COPD is an illness that challenges patients and their families across all aspects of life. Still, there are many things you can do to take charge of your breathing and feel better. This section has more on:
People with COPD should make a concerted effort to stay well. A cold, the flu, or a virus can make lung disease worse. Here are a few things you can do to stay healthy:
COPD and sleep
COPD brings with it many factors that can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. These include having to sleep sitting up or taking medications that “rev you up” or cause you to have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Emotional changes such as depression and anxiety can also impair sleep. Medications can be prescribed to induce sleepiness, but there are steps you can take to get a better night’s sleep without relying on a drug.
If you snore, you may have a condition called obstructive sleep apnea. With this condition, the quality of sleep is poor, and oxygen levels may fall to dangerous levels. This is especially risky for people with lung disease such as COPD. If you awaken tired after a full night’s sleep, tend to fall asleep during the day (especially while driving), or lack energy, you may have this condition. Check with your doctor, who may arrange for a sleep study in a nearby sleep laboratory.
Diet and exercise
Losing weight and exercising can help you manage your COPD, even if your lungs can’t get better. Improving the overall health of your body can help it deal more effectively with your illness.
Before starting a diet or exercise program, always talk with your doctor about your plan to be sure that it is safe. Then start with small steps rather than attempting a quick lifestyle overhaul. Changing lifelong patterns is a gradual process.
When it comes to losing weight, there is no magic formula. To take off pounds, you will need to consume fewer calories than you expend, but as many of us know, this is easier said than done. Some first steps may include:
Don’t be deterred from exercising by shortness of breath. First, your doctor may suggest that you use your inhaler to open up your lungs before you exercise. Second, you can–and should–start with small, gradual changes; for instance, by resolving to move more about the house. A step counter will give you feedback on how much you’re moving. You can then try to beat your number every day, even if only by a step or two.
The “suffocation alarm”
Our brains are designed to protect us and keep us alive. Deep in our brain is a region that constantly samples our blood to be sure that we are getting enough oxygen and breathing clean, healthful air. If it detects anything wrong, it sends out an alarm that feels to us like a sudden rush of anxiety or panic. This feeling prods us into getting up and away from whatever is interfering with our breathing.
With COPD, you regularly have trouble breathing, and your suffocation alarm can become hyperactive. As a result, you may feel edgy or anxious a lot of the time or feel panicky at being hurried or when you smell strong odors.
It is important to understand that this is common in people with COPD and that you aren’t falling apart emotionally or mentally. With help from your doctor, there are a number of things you can do to “reset” your suffocation alarm. These include:
Coping with worry
Fears and worrying are common problems for people with COPD. These may be caused by your “suffocation alarm” or result from all the changes brought on by your condition. Below is a list of some of the ways you may be experiencing worry:
It is also common for people who are feeling overwhelmed by their COPD to want to “take a break” from being sick. At these times, you may do some of the following:
It is unrealistic to hope that you’ll be able to rid yourself of worry altogether. But you can work toward an “ideal level of worry.” In this ideal state, you accept that you have a chronic and challenging illness and know that there are things you can do to help (and hurt) your experience with the illness.
Over the long term, you most likely will go through periods when you worry too much and other periods when you should give your illness more consideration. These fluctuations are entirely normal. Your goal should be to find the “just right” amount of worry that will help you keep your life and illness in balance.
Dealing with depression
COPD can make you feel tired all the time and still make it difficult to sleep. It can be exhausting to eat, and the medications can take all the taste out of your food. You may be self-conscious about your oxygen or chronic cough and become more reluctant to go out in public. You may have been active for all of your life and now can’t do the things you once enjoyed. All these challenges can put you at risk for developing depression.
If you are like many people, you may say, “Well, look at all I’ve lost. Shouldn’t I be depressed?” The answer is both yes and no. You certainly may have lost a great deal, and it is understandable that you may be feeling anger, sadness, and a sense of loss. But if the feelings are pervasive and keeping you from taking care of yourself, you need to speak with your doctor about depression. This condition is very common and is treatable with therapy and/or medication.
This section has more on the signs of depression.
Signs of depression
Read through the following list. If five or more items apply to you, consult with your doctor about depression.
Facing tough questions
At one time or another, most people with COPD find themselves thinking about various questions that may be hard to discuss with anyone, including their doctors and families.
Some of the questions doctors hear:
Will there come a time when I can’t take care of myself and need to be in a nursing home?
How long do I have to live?
What is it like to die of COPD? Will it hurt? Will it feel like I’m drowning?
If you find yourself wondering about any of these questions, discuss them with your doctors. Although they don’t have a crystal ball and so won’t be able to give you exact and detailed answers, they should be able to give you enough information to help put your mind at ease. They also can help you find other sources of help, information, and support.
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