An asthma attack is usually regarded as a physical experience. Sufferers often experience chest tightness, coughing, and an increased effort to breathe. Yet asthma also has an emotional component. There is the frustration of experiencing an attack and the fear of what might happen if the attack worsens.
Asthma can be a life-threatening condition. This can increase levels of anxiety, leading to panic, which in turn can trigger or worsen an asthma attack. Anxiety, resentment and despair are common emotions felt by the asthmatic.
For centuries, many people believed asthma was caused by stress or emotional disorders. This led to a stigma being attached to the condition and there grew a stereotype of the asthmatic being a weak, anxious person, forever wheezing and coughing.
Breathing is obviously tied in with emotion. We gasp with fear when we watch a scary movie, and take short breaths if we get involved in an action flick. We catch our breath if something startles us. Laughing and crying are certainly expressions of emotion and they both involve a change in our normal breathing pattern.
Being under stress can gradually tighten the airways. Sometimes people suffer their first asthma attack at a time of heightened emotion, like the death of a close relative. In these cases the person was probably already susceptible to asthma and the traumatic event and stress triggered the attack.
The beliefs of a person can also influence their asthma. Experiments have shown that asthmatics can produce and decrease asthma attacks using the power of suggestion. Just as Pavlov’s dogs salivated to the sound of a bell, asthma patients can suffer attacks if they are convinced they have inhaled an allergen even if the allergen is not present. Similarly they can experience relief if they believe they are taking a reliever drug though the substance they have taken has no medical effects. This ‘placebo effect’ has been noted for many conditions and situations.
This power of suggestion may explain why some people suffer a worsening of their asthma if they just see something related to their asthma trigger. It may also explain why some feel they cannot be without their inhaler.
The cause of asthma is not in the mind. It is in the genes and airways. But it seems that the mind can aggravate the condition.
Research has shown that asthma attacks can be connected to panic disorder – recurrent unexplained panic attacks. This connection seems stronger in smokers than non-smokers, and in women than in men.
It has also been found that the children of mothers prone to depression or panic attacks have an increased risk of developing asthma.
More recently researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison performed tests in which asthma patients heard various different words. They found that simply mentioning asthma related words such as ‘wheeze’ stimulated responses in two regions of the brain. One region is associated with emotional responses; the other is involved in obtaining information about the body’s physiological condition, such as shortness of breath.
The results suggest a direct link between an emotion-processing area of the brain and the physical response to the disease. The brains of people with asthma may over-react to emotional and physiological signals, like inflammation, which in turn may affect the severity of symptoms. This may help explain why asthma attacks in response to allergens can worsen during stressful times.
This research may one day lead to drugs or behavioral interventions to control asthma. Meanwhile it is know that certain relaxation techniques and martial arts can help control asthma that is triggered by emotional events.
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