How Stress Affects Asthma

We all experience times of stress, whether it’s from a major life event like a death in the family, or everyday stuff like traffic or a to-do list that’s too long. Many of us can deal with stress when it happens, but if you’re one of the 24 million Americans suffering from asthma, stress can be a much bigger issue. Just like exposure to pollen, mold, pet dander or cigarette smoke, stress can trigger an asthma attack.

One small University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that students with asthma had significantly higher lung inflammation during finals than during periods of lower stress. Other studies show that children from stressful home environments are more likely to develop asthma, and people have worse asthma symptoms after a stressful event happens to them or people close to them.

Why stress may trigger asthma
The connection between stress and asthma isn’t surprising, really. When you get stressed, your body releases stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Among other effects (like your blood pressure and heart rate going up), you breathe faster and your muscles get tense—even the muscles that surround your airways. Stress also alters the way the immune system works and increases inflammation in the body. All these changes make the airways more sensitive and more likely to clench up, causing an attack. There’s even some suggestion that stress can make asthma treatments less effective.

And it’s a vicious cycle: Worrying about having an asthma attack can stress you out, upping the chances that you’ll have one.

Managing stress
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but figuring out effective ways to manage stress can help you avoid a potential asthma attack. Here are some tips to help you stress less:

  • Hit the gym: Whether you run, do yoga or lift weights, getting your heart pumping can dramatically reduce stress. Exercise decreases cortisol, helps lower blood pressure and decreases resting heart rate. You also get a boost of endorphins, which make you feel good. (For some people, though, exercise itself can bring on an attack. If that happens to you, talk to your doctor about safe ways to be active.)
  • Relax: Relaxation exercises such as visualization, muscle relaxation, meditation and deep breathing can help calm your nerves and ward off stress.
  • Delegate: If there are more things on your to-do list than there are hours in the week, try delegating some of your responsibilities. Ask your family or friends for help. Even having one less task can dramatically decrease your feelings of stress.
  • Plan it out: Help manage stress by following this simple 12-step plan created by Sharecare experts.

It’s important to note that if fear of an asthma attack is causing you stress, this may be a sign that your asthma is not well controlled. You may want to reach out to your doctor to discuss stepping up your treatment. This AskMD consultation can help you start the conversation.

Medically reviewed in April 2018.

More On

5 Weird Warnings of an Asthma Attack


5 Weird Warnings of an Asthma Attack
Some of the clues are a little surprising, but if you know what to look for, you'll be better prepared for your next attack
Find Out What Causes Asthma


Find Out What Causes Asthma
Asthma occurs when certain cells of the body's immune system misidentify substances as very harmful and overreact to them, causing the bronchial tubes...
Having Asthma as an Older Adult


Having Asthma as an Older Adult
Think asthma strikes only the young? Not so—a whopping 18.7 million adults live with the condition in the US alone. In fact, adult-onset asthma can oc...