COPD and Anxiety: The ” Suffocation Alarm”
What is 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 breathing well, and that we are breathing clean, “healthy” air. If it detects anything wrong with our breathing or the air around us, it can send out an alarm signal that something is wrong. This might feel like as sudden rush of anxiety, or even panic. This feeling is supposed to prod us to get up and get away from whatever dangerous situation has caused our breathing to set off our “suffocation alarm”.
With COPD, you regularly have trouble breathing and your suffocation alarm can become “hyperactive”. You might feel anxious and edgy. Even little changes, like strong odors or being hurried, can fire off a full suffocation alarm signal. This is the reason that patients with COPD frequently complain of increased episodes of panic and anxiety.
This response is common and does not mean that there is something wrong with you mentally or emotionally.
With help from your doctor, there are a number of things you can do to “reset” your suffocation alarm. These may include:
Fears and worrying are common problems for people with COPD. These can be caused by your “suffocation alarm” or result from all the changes that have occurred because of your COPD. Below is a list of some of the ways that “too much worrying” can show up. Print this page and check off those items on the list that you feel apply to your experience:
- I have trouble getting to sleep because I’m worrying.
- I can be sitting quietly and suddenly become short of breath.
- I almost always have a nagging worry about when I’m going to have an episode of difficult breathing.
- I seem to be getting more and more frightened to leave the house.
- I’d rather stay home so I can avoid being exposed to the “dangers” out there, e.g. people’s germs or excessive perfumes.
- I’m frightened of getting onto elevators, airplanes, or bridges and will go out of my way to avoid them.
- I walk around feeling as if something bad is going to happen.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or the following feelings, talk to someone on your treatment team and you’ll get help.
It is also not uncommon for people with COPD who are depressed or feeling overwhelmed by the stress in their lives to want to “take a break” from being sick. At these times they may find themselves not paying enough attention to the illness, or on some level denying that they even have the health problem. They may notice some of the following (again, check off the ones that apply to you):
- I frequently overextend myself and pay for it with worse symptoms the next day or two.
- I try to use as little medication as possible, and as little oxygen as possible, even when my doctor wants me to use more.
- Sometimes I pretend I don’t have COPD, even in situations when I know it might be important to let others know.
- When I’m feeling “hassled” by my COPD, I drink more alcohol than I should because it lets me forget about the COPD.
What is “An Ideal Level of Worry”?
The fact is that there is an “ideal level of worry.” At this ideal state, you understand that you have a chronic and challenging illness. You know there are things you can do that will help and hurt your experience with the illness. Over the long course of COPD you will likely go through periods of time when you worry “too much” and other times when perhaps you should give your illness more consideration. These fluctuations are absolutely normal. It is important to find the “just right” amount of worry that can help you keep your life and your illness more in balance.