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This information was reviewed and approved by Kristen E. Holm, PhD, MPH (3/1/2019).

A Connection Between Chronic Lung Disease and Anxiety 

Deep in our brain is a region that constantly samples our blood to be sure that we are breathing well, and that we are breathing clean, "healthy" air. If it detects anything wrong with our breathing or the air around us, it can send out an alarm signal that something is wrong. This might feel like a sudden rush of anxiety, or even panic. This feeling is supposed to prod us to get up and get away from whatever dangerous situation has caused our breathing to set off our "suffocation alarm."With chronic lung disease, you regularly have trouble breathing and your suffocation alarm can become "hyperactive." You might feel anxious and edgy. Even little changes, like strong odors or being hurried, can fire off a full suffocation alarm signal. This is the reason that patients with chronic lung disease frequently complain of increased episodes of panic and anxiety. This response is common and does not mean that there is something wrong with you mentally or emotionally.

Reducing Anxiety

With help from your doctor, there are a number of things you can do to "reset" your suffocation alarm and your feelings of anxiety. These may include:

Treatment can include medication, individual psychotherapy, or family therapy. Individual psychotherapy can provide support and encouragement as well as teach you how to set new goals and develop new coping strategies. Family therapy can provide education to family members about the illness and help the family to adjust well. Usually a combination of treatments is most effective.


Signs of Too Much Worry

Below is a list of some of the ways that "too much worrying" can show up. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or feelings, talk to someone on your treatment team:

  • I have trouble getting to sleep because I'm worrying.

  • I can be sitting quietly and suddenly become short of breath.

  • I almost always have a nagging worry about when I'm going to have an episode of difficult breathing.

  • I seem to be getting more and more frightened to leave the house.

  • I'd rather stay home so I can avoid being exposed to the "dangers" out there, such as people's germs or excessive perfumes.

  • I'm frightened of getting onto elevators, airplanes, or bridges and will go out of my way to avoid them.

  • I walk around feeling as if something bad is going to happen.

  • Worry interferes with my activities or my relationships.


Signs of Too Little Worry

It is also not uncommon for people with chronic lung disease to want to "take a break" from being sick. At these times they may find themselves not paying enough attention to the illness, or on some level denying that they even have a health problem. They may notice some of the following:

  • I frequently overextend myself and pay for it with worse symptoms the next day or two.

  • I try to use as little medication as possible, and as little oxygen as possible, even when my doctor wants me to use more.

  • Sometimes I pretend I don't have chronic lung disease, even in situations when I know it might be important to let others know.

  • When I'm feeling "hassled" by my chronic lung disease, I drink more alcohol than I should because it lets me forget about my disease.


An "Ideal" Level of Worry

There actually is an "ideal level of worry." At this ideal state, you understand that you have a chronic and challenging illness. You know there are things you can do that will help and hurt your experience with the illness. Over the long course of chronic lung disease you will likely go through periods of time when you worry "too much" and other times when perhaps you should give your illness more consideration. These fluctuations are absolutely normal. It is important to find the "just right" amount of worry that can help you keep your life and your illness more in balance.