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Managing (and Ignoring) Triggers with Asthma and MS

Reading time | 4 mins

As a 50-year-old living with two chronic conditions you would think I would have learned to avoid the things that trigger my exacerbations. And I do – for the most part. Living with MS and asthma has forced me to adapt – not just how I live, but also how I react to certain situations. Let me explain…

The cost of avoiding emotional triggers

Emotionally stressful situations have always triggered my asthma. As a child I would often have a severe asthma attack close to birthdays and Christmas. Whether it was the stress or the excitement or both, somehow my lungs would go into what felt like a state of fear. The breathlessness caused by this often forced me to withdraw from the event.  

Looking back now, I realise my way of managing this was to purposely withdraw, or dampen my emotions in the lead up to an exciting gathering. Outwardly I would appear detached, and perhaps aloof. This left me feeling alienated.

As a child this can be particularly difficult as I felt a visceral need to be part of the thrills and excitements of burgeoning friendships. I needed to form these bonds, but fear of medical interventions and hospital pulled me away.

This led to a youth where I had to learn to be self-sufficient. To live within my own world and focus on myself. This has come at a cost over the years, as developing friendships has been difficult because my natural instinct is to be alone. 

Sometimes stepping back can be helpful

Choosing how to react to a situation isn’t all bad though. This is something life with asthma has taught me: The first thing I do when a difficult situation arises is to step back. I take in a deep breath and observe the situation. These actions help me to suppress the fight-or-flight reaction, which in my experience, would inevitably lead to an asthma attack.

Stepping back allows me to take stock, see the problem for what it actually is, and not just base my reactions on gut-instinct or fear. This method is something I learned gradually and it helped me many times during my work life. However, I am not always so skilled when it comes to taking care of my physical health.

The cost of ignoring dietary triggers 

I recently went on holiday to the United States and left my healthy diet at the airport in Dublin. While I was in California I indulged in waffles with bacon, toast and maple syrup, and ice cream at every opportunity that presented itself.

I probably gained half a stone over the two and a half weeks. 

I got home, feeling bruised by jet lag and dietary shock, and my body decided enough was enough. I got a cold, accompanied by a dangerous companion – the seemingly never-ending cough. When you live with MS and asthma, a cold can be very draining. If I don’t catch it before it’s in full swing, it will become a rattle in my chest, accompanied by shortness of breath.

This particular debacle lasted for two and a half months, with an added bout of laryngitis to add to the thrill. It took two courses of antibiotics, plus the increased use of two inhalers before it subsided.

The inevitable mental health fallout

It all came to a head, and my perspective shifted from gratitude to despair. I felt awful, and those around me saw my mood shift to darkness. Despite the good things that were happening to me during this time, I could not blow away the grey fog that surrounded me. 

In the end it took time, persistence, and some good fortune to pull me back from the abyss.

Since then, I have spent my time repairing relationships and returning to my old ways of practicing gratitude. 

Coming from this experience, I have to remember to concentrate on my general health. This means eating well, avoiding all my trigger foods (for me this means tomatoes and ice cream), and maintaining an exercise routine.

The fitter I am and the better I eat, the less sick I become.

Sometimes you have to give yourself a break

Living with asthma as well as MS, you would be correct in thinking that I should know the importance of exercise and diet. But even in my sixth decade, I am still learning how to live a better, healthier life.

I’m only human, after all and sometimes I forget the lessons of my past. This is especially true during holidays – when all you really want to do is forget about chronic illness and be part of the ‘normal’ world of sinful eating and lounging around on the couch.

Yet, a life with multiple chronic conditions doesn’t really allow digression from the narrow path. This path consists of exercising daily, drinking plenty of water, eating small amounts of meat and lots of vibrant, colourful, luscious vegetables, cooked gently or eaten raw.

It is a simple path, but I find it boring at times. So sometimes I break free from the shackles and run for the perimeter. I never make it too far before I have to return.

However, the feeling of the wind in my hair for those moments can be worth it, sometimes.

UK/MED/20/0050 February 2020