Living and Coping with COPD

We all have things we must cope with in our lives. We all face stressful times. Now you have something else to face - living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). You may have been stunned when you first learned you had this disease. Or you may have been expecting it. If you had never heard of COPD, it may have sounded scary. You may have felt overwhelmed. Or perhaps you felt relief to finally know what was causing your breathing problems. In spite of changes, however, you can live a long time with COPD. And you can have a good quality of life!

Living with COPD can cause you to feel many different emotions. Here you will learn more about these emotions and discover ways to cope.

Recognizing Stress

Living with COPD can cause stress for you and your loved ones. You can feel stress when what you need to do feels bigger than your ability to do those things.

But too much stress can be overwhelming. It can make you feel frustrated and tired. You may feel helpless. When you feel like this, adding one more problem can make you feel as though you are unable to handle even the simplest activities of daily life.

Stress Affects Your Body and Health

Your body is constantly making changes to meet the demands of each new situation. This is true for times of stress. During a situation your body considers dangerous, it reacts. Hormones are released. Your heart rate and blood pressure are increased. Your blood flow is increased to help the legs, brain, and lungs deal with the new problem.

Chronic stress reactions occur when our bodies are in a tensed response state for a long period of time. If we do not manage our stress well, our bodies can be affected. The brain, heart, muscles, and lungs can become overloaded. Many medical problems have been linked to chronic stress.

But through simple methods we can learn to manage our stress. These methods can help us calm our immediate reactions. We can relieve long-term tension. And we can maintain a healthy balance in our lives.

Methods to Help Relieve Stress

Listening to music: This works best if you can avoid being distracted. Try dimming the lights. Sounds of nature (ocean, birds, waterfalls) can also be soothing.

Exercise and stretching: Exercise is a great stress reliever. Stretching exercises, such as yoga, can provide great relief. Lying down and tightening and releasing your muscles can help. Start with your face muscles. Move all the way down your body from your head to your toes.

Talking about your feelings: Sharing your feelings with someone who cares can be a real comfort. It helps to feel you are understood.

Personal or group therapy: There are professionals who focus on reducing and managing stress. Or you might prefer help from a workshop or support group. Your health care provider or local hospital should be able to help you find all of these.

Relaxing with meditation: This is a way of relaxing the mind. Sit in a comfortable position and let your thoughts float away. There are many websites and even smart phone apps that can teach you how to do this effectively.

Common Emotions in Life with COPD

Loss: Finding out you have COPD may lead to a feeling of loss. This may be the loss of your ability to breathe easily, be as physically active as you were in the past, or to do things without having to plan ahead.

Denial: Learning you have COPD can be shocking. You may not believe the news at first.

Isolation: Some people with COPD avoid social gatherings due to feelings of anxiety and worrying about others judging them and their condition. Others may not want to be alone but may feel disconnected from their friends and family.

Anger: You may feel angry and frustrated about this life-changing diagnosis. It is ok to be angry.

Ignoring your anger can make it come out in other ways. You may nag others or constantly point out their flaws. Try to find a way to vent your anger without hurting anyone else. Talk with a trusted friend, clergy or counselor. Write about your feelings in a journal.

Guilt and Regret: You may feel guilty about having COPD if you were a smoker. You may regret not taking better care of yourself in the past.

Sadness and Depression: Everyone feels sad or depressed from time to time. To help improve your mood, try:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet: Avoid junk food.
  • Exercising or trying one of your favorite activities.
  • Meeting with your friends and family.
  • Sharing your feelings with a trusted person.
  • Seeing a mental health professional.

If your sadness becomes overwhelming, or begins to affect your daily life and activities, consider talking with your health care professional or seeing a mental health counselor for support and treatment. Sometimes sadness is a sign of depression, which needs to be treated by a professional. Ask your primary care physician for a referral for talk therapy and other mental health treatment options.

Confusion: There is a lot to learn when you find out you have COPD. You may feel uncertain about what you can or should do. Don’t worry; you can think things through before making any big decisions or changes. Your health care provider can help guide you.

Anxiety and Panic: Anxiety is a feeling that something bad is going to happen. It is being fearful about something that may happen in the future. It is a nervous feeling. When anxiety becomes intense, it can turn into panic. If you have panic attacks, talk with your health care provider. There are mental health treatments, including counseling, which have been shown to help prevent and manage panic attacks. They may also suggest some calming exercises to help you. You can try exercises like pursed lip breathing. Make sure you know when it may be necessary to call for help or call 911.

Talk with your health care provider about using pursed lips breathing to avoid or get through a panic attack. Make sure you know when it may be necessary to call for help or call 911.

A panic attack can cause:

  • A very fast or pounding heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Chest pains
  • Hot flashes or sudden chills
  • Tingling in the fingers or toes

Accepting your COPD: Acceptance does not mean you have given up. It shows that you are ready to continue living your life! This is the first step in enjoying a healthy and fulfilling life with COPD. While you can't always control your COPD symptoms, you can find ways to live with them. Focus on the things you can control and let go of the things you cannot. As time goes by, you may feel anger, depression, and other emotions again. This is not a setback but a natural part of the journey with any chronic condition.

For Family and Friends: A COPD diagnosis can be overwhelming. Be a supportive listener. Let your loved one share their feelings without any judgment. Listen to your loved one's feelings. Remember, the past cannot be undone. Support their efforts to make positive changes. Remember, their anger is not directed at you. It is directed at the situation. Understand that this anger is part of a process and is a sign of change.

Coping Skills

We all have coping skills we have used throughout our lives. The skill or plan we use to cope usually depends on the situation. Choose the coping tool that works well for you. You can try:

Goal Setting: This can include thinking about what is important to you, such as your favorite activities. Then, you can make a plan with your health care provider for how to continue enjoying those activities. Try setting small, short-term goals. By choosing a reasonable, reachable goal, you can feel a sense of accomplishment that might have been missing.

Seeking Support: This can include talking with your friends and family, joining support groups, getting financial help, finding resources for getting your home medical equipment and medications, or seeing a mental health professional.

Programs and Techniques: Pulmonary rehabilitation has also been shown to help people with COPD. This program includes exercise, education, and emotional support. The health care professionals at pulmonary rehabilitation are experts in working with people who are short of breath. To start a program, you need a referral from your health care provider.

Talk therapy with a mental health professional can also be very helpful for coping with chronic diseases like COPD. There are many different types of talk therapies, such as acceptance and commitment therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and mindfulness. Mental health professionals can also help you with stress reduction, relaxation techniques, and improving the quality of your sleep. With the help of a professional, you can work to manage your feelings, emotions, and other challenges through useful coping strategies. Your mental health professional will work with you to find the treatment that is best for you.

Using Communication to Cope

You may find that other people in your life may not understand what you are going through with your COPD. Good communication can help you to explain your feelings and needs. Here are some tips for improving communication:

Tips for Improved Communication

  • Choose assertive communication: Be direct in talking about your personal rights and feelings. Talk about both positive and challenging topics in a respectful and open way and ask that others do the same with you.
  • Use exact language. Be specific when discussing your feelings. Avoid using generalizations such as words like "always" or "never."
  • Know when the time is right for certain discussions: Make sure you have enough time to talk about important topics. Wait until you have everyone's undivided attention. You may have to delay your chat or finish it later.
  • Be a good listener: Active listening means letting others know they're heard. For example, maintaining eye contact, not interrupting, and repeating back what the person said are helpful in making sure you truly understand what someone is saying. This type of listening is very important when talking about difficult topics.
  • Don't join in the “shame and blame game”: Some people with COPD feel guilt or shame about their condition. Blaming yourself or others is not helpful. Rather than focusing on the past and what might have caused your COPD or what you could have done differently, shift your focus to the future. This change can help you live your life based on what matters most to you now. What are your hopes for your condition? What are some goals you'd like to work toward? You are more than your disease.

Reflecting on What is Important to You

A diagnosis of COPD may feel overwhelming at first. You may wonder how your life will change with this disease. You are not alone in these feelings. Know that many things can help you cope. If your feelings and concerns about your COPD become overwhelming, ask for help. Talk with family and friends about your condition and connect with others who have COPD. Use relaxation exercises. And tell your health care provider about your concerns. Coping with your lung condition will help you to improve your outlook and maintain your overall health and happiness, so you can live your fullest life with COPD.

Resources and Support

The COPD Foundation offers resources such as COPD360social, an online community where you can connect with patients, caregivers and health care providers and ask questions, share your experiences and receive and provide support.