COPD rarely happens as an isolated illness. It's common for individuals with COPD to have other chronic conditions, called comorbidities, that overlap with COPD. Some common COPD comorbidities are right-sided heart failure, coronary heart disease, obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS), depression, anxiety, and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). At the end of this blog post, you will find several excellent articles about COPD comorbidities – how can you manage them, stay well, and have a good quality of life.
Today at the Wednesday Check in, in keeping with our focus on emotional health and well-being, we are reminded of two common COPD comorbidities that affect your mental health and wellness—anxiety and depression. Last year we took a look at anxiety and depression, their common symptoms, and what may help. You will find a link to that check in at the end of this blogpost.Today, let’s zoom in on one aspect of anxiety—the panic attack—what happens in your body and talking with your doctor about how you might take steps to manage it.
Because difficulty breathing is a major part of panic attacks, sorting out what’s really going on is tricky for people with COPD. We talk a lot about the anatomy of the lungs. But did you know that breathing involves both your brain and your lungs? Your brain is constantly monitoring oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels to protect you from suffocation. When O2-CO2 amounts get to unacceptable levels, the brain sounds the emergency alarm. Your body then swings into action, releasing adrenaline, speeding up heart and lung activity, creating hot flashes, cold chills, and hundreds of other changes that prepare you to either fight the problem or get away from it. This emergency operation, the “fight or flight” reflex, is what we experience in a panic attack. When this happens, our thinking brain may also get involved; depending on your individual perception, interpretation, and other thoughts, it may make the problem seem worse than it is.
In addition to checking your breathing and your heart, your brain constantly checks your blood to be sure that you are breathing nontoxic air. If it senses a problem, your brain alarm wants you to run away from the dangerous situation. With COPD, even small changes in the air such as odors, pollution, pollen, sudden temperature changes, emotional excitement, and hurrying can trigger false suffocation alarms.
So, if you have COPD and are having a panic episode, how can you know if it is safe to try to "talk yourself down" on your own at home, or if you are having an exacerbation and need help? As always, look first for any physical cause for a panic attack. To do this, it helps to be under the care of a primary care doctor and preferably a pulmonologist, be medically stable, and have a My COPD Action Plan you’ve worked out with your doctor. When you have this, talk with your doctor and make a plan for what to do if you should feel a panic episode coming on. Follow this link to view and download the My COPD Action Plan: COPD Foundation Educational Materials
Here are some suggestions to help you get through—or at least lessen the effects of—a panic episode:
- Use pursed-lip breathing, and diaphragmatic (abdominal or belly) breathing, if possible. Breathing Techniques | COPD Foundation
- If you have supplemental oxygen, make sure you’re wearing it, that it’s turned on, and working properly.
- Get into an easy breathing position such as sitting down, leaning forward slightly, propping up your elbows, and dropping down and relaxing your shoulders.
- Close your eyes and say calming and self-assuring words aloud or to yourself. If you are a person of faith, say a prayer.
As always, the more you learn about your COPD and the physical and mental comorbidities you may have, the more control you will have over anxiety, panic, and your overall health.
Have you ever had a panic episode? If so, what happened?
Let’s talk! I look forward to hearing from you!
For more information:
Beyond the Lungs: How COPD affects the body https://www.copdfoundation.org/COPD360social/Commu...
Living Well with Multiple Health Conditions https://www.copdfoundation.org/COPD360social/Commu...
COPD Management is Greater than the Sum of its Parts https://www.copdfoundation.org/Praxis/Community/Bl...
Have you thought about other conditions that affect your COPD (comorbidities)?
Check in – How much do you know about your comorbidities?
Check in –Anxiety and Depression with COPD: Could this be Me? (copdfoundation.org)