We are navigating challenging times, very few people find it easy to stay calm with so much uncertainty, unpredictability and fear. For those with a chronic health condition such as asthma or COPD (Chronic obstruction pulmonary disease) the fear is amplified as they hear about the impact Covid-19 has on our ability to breathe. It would come as no surprise to know that respiratory distress can be triggered by heightened stress. Stress and anxiety can also lead to a respiratory attack, so it is worth thinking about how to look after yourself in a preventative way with a view to preventing anxiety becoming a trigger for you.
Respiratory conditions come in many forms from the more common such as Asthma, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), Chronic Bronchitis, Bronchiectasis, Pneumonia, Lung Cancer and Tuberculosis, to the less known such as Pulmonary Edema, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, Pneumoconiosis, Interstitial Lung Disease and Mesothelioma to name just a few, the one thing all these have in common is, they affect the respiratory system and how you breathe.
Breathing Through Uncertainty.
Your symptoms might be flaring up, especially as we have to stay indoors and many of our respiratory community feel vulnerable around the impacts of possibly contracting COVID 19. Worrying about whether to get a vaccine, worrying about where to get a vaccine, worrying about passing near to someone in the supermarket who may have COVID 19, feeling vulnerable or alone, all of these thoughts and concerns can cause high levels of stress. Even more so as the media are often only focusing on the negative. It can be very hard to get even a little respite from what feels like a constant stream of bad news. Stressors might also increase as we again work from home often coping with online learning for children, school being disrupted for a child, living in lockdown alone or family stress heightened because we are now spending a significant amount of time with each other possibly more than we have ever learned how to do in the past. Whilst some can cope with that really well, it can also present challenges for others. These moments are significant for us all, so stress can creep up on any of us at any time.
For those with respiratory conditions, strong emotions can trigger symptoms which is something many of us will experience in a time of increased uncertainty.
Varying levels of stress can make inflammation worse, triggering shortness of breath or breathing difficulties, all of which can exacerbate your condition as the body kicks in to fight off the trigger.
A person who experiences stress for prolonged periods may feel more anxious. Anxiety can trigger panic attacks, that can for example, cause an asthma attack.
People may also sometimes find that stress leads to unhealthy behavior, such as eating junk food for comfort, smoking or drinking alcohol which can all lead to worsening of symptoms as we try to comfort ourselves.
So what can you do to keep stress at bay?
- Stay connected with people. This might include your whānau, friends, colleagues, and neighbours. Partners and friends move on or pass away. Family members don’t always live close by. Neighbours aren’t always interested in getting to know you. And if you’re unable to get out or feeling unwell, it can be hard to meet people. Caring Caller is a service that St John provides for people who live alone or feel a bit lonely. Volunteers phone clients regularly to check that everything is ok. This free service is fully funded by donations. While most of their clients are retired, they also support anyone who is lonely. You can complete an online request here or call them on 0800 000 606 Monday - Sunday 7am - 7pm.
- Bringing yourself into the present moment can be very helpful in terms of managing levels of worry. See how many sounds you can hear, list them down. Not thinking too much ahead can help you to remain calm and take life in bite sized manageable chunks.
- Looking back at old photographs and remembering some past feeling, emotion and memory can bring a smile. Show your teenagers now in lockdown how cute they were as babies or look back at parties you once attended celebrating with a friend or remember that favourite photograph stuffed in into the back of the wardrobe of some long-ago fashion trend.
- Try some yoga or just focusing on controlling your breath can help manage stress and reduce the likelihood of an attack. There are some brilliant apps that you can download, a personal favourite is a breathing tool in the app Mentemia (available for free download from Playstore.)
- Listen to comedy as a smile can help to reduce tension in your body and help you to relax.
- Read a book, something that requires only your eyes to move and apart from turning a page or swiping over on your tablet, this allows your imagination to run wild and transport you to another place that for a little while relives your worries and helps you to see other perspectives.
- Getting enough rest is super important, and if you are having trouble sleeping, then take a little more time through your day to simply put your head back and close your eyes. Sip on warm herbal tea as a warm brew helps to keep your lungs moist.
- Eating as healthily as possible can help you to keep your system in shape to help deal with increased anxiety.
- Being physically active is proven to boost our wellbeing and decrease stress, depression, and anxiety, so do what you can under the circumstances and know you are doing your best.
- Having a sense of purpose can improve self-esteem so don’t be afraid to reach out and be someone else’s hero for these more challenging moments.
- Have a routine and know when to listen to the news. Instead of keeping it on all day and only making our worry increase, try limiting yourself to once or twice a day and a short burst just to obtain what you need to know whilst you focus on positive outlets such as music or a podcast to keep your mind in good mental shape.
- Check your respiratory action plan that you should have updated with your doctor. If the current medications are not effective enough, discuss with your doctor changing or refining your treatment plan.
- Have a plan in place that reduces stress in times when we need to stay at home for example, how do you get your food and supplies – are they being picked up or delivered to you? What are your exercise plans? Do you have plenty of medication and who will you call if you feel your symptoms start to change and you need help? Making sure you are still attending your health appointments is vital when it comes to your own self care plan.
Do at least one thing everyday that is JUST FOR YOU! Self-love is important when keeping stress levels lowered. Don’t take on too much and overwhelm yourself but rather go easier on yourself and remember you are the most important person who needs to come first.
Walking away from stressful situations can help keep your emotional state in balance. Know the signs that you are feeling emotional and look for ways to remove yourself, so you have time to calm and think.
We, at Asthma NZ, represent our respiratory community and offer education and advice around living with respiratory conditions. Reach out to us for further information and do not feel you are alone as that is why we exist – is to be there for you all.
Respiratory distress can be scary and life-threatening. If you have sudden trouble breathing and or find that your medication is not effective, seek emergency medical help immediately by dialling 111.