Your COPD and Mental Health are Connected: Care for Both

Posted on May 24, 2024   |   

This article was written by Stephanie Williams, BS, RRT.


Living with a chronic illness such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can sometimes make people feel anxious or sad. These feelings can affect how they manage their illness and their overall health, so it is important to spot the signs and know how to get help.

In this blog, Dr. David Hatfield, a primary care doctor and chief physician executive at Village Medical, will give tips on how to feel better both physically and mentally by exercising, spending time with people, and having a good relationship with your doctor.

Let's dive in to discover how you can better understand and navigate the mental health challenges that come with COPD to take control of your well-being.

Can you help our readers understand the important connection between mental health and chronic conditions such as COPD?

COPD can affect more than your physical health - it can harm your mental well-being too. Having a chronic condition such as COPD can lead people to have anxiety and depression. It is normal to feel overwhelmed when learning you have a chronic illness, in part because you may now have a new medication routine. There may also be changes in your body like being tired or short of breath. If you need to use an oxygen machine, you may feel nervous or anxious about leaving home. All these new challenges can be stressful for you.

Even though stress is a feeling, it can have an impact on your body. Have you ever noticed that when you are feeling stressed your heart beats faster and your breathing becomes fast and shallow? This is because when you are under stress, your body produces stress hormones. These hormones can trigger COPD flare-ups or even weaken the immune system causing a domino effect that can make your flare-up worse leading to a hospital stay.

What lifestyle choices can people with COPD take to improve their mental health?

I encourage COPD patients to block off time on their calendars to exercise. Regular physical activity is an effective way to improve both physician and mental health. I work with patients to create an exercise plan and start them off by breaking up 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of activity over the course of a week.

The physical benefits of exercise carry over to mental health benefits as exercise releases helpful hormones that help us relax. When we don't exercise, our minds can wander to thinking about our illness, what could happen if things get worse, and other stressful thoughts.

If you find exercising by yourself isn't working at first, try doing it with others. A workout buddy can bring accountability to your routine, increase your happiness, and help you relax. Some hospitals offer pulmonary rehabilitation programs to help you learn how to become active and live well with COPD. Talk to your primary care provider to learn more.

Why are people not as focused on their mental health?

We tend to focus on physical health because we can see and feel the results. For example, when we have a physical problem, many of us feel comfortable going straight to our healthcare provider. On the other hand, we may overlook mental health because there's often a negative attitude that can lead us to ignore or delay care for our mental health.

How important is seeing a primary care provider for someone with COPD?

It's important to have a good relationship with your primary care provider when living with COPD as they can do regular checkups and health screenings to help catch health problems early. Since many patients have more than one health issue, these checkups help us figure out what's going on and how to treat it.

In addition, primary care providers can help you coordinate your health care needs. For example, if you need a heart specialist or a lung specialist, they can help you get a referral and appointment. The primary care team can also help you avoid getting sick by making sure you get the vaccines you need to avoid infections that can make COPD worse.

How often should someone with COPD visit their primary care provider?

I recommend that patients with COPD time their primary care visits based on the severity of their condition.

  • Mild to Moderate COPD: At least twice a year.
  • Severe but Stable COPD: Four times a year (every 90 days).
  • Severe and Unstable COPD: As often as needed, along with maintaining a good relationship with a pulmonologist.

If you could share one piece of advice with the COPD Foundation's community, what would it be?

My biggest piece of advice for the COPD Foundation community is this - schedule an appointment to get your vaccines. Infection is a leading cause of flare-ups (exacerbations) and hospitalizations for those with COPD. Hospitalizations and ER visits can lead to medical misery, including being uncomfortable, costly, and stressful. Do yourself and your family a favor and make sure you are up to date on all your vaccinations.

To learn more about managing COPD, please visit Village Medical's website at www.villagemedical.com and the COPD resource page at https://www.villagemedical.com/copd.

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