Can Stress Cause Asthma?

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Stress doesn't cause asthma, but it does exacerbate it in ways that researchers are only beginning to understand. It is useful to think of stress as a trigger, like smoking, dust or air pollution. And like these other triggers, stress can and should be managed.

In a study that followed asthmatic children for 18 months, the experience of a sudden negative life event (such as death of a close family member) nearly doubled the risk of a subsequent asthma attack. Furthermore, the impact of a sudden negative event was accentuated when it occurred in the context of chronic stress. Children exposed to high levels of sudden and chronic stress tripled their risk for an attack in the two weeks that followed the sudden event.

How this works is not entirely clear. In people with asthma, the body’s response to stress may trigger the immune system and cause the release of certain hormones. These hormones may, in turn, accentuate the airway's inflammatory response to irritants and other environmental triggers. This process can increase the frequency, duration, and severity of asthma symptoms and even trigger an asthma attack.

By finding positive, healthy ways to manage stress as it occurs, some of these effects can be managed. Everyone is different, and so are the ways they choose to manage their stress. Some people prefer pursuing hobbies such as gardening, playing music and creating art, while others find relief in activities such as meditation, yoga and walking.

Here are four techniques that research has shown can help reduce stress:

Take a break. It may seem difficult to get away from a big work project or credit card bills, but when you give yourself permission to step away, it can help you have a new perspective or provide time to practice techniques to feel less overwhelmed.

Exercise. Exercise benefits your mind as well as your body. Even a short walk, run, or swim in the midst of a stressful time can give an immediate effect that can last for several hours. 

Get social support. Call a friend. When you share your concerns or feelings with another person, it helps relieve stress. But it’s important that the person you talk to is someone you trust and who can understand you. 

Meditate. Meditation helps the mind and body to relax and focus. Mindfulness can help people see new perspectives, develop self-compassion and forgiveness. Much like exercise, research has shown that even meditating briefly can bring immediate benefits.