Many asthma patients believe that stress triggers their asthma attacks. Short periods of acute stress boost production of important immune chemicals and cells in anticipation of an attack on the body.
Acute stress also triggers the release of a stress protein into the lungs that has been shown to protect against lung injury in asthmatics.’ When combined with the release of adrenaline during the stress response, this protective protein may provide a clue as to why asthmatics do not experience attacks during acute periods of stress.
However, acute as well as chronic stress can lead to airway obstruction and other asthma symptoms, supporting many patients’ view that stress is detrimental to their condition.
In a 1999 study, 30 adolescents with asthma and 20 controls were subjected to a stressful situation—a frustrating computer task. Heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, deep inhalations, and sighs were measured as were asthma-specific processes such as lung function, wheezing, coughing, and breathlessness. The subjects also recorded their emotions during the task. All measurements indicated that the subjects were undergoing high levels of negative emotions and stress. None of the asthma participants experienced airway obstruction, wheezing, significant periods of coughing, or reduction in lung function. However, all of the asthmatic subjects suffered from breathlessness, many of them severely. In fact, the breathlessness experienced was higher than the breathlessness provoked by irritating substances before the test. The researchers confirmed that while stress may not trigger a full-blown asthma attack, it can induce breathlessness in patients with asthma.’°
In another experiment, more than 130 adults with asthma documented, three times a day for three weeks, their stressors, and frequency of asthma symptoms, peak flow readings (a measure of how much air the lungs expel), and use of beta-agonist bronchodilators.
Stress was positively correlated with lowered breathing ability, as measured by peak flow rates, and increased symptoms of asthma and use of bronchodilatortors.” Researchers suggest that stress provokes breathing problems because it appears to promote the adhesion of leukocytes to bronchial ciliary cells, accelerating allergic inflammatory reactions and asthma.’
Asthma is also a major source of stress, especially for children and their parents. Asthmatic children, in particular, appear to be bound in a vicious cycle, whereby stress contributes to asthma attacks, which cause more stress, leading to more attacks as well as stress-related psychological problems.
Studies have shown that in severely asthmatic children, those who are plagued by depression as well as persistent family conflict are at a greater risk than others for suffering a fatal asthma attack.
Moreover, in a study comparing asthmatic children with non – asthmatic controls, the asthma group had significantly more total anxiety disorders, school problems, psychiatric illnesses, and family stress.