Everyone gets stressed sometimes, but chronic stress can make COPD symptoms flare up. Learning how to use relaxation techniques and exercises can help you breathe easier.

A man sitting on the floor meditating.Share on Pinterest
Milan Markovic/Getty Images

While everyone feels stress, there’s a difference between short-term (acute) stress and long-term (chronic) stress.

Acute stress can be useful. It prepares us for “fight-or-flight” in the face of a threat. The body releases certain hormones that prime us for explosive action. The body returns to its normal state after the threat is gone.

Many people, however, feel stress on a more continuous basis, which can impair their health. For example, chronic stress can weaken the immune system. It can also cause more frequent flare-ups of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) symptoms.

For this reason, it’s important to learn how to manage stress. Read more for ways to manage your stress with COPD.

The first step toward managing stress is to recognize your stressors.

Living with COPD can be stressful on its own. It forces you to make changes in your life. Other things that may cause stress include changes in:

  • relationships
  • financial situations
  • employment
  • sleep habits
  • sexual relationships
  • living situations
  • the ability to perform daily tasks

Having COPD or any chronic disease can be emotionally stressful. It’s common to feel depressed, upset, and overwhelmed at times — and these feelings can flare COPD symptoms. Feeling stressed can worsen your shortness of breath, which in turn, can make you feel even more anxious.

These changes would be stressful for anyone. For people with COPD, 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 find healthy ways to cope with 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.

After you’ve identified the things that trigger anxiety and increase your stress levels, you can learn to pump the brakes before it causes a flare-up.

One effective method for reducing stress is to use breathing techniques.

Pursed-lip breathing

Pursed-lip breathing is a technique that can 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.

Try it by following these steps:

  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 the back.
  2. Inhale through the nostrils for 2 seconds.
  3. Purse your lips as if you’re about to blow out a candle.
  4. Exhale slowly through the lips.
  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.

Try it by following these steps:

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

Various techniques can help reduce stress and reverse the effects of anxiety. A 2019 review of research suggests these practices can help reduce stress and may help the body fight off infections.


Visualization is a technique you can perform anywhere, anytime.

Try picturing a quiet, stress-free setting, such as a peaceful beachfront or wooded trail. By imagining yourself in an environment where you are relaxed, you may start to feel less stressed wherever you really are.

Sometimes, visualization is accompanied by guided imagery. This is a stress reduction technique where you listen to a recording of someone walking you through a relaxing scene or story.

To make guided imagery and visualization work best, find a quiet place in your home and spend about 20 minutes alone listening to a recording or relaxing in the tranquil scene you’re visualizing.

Mindfulness meditation

Unlike visualization, which takes you away from your current situation, mindfulness meditation is a way of being extremely aware of your surroundings: the sounds, the smells, everything you’re feeling at that moment.

Focused breathing exercises are ways to practice mindfulness. They can be particularly helpful if you have COPD, as they emphasize relaxation while breathing.

To try focused breathing, follow these steps:

  1. Sit straight up, but relax your body.
  2. Gently breathe in and out through your nose.
  3. Focus your attention on the air moving through your nostrils.
  4. Feel your lungs and abdomen as they swell and subside with each breath.

Do this for a few minutes, concentrating only on your breathing. Don’t worry about trying to achieve a meditative state. Let any worries or thoughts come and go in your mind as you focus only on quietly breathing in and out.

Getting enough sleep is important for everyone. It’s especially important when you’re living with a chronic illness. Most adults require 7–9 hours of sleep per night.

But 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 and alcohol in the evening
  • don’t nap during the day
  • don’t work, watch TV, or use digital media in bed
  • exercise in the morning or afternoon
  • stick to a regular sleep schedule
  • sleep in a cool, quiet, dark space

Although COPD may limit your mobility, it’s important to remain physically active and maintain physical fitness as best you can.

According to a 2022 review, regular exercise can help reduce the symptoms of COPD, and people with COPD who follow physical exercise programs often report better quality of life. Exercise may also help improve sleep quality.

Even with the best of stress reduction efforts, you’re bound to have a flare-up of COPD symptoms now and then. Create an action plan for dealing with sudden shortness of breath or a coughing fit.

For some people, a short-acting bronchodilator can start to relieve symptoms within a few minutes. For others, adding a combination inhaler that includes a bronchodilator and a corticosteroid may be helpful during days when flare-ups occur. It’s also important to remain still and try to relax.

COPD flare-ups can certainly increase stress. But the more you know about how to respond quickly to flare-ups and reduce stress in your everyday life, the better off you’ll be moving forward.

If you want to know more about managing stress, speak with your doctor. You can also consider talking with a mental health professional with experience working with individuals who have COPD or other chronic illnesses.

You can also consult the healthcare professionals who work in pulmonary rehabilitation programs. These rehab specialists can have good advice for stress reduction and prevention, especially for someone living with COPD.