attacks by keeping the airways relaxed and open. It is important to identify sources of stress in your life and find ways to manage them effectively. This may involve making lifestyle changes such as reducing workload, practicing time management skills, or seeking support from family or friends.

Regular Exercise

Regular exercise is an important way to reduce stress and help control asthma symptoms in both adults and children. Exercise helps strengthen the lungs and improves overall fitness levels, which can reduce the risk of asthma attacks. However, it is important to consult with a doctor before starting any new exercise program as some activities may trigger asthma symptoms.

Emotional Support

Support from family, friends, or a therapist can also help manage stress and improve overall asthma control. Having someone to talk to about the challenges of living with asthma can be beneficial in reducing anxiety and stress levels. Managing stress-induced asthma is a collaborative effort between healthcare providers, patients, and their support systems.

Medications for Stress-induced Asthma

In some cases, stress-induced asthma may be severe enough to require medications. Certain medications target specific proteins that cause inflammation in the airways, helping to reduce symptoms and prevent future attacks. These drugs are typically reserved for people with moderate-to-severe asthma who have not responded well to other treatments. The two main types of asthma medications are quick-relief and long-term control medications.

Quick-relief medications, also known as rescue inhalers or bronchodilators, are used to provide immediate relief during an asthma attack. They work by relaxing the muscles around the airways and opening them up so that more air can flow through. Examples of quick-relief medications include albuterol and levalbuterol.

Even with medication, it’s still important to manage your stress level. Stress can reduce the impact of certain medications, according to a study cited by Medical News Today.

Long-term control medications are used to prevent asthma symptoms from occurring in the first place. They work by reducing inflammation in the airways over time, making them less sensitive to triggers like stress. Examples of long-term control medications include corticosteroids (inhaled or oral), leukotriene modifiers, and immunomodulators.

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