Many people with COPD have anxiety, for a variety of reasons. When you have trouble breathing, your brain sets off an alarm to warn you that something is wrong. This can cause anxiety or panic to set in.

Anxious feelings may also arise when you think about having a progressive lung disease. You may worry about experiencing an episode of difficult breathing.

Certain medications used to treat COPD can trigger feelings of anxiety.

The Breathlessness-Anxiety Cycle

Anxiety and COPD often create a cycle of breathlessness. Feelings of breathlessness can provoke panic, which can make you feel more anxious and can make it even harder to breathe. If you get caught up in this breathlessness-anxiety-breathlessness cycle, you may have a hard time distinguishing the symptoms of anxiety from the symptoms of COPD.

Having some anxiety when you have a chronic disease can be a good thing. It can prompt you to follow your treatment plan, pay attention to your symptoms, and know when to seek medical attention. But too much anxiety can severely impact the quality of your life.

You may end up going to the doctor or the hospital more often than you need to. You may avoid enjoyable social and leisure activities that can cause breathlessness, such as walking the dog or gardening.

Coping with Anxiety

People who don’t have COPD are sometimes prescribed anti-anxiety medications, such as Valium or Xanax. But these drugs can cause a decreased rate of breathing, which can make COPD worse, and can interact with other medications you use. Over time, these medications may cause dependence and addiction problems.

You may find relief with a non-addictive anti-anxiety medication doesn't interfere with breathing, such as buspirone. Certain antidepressants, like sertraline (Zoloft) and citalopram (Celexa), also reduce anxiety. Your doctor can help determine what medication will work best for you.

You can increase the effectiveness of medication by combining it with other methods for reducing anxiety. Ask your doctor if they can refer you to a pulmonary rehabilitation program. These programs provide education about COPD and coping strategies to deal with your anxiety. One of the most important things you learn in pulmonary rehabilitation is how to breathe more effectively.

Breathing Retraining

Breathing techniques, such as pursed lip breathing, can help:

  • take the work out of breathing
  • slow your breathing down
  • keep your airway open for longer
  • you relax

To do pursed lip breathing, simply relax your upper body and breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of two. Then pursing your lips as if you were going to whistle, breathe out slowly through your mouth to the count of four.

Counseling and Therapy

Many people with COPD find that individual counseling is effective in reducing anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common therapy that helps decrease anxiety symptoms through relaxation techniques and breathing exercises.

Group counseling and support groups can also help you learn how to cope with COPD and anxiety. Being with others who are dealing with the same health issues can help you feel less alone.

The Takeaway

COPD can be stressful on its own. Dealing with anxiety on top of it can complicate things, but you have treatment options. If you start noticing symptoms of anxiety, talk to your doctor and find a treatment before it begins to impact your daily life.