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 find information on this as well as suggestions on how to cope.

Recognizing Stress

Living with COPD can bring about changes in the life of 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.

Relaxing with biofeedback: This is a way of getting information on how your body is working. Monitors are used to track your heart rate and muscle tension. A therapist guides you through relaxation exercises. The monitors show you which exercises relax your body the most, so you learn to relax your body on your own.

Common Emotions in Life with COPD

Loss: Finding out you have COPD may lead to a feeling of loss. This may be the loss over 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 might find yourself saying, “That doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” You might say, “So I have COPD, no big deal.” Or you may be saying, “I didn’t smoke. How can I have COPD?”

For family and friends - Don’t take anything personally. Be a good listener. If you feel the denial has gone on too long, avoid telling your loved one what you think they should do or feel. Tell them what you are feeling. Don’t blame them for your feelings.

Isolation: Perhaps you have stopped joining in social events. You may be avoiding your family and friends. It is okay to want time alone. But let your friends and family know you need this time. You don’t want to push them away completely.

Anger: It is normal to be angry about a life-changing diagnosis. You may think it is unfair that you have this disease. You may think, “Why me?” You may be angry at yourself for smoking. You may be angry at your health care provider because there is no cure. You may be angry with your family. You may think they do not understand what you are going through. It is okay 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.

For family and friends - Remember, the anger is not directed at you. It is directed at the situation. Understand that this anger is part of a process. It is a sign of change. Give yourself a break from your loved one if you need it. But assure them you are not deserting them.

Guilt and Regret: You may feel guilty about having COPD if you were a smoker. You may feel guilt or regret about not taking better care of yourself. You may regret spending too much time at work and not enough with family. It is common for people with COPD to want to make up for past mistakes. This can be positive. It can help you think about what is important to you. It can help you make changes.

For family and friends - Acknowledge your loved one’s feelings. Remember, the past cannot be undone. Support their efforts to resolve unfinished business.

Sadness and Depression: Everyone feels sad or depressed from time to time. Feeling depressed can also make you feel weak and tired. You may begin to think about how this disease will affect your life. You may be worried about finances and/or concerned about your independence. Or you may be worried about your role in your family. After thinking about these issues, you can begin to prepare for possible changes. And you can begin to cope.

For family and friends - Help them have a realistic view of how their disease may affect their life. Share with them how you view it. Let them know you are willing to listen.

Depression may cause you to be tired and not want to do much of anything. This can lead to neglect in caring for yourself and your home, which can also be depressing. To get out of this cycle, try:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet: Avoid junk food.
  • Exercising: It can improve your mood.
  • Seeking out friends: Limit the time you spend alone.
  • Sharing your feelings: Talk with friends, family, or your health care provider.

If none of this helps your depression, you may need to seek help from a mental health professional.

Confusion: There is a lot to learn when you find out you have COPD. So you may feel uncertain about what you can or should do. This urge to do something before you have enough information can lead to confusion. Be patient. You do not have to take leaps and bounds. You can take small, steady steps.

For family and friends - Avoid trying to “fix things.” Assure your loved one that you will be there to support them. Tell them that together you will work through this difficult time.

Anxiety and Panic: Anxiety is a feeling that something bad is going to happen. It is being fearful about something unknown. It is a nervous feeling. When anxiety becomes intense, it can turn into panic. In a panic attack your heart may feel like it is racing and pounding. Many people experience an occasional panic attack. If you have repeated panic attacks, find a health care professional who treats panic disorders.

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 heartbeat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • A sense of terror
  • Dizziness, nausea
  • Chest pains
  • Hot flashes or sudden chills
  • Tingling in the fingers or toes

Fear: When you find out you have COPD, you may feel as though you have been given a death sentence. You might fear that you will die soon. You may feel this even though you have years to live a healthy, active life. You may want to ask your doctor about what will happen as your disease progresses, and how you can be as comfortable as possible. You may want to know what decisions you and your family might have to make. Asking these questions can be hard, but it is better to talk about this sooner rather than later.

Accepting your COPD: Acceptance does not mean you have given up. It means you understand you cannot control everything in your life. It shows that you are ready to continue living your life! This can be a time of reflection and renewal. As time goes by, you may feel anger, depression, and other emotions again. This is not a setback but a new period of sorting out your feelings. This can lead to a better understanding of yourself and others.

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. What works for coping in one situation may not work in another. There is not really one coping style that is better than all others. The more coping styles you know about, the better you can handle stress and problems.

Coping Styles:

  • Confrontive coping: An aggressive effort to change a situation. It involves some risk-taking.
  • Distancing: An effort to detach yourself, making light of the situation.
  • Self-controlling: An effort to control your own feelings and actions.
  • Seeking social support: An effort to get support from others. Support may be anything from emotional help to financial assistance.
  • Accepting responsibility: Involves admitting your role in the problem. Also includes an effort to make things right.
  • Escape-avoidance: An effort to avoid or escape the problem.
  • Planful problem-solving: Involves a logical effort to change the situation.
  • Positive reappraisal: A focus on personal growth.

Coping styles that worked at one time in your life may not work for you now. Consider the above list of coping styles. Think of times when you have used them. Which were more helpful? Do you tend to use one or two styles more than others? Are there some coping styles that you never use? You should find that the active coping styles solve problems better than the passive ones.

Using Communication to Cope

Getting others to understand what we are trying to say is not always easy. Good communication involves more than just choosing the right words. Our gestures, tone of voice, the look on our faces, and even silences are all part of our message. These things tell far more than the words we speak. We have all had frustrating conversations. At those times, it seemed no matter how hard we tried we could not get the other person to understand us. The following tips may help.

Tips for Improved Communication

  • Choose assertive communication:This type of communication is neither passive nor aggressive. It involves communicating your personal rights and feelings. It does not include abusing the rights of others. Passive communication is weak and self-sacrificing. Aggressive communication is self-centered, hostile, and demanding.
  • Use exact language. General statements such as, “You always do that,” sound like an attack. Avoid the words “always” and “never.”
  • Know when the time is right for certain discussions: Avoid talking when you or the person listening does not have enough time to complete the talk fully. If the talk must be ended early, agree to pick it back up later where you left off. Avoid a "hot topic" too close to bedtime. Also avoid a "hot topic" when you know the other person is occupied with other matters.
  • Be a good listener: Active listening means giving feedback to the other person. This will let them know if they have been heard. This is very important when talking about difficult topics.
  • Don’t place blame: Avoid using the word “should.” It is easy to look around for someone to blame when things go wrong. Or we may have regrets and blame ourselves. Finding the blame for problems focuses our thoughts on the past. If you hear yourself using the word “should,” you may be blaming someone.
  • Don’t try to mind-read or expect it from others: Remember, just because something seems obvious to you does not mean that it is obvious to anyone else.
  • Develop trust by taking some risks: Friendships are based on trust. We build trust by choosing to share information about ourselves with others, even if it may make them think less of us. To build trust, we sometimes have to take risks about what we share.
  • Let it all out: Sometimes the best thing to do is “let it all out.” It can sometimes be a huge relief to let out our pent-up emotional frustrations in one big outburst. One safe place to do this is with a professional therapist. They are trained to listen to emotional outbursts.

Getting Help from Professionals and Peers

Here are some resources to help you cope with the stress and emotions of living with COPD.

Mental Health Professionals: To choose a mental health professional, ask your health care provider for help. Friends and family may also be able to help. In addition, your employer may have an "employee assistance program". You may need to meet with several counselors before you find someone with whom you feel comfortable.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Pulmonary rehabilitation is a program of exercise, education, and emotional support. The health care professionals at pulmonary rehab are experts at working with people who are short of breath. To start pulmonary rehab, you need a referral from your health care provider.

Breathing Support Groups: Many people with COPD find that these groups can provide the special understanding and encouragement they need. You do not need a referral from your health care provider to attend a breathing support group. You can be part of both a pulmonary rehabilitation program and a breathing support group. Your local hospital should have information on pulmonary rehab programs and support groups in your area.

Faith: For many people, having faith in a higher power gives them the strength to meet life’s challenges. It may help to talk with a minister, priest, rabbi, or spiritual guide. Or you may want to join a support group at your place of worship.

Reflecting on What is Important to You

Having a diagnosis of COPD may give you the opportunity to stop and reflect. What is most important to you? What makes your life meaningful? What do you want to make sure continues in your life? What things are okay to give up? What things will you fight to hold on to?

Recognize and understand the common emotions that having COPD can cause. Know that learning how to cope can put less stress on your physical and emotional health. Develop good communication skills to express yourself. Appreciate the thoughts and feelings of others. It is okay to reach out for help from others.

Doing these things can lead to a better quality of life for you and your family.

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.