The Link Between Childhood Asthma and Anxiety

If you have asthma and anxiety, the two may be related.

One study, done in 2007, found that adolescents who had asthma were twice as likely to have anxiety or depression as compared to their peers. 1Katon, W., Lozano, P., Russo, J., McCauley, E., Richardson, L., & Bush, T. (2007). The prevalence of DSM-IV anxiety and depressive disorders in youth with asthma compared with controls. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41(5), 455-463.

Why is this surprising? Because asthma seems so purely physical, and anxiety so purely psychological. How could they be related?

Actually, asthma can have strong emotional influences (I’ve noticed this with my own asthma). Likewise, anxiety can have deep roots in the body. Asthma and anxiety can each have physical, mental, and emotional aspects.

The Symptoms Overlap

Look at these symptoms of an asthma attack:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Racing heart
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Pale skin
  • Sweating
  • Excessive coughing

Notice how similar they are to the symptoms of an anxiety attack.

Interestingly, both are conditions of being overly sensitized.

In the case of asthma, a person’s airways are intermittently or chronically inflamed, and constrict and swell during acute episodes.

And in the case of anxiety, a person’s nervous system is sensitized to overreact to normal stressors.

Chicken or the Egg

You may be wondering, “Which came first then?”

Research is not clear on this. Studies show a link between the two, but no clear causal direction.

Basically, we can’t say that the asthma caused the anxiety or the anxiety caused the asthma.

However, we know that asthma and anxiety can influence and reinforce one another.

For example, many children with asthma have the awful experience of feeling their airways closing. This is a very stressful and scary experience, and it introduces a high dose of fear into the life of a child.

Simply put: if you can’t breathe, it makes sense you’d be anxious.

And the Opposite?

In the opposite direction, anxiety can influence asthma. For example, hyperventilation brought on by anxiety can trigger an asthma attack. 2Deshmukh, V. M., Toelle, B. G., Usherwood, T., O’Grady, B., & Jenkins, C. R. (2007). Anxiety, panic and adult asthma: a cognitive-behavioral perspective. Respiratory Medicine, 101(2), 194-202. Also, the emotional stress of chronic anxiety may be an asthma trigger.

Lastly, many asthma medications can cause side effects that resemble anxious symptoms, including increased heart rate and shakiness. Because of this, understandably, some people with asthma avoid taking their medications. In this way, anxiety can get in the way of the self-management of asthma.

Does Childhood Asthma Cause Adult Anxiety?

When I first learned that children with asthma are more likely to have anxiety, I thought I had discovered a cause of the anxiety I had later in life. Soon, though, I let go of looking for any childhood cause to my anxiety. Since then, I’ve accepted that there is a link between the two, and that we don’t yet know its nature.

Nowadays, I see both as coming from some deeper personal complexity. Maybe more highly sensitive people are more prone to these conditions. Either way, it’s all more complicated than we can understand right now. So many factors go together to make us who we are.3The bio-psycho-social; neurological, immunological, and endocrine processes; and the influence of the familial and physical environments on the life of the growing individual, to name a few.

What You Can Do

If you have anxiety and asthma, you don’t need to know what caused them in order to still live a good life.

Managing your asthma can improve you quality of life. The American Lung Association recommends following these six steps for managing your asthma. And, as always, talk to your doctor to strategize and decide what’s right for you.

Likewise, finding relief from anxious suffering is possible, and you deserve to live free from toxic anxiety.

The Key Difference

There’s an important difference between asthma and anxiety. Despite their similarities, asthma is an incurable disease, and at best can only be managed.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is not a disease. Anxiety is an experience that is very open to change – with the right approach.

You shouldn’t settle for anxious suffering.

And, you don’t need to live your life in between anxious “episodes”, waiting for the next one to strike.

Fortunately, there are several approaches to treating anxiety that we know are effective for many people, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). 4Forman, E. M., Herbert, J. D., Moitra, E., Yeomans, P. D., & Geller, P. A. (2007). A randomized controlled effectiveness trial of acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive therapy for anxiety and depression. Behavior modification, 31(6), 772-799.

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