Michelle Rivas shares practical tips for discussing asthma with friends, family, and co-workers.
When I was diagnosed with asthma, I thought the worst was over. I had my medication — what more could I need? Then I struggled for several years to figure out how to manage my asthma on my own. It’s a never-ending process.
It turns out what I needed was a practical guide on how to successfully talk about asthma with others. In my experience, this can be tough.
Ironically, I studied health communication. Yet, I still have a hard time in everyday conversations about my experiences with asthma. Even with all the right tools, you can’t necessarily prepare yourself for the stigma, shame, or loss of identity that can come with a chronic illness.
I’ve encountered many different types of responses over the years. Here are my own personal practical tips on talking about asthma with friends, family, co-workers, and potential partners.
1. Start slow
It took me a while to understand that while most people have heard of asthma, they often don’t know much about it, and that’s OK. That classic “nerd” character on TV shows who takes medication repeatedly before talking to a cute classmate isn’t helping our case.
But it’s time to start breaking down the stereotypes. You can use your experience to teach others and bring some empathy to the subject. I find that it’s better to start slowly and leave the conversation open-ended. This gives others a chance to ask questions.
2. Be an educator
Helping others understand your condition is also a way to help yourself. Teach the people closest to you about the symptoms of an asthma attack and how to respond in an emergency. Managing a chronic health condition shouldn’t be a solo endeavour — it takes a village. And good communication is key.
When the people closest to you are aware of what you need, they’re better able to help you.
I carry my medication with me at all times, in case I need it. But I also might be the only person with asthma who forgets that they have it. If I’m coughing in my sleep, I might not wake myself up but it can wake my partner. They know to tell me to “use my inhaler” even in their sleepy and groggy state. That’s teamwork.
3. Share your experience
In my experience, it helps to talk to other people about how you’re managing asthma. Friends and family like to know that you’re taking care of yourself. It helps them to see the hard work that you’re putting in to control this chronic condition.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned while talking about asthma, it’s that you don’t know what you don’t know. I’m always curious about how others are managing their asthma. I find it hard to know sometimes if what I’m experiencing is a common problem. Sharing experiences with other people with asthma makes a difference to me.
4. Share your triggers
Let people know what triggers your asthma. This one can be hard. It can mean setting limits and getting real with those around you.
In addition to asthma, I’m allergic to cats. Several of my friends and family members have them and it’s tough when you spend time together and start having symptoms. If a litterbox is cleaned while I’m visiting, all bets are off: I know I’ll have an attack.
If there are certain behaviours or situations that are triggers for you, it’s important to let friends and family know. Talking about these issues beforehand can save you a lot of discomfort and keep you safe. People should be understanding. Remember that your health shouldn’t be considered an imposition.
5. Keep your chin up
Don’t get discouraged. I’ll never understand why but people sometimes express doubts or try to invalidate me when I talk about my asthma. They might say that I’m not managing my condition properly or that I don’t “look sick.” They might tell me to try a magic food or herb that will supposedly cure all of my symptoms.
These types of conversations can be frustrating. But don’t let them get you down. You and your well-educated team of doctors know the best way to manage your condition. The opinions of others aren’t always worth your attention.
6. Open up before exercise
If you have asthma symptoms when you exercise, it may be helpful to talk to coaches or trainers before a workout. Before my asthma diagnosis, I loved working out in a group setting and pushing myself to the very limit. Trainers work hard to motivate you through the workout and do their best to help you achieve your fitness goals.
The only problem? You’re the best person to know you’re limits when it comes to asthma — not a trainer. Pushing past your limits can be dangerous.
Several years ago, I tried a certain gym and the coach would get frustrated when I stopped to take breaks or use medication. I didn’t stay at that gym for long.
Now, I’ve learned to talk to my coaches and trainers before a workout. If I need a break, they know I’m not giving up. Rather, I’m listening to my body and respecting my limitations.
7. Start journaling
I find it helps to keep an asthma journal to reference when I talk to my doctor. Before I kept a journal, I didn’t always realise when my asthma was progressing or poorly controlled. I just lived with the symptoms.
Finally, I talked to my doctor, who prescribed maintenance medication. Using the medication and the journal, I got better control of my asthma. With my doctor’s support, I was able to reduce the dosage. Documenting my symptoms helped manage my condition a lot better.
When you’re not actively tracking your symptoms or how often you use medication, it’s hard to be sure if you’re managing the condition effectively over time. We all have good days and bad days. Keeping a journal is a great way to see the bigger picture.
8. Team up
Team up with a friend who has asthma. Community is one of the most important things in life. I believe that it shouldn’t stop with asthma. Connect with friends, family members, or co-workers who have asthma, and talk about it.
Your social life doesn’t need to revolve around asthma. But it’s invaluable to have a group of people who can relate to you, offer advice, or educate you. Never underestimate the impact of the emotional support that you can gain from people who truly understand.
Talking about asthma, or any chronic health condition, isn’t always easy. I know that from experience. In my life, these tips have helped and made a real difference to me. Consider adding some or all of these tips into your life and conversations — and see how the people around you begin to respond.
For more information on how to manage asthma, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.
NPS-IE-NP-00182 February 2021