When we talk about stress, we’re usually talking about psychological stress. Everyone feels stressed at times. But there’s a difference between short-term acute stress, and long-term chronic stress. Acute stress can be useful, by preparing us for “fight or flight” in the face of a threat. Certain hormones are released, which prime the body for explosive action. The body returns to normal after the threat is gone.

Many people, however, feel stress on a more or less continuous basis. This chronic stress can affect the body in negative ways. Chronic stress can weaken the immune system, for example. People who are stressed often feel anxious, irritable, or depressed. Chronic stress may also cause more frequent flare-ups of COPD symptoms. For this reason, it’s important to learn how to manage stress.

Recognize the Things That Cause Stress In Your Life

Stress is about the way you react to stressors. These are the events or situations that cause stress in your life. The first step towards controlling stress is to recognize your stressors. Living with COPD can be stressful, because it forces you to make changes in your life. Among other things, changes in relationships, financial situations, employment, sleep habits, sexual relations, or the ability to perform ordinary tasks can all cause stress.

These changes would be stressful even for the healthiest person. Unfortunately for COPD patients, stress can trigger a flare-up, so it’s important to learn to recognize the things that may cause stress in your life. By doing so you can take steps to reduce these stressors, or to change your reactions to them. Talk about your challenges and concerns with people who are close to you. Ask for help when possible, and avoid situations that are likely to cause stress.

Learning to Relax: Breathing Techniques

After you have identified the things that may trigger anxiety and increase your stress, you can learn to put the brakes on stress before it causes a flare-up. According to the COPD Foundation, one effective method for reducing stress is to use breathing techniques.

Pursed-Lip Breathing

Pursed-lip breathing is a technique that will help you slow your breathing and exhale more air with each breath. It involves paying attention to the breath, breathing deeply and slowly, and exhaling slowly and mindfully:

  1. Begin by consciously relaxing your shoulder muscles. Stand or sit up straight and allow your shoulders to drop, while bringing your shoulder blades closer together in back.
  2. Inhale through the nostrils for two seconds.
  3. Purse your lips, as if you’re about to blow out a flame.
  4. Exhale slowly through the lips. This should take four seconds.
  5. Repeat.

Belly Breathing

Belly breathing is another potentially helpful breathing technique. You may need to enlist the help of a medical professional to learn this technique:

  1. While sitting or lying down, place a hand on your chest. Place your other hand on your abdomen (belly).
  2. Inhale through the nostrils.
  3. Feel your belly rise, while attempting to keep your chest still.
  4. Exhale slowly.
  5. Repeat.

Learning to Relax: Visualization, Meditation, Yoga and Mindfulness

Various techniques have been developed to help you reduce stress and reverse the effects of anxiety. Yoga is an ancient practice that combines mindful meditation, breathing techniques, and relatively simple physical exercises. Research suggests these practices can help reduce stress and may help the body fight off infections. Keeping stress at a minimum may help reduce COPD flare-ups. 

Recognize the Importance of Sleep

Getting adequate sleep is important for everyone. It’s especially important when you’re living with a chronic illness. Most adults require seven to nine hours of sleep every 24 hours to be at their best. Sleep isn’t just about feeling rested and clear-headed. It’s important for a strong immune system. It also helps reduce some of the negative effects of chronic stress.  

Some experts recommend that you try to follow these guidelines to help encourage good sleep each night:

  • Avoid caffeine or alcohol in the evening.
  • Do not take work to bed. Do not watch TV in bed. Leave digital media out of the bedroom.
  • Don’t nap during the day.
  • Exercise in the morning or afternoon, rather than right before bedtime.
  • Stick to a regular schedule of waking and going to bed, even on weekends.
  • Sleep in a cool, quiet, completely dark space.

Exercise to Reduce Stress and Improve Sleep Quality

Although COPD may limit your mobility, it’s important to remain physically active and maintain physical fitness to the greatest extent possible. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the symptoms of COPD. It may even help you avoid being hospitalized repeatedly. COPD patients who engage in physical exercise programs often report better quality of life. Exercise may also help improve sleep quality.