Image Credit: Getty Images / laflor
woman with asthma trying to catch her breath and regulate her emotions while out for a run

Why Asthma Has More Links to Emotion than You Think

Reading time | 4 mins
Asthma is more than wheezing and chest tightness.
Cróna Tansey explores the emotional side of asthma and how she manages the effects during and after an attack. 


Imagine the last time you were physically ill, and the symptoms took you by (unpleasant) surprise. As we all know, the physical symptoms of an illness are only part of the deal. The other half is made up of the emotions that come hand-in-hand with pain and discomfort. 

When I have an asthma attack, I also have to contend will emotional symptoms like fear, panic, and embarrassment. Sometimes, the emotional consequences can feel far worse than the attack itself. When I stop feeling pain, or like I can't breathe, the sensations tend to evaporate. However, the fear and panic tend to linger far beyond the event. 

There have been times I've made an attack worse due to the sheer panic I'm feeling. I've trained hard to stay calm when the worst happens, but this isn't always possible. 

On most occasions, my asthma attacks come on as a surprise. I don't expect them, and, unfortunately, they can be unpredictable. My initial reaction is usually to go into shock. I can be having a typical day, going about my business, only to have a full-blown attack seemingly come from nowhere. 

As you can imagine, this can be scary and overwhelming. 

I always feel like I'm on guard against asthma

Before I figured out the correct combination of asthma medication with my doctor, I was always on guard for attacks. 

A couple of years ago, my asthma was so poorly controlled, it could flare up from the slightest triggers. Suddenly, my asthma would flare up from things I used to tolerate. Spray deodorant turned from a boring necessity to a huge risk. I felt like my lungs were overreacting to every trigger they came across. 

I couldn't understand what had changed. One minute, I was living an almost normal life. The next, asthmatic outbursts were coming at me from around every corner. Being on high alert for attacks was tiring. I didn't feel like myself, and I wanted to get back to feeling relaxed in my environment. 

Unfortunately, attacks do not follow a schedule either. They don't always occur at the right time or in the right place. I must act quickly when having an asthma attack. It also requires clear thought and logic, but this isn't always easy when I am in shock and panic. In this way, emotions can impede how well I manage asthma flare-ups.

Asthma attacks can be embarrassing

They don't always happen when you are at home with your medication. In fact, I'm most likely to have an attack when I am out and exposed to triggers such as cold air, pollen and smoke. 

Asthma attacks can also draw attention to me. I have uncontrolled coughing and wheezing, and I find speaking difficult. My eyes often well up with tears due to the total panic and fear I feel. It is not an experience that can be easily concealed or hidden from onlookers. Although I used to pretend I was fine, I quickly learned this was not a viable option. 

Asthma attacks are scary

My main fear during an attack is whether I will get my symptoms under control. It can be terrifying as I wait for my medication to relieve the symptoms. From embarrassment to fear to panic, asthma attacks are often accompanied by overwhelming emotions and an unpleasant adrenaline rush. 

When an attack starts, I devote all my energy to controlling my symptoms while also experiencing heightened emotions. By the time the attack is over, I often feel totally drained. In many instances, after a bad episode, I have gone home due to exhaustion and emotional upset. 

Asthma attacks make me feel vulnerable 

Severe attacks have knocked my confidence in ways I would never have expected. Sometimes, I feel like I can't rely on my lungs or body when exposed to triggers. As you can imagine, fear of my body failing at any moment makes it incredibly difficult to relax. 

Alongside the constant fear, I didn't have the confidence to exercise outdoors for a long time. I was afraid something like a cold wind or dust from the road would set off an attack. 

In some ways, I felt weak. I wondered why others could manage running and hiking outdoors with no issues. I wanted to know why my lungs reacted to so many triggers and why people around me didn't have the same. I felt like people would judge me for my asthma symptoms, thinking I was unfit. 

I find the idea totally embarrassing. It's easier for me to avoid this situation entirely rather than go outside and feel self-conscious about an attack. 

Trusting the asthma treatment and my instincts

When I finally settled on a combination of medications to treat my asthma, it took a while for me to fully trust it. I found it difficult to accept my asthma was now well controlled. I knew my attacks had taken their toll on me emotionally, and I needed time to recover.

Thankfully, my understanding and ability to manage asthma has improved with every attack. 

Increased knowledge and understanding of the condition have helped me anticipate when an attack might occur. This gives me time to act before the symptoms develop further and I become overwhelmed. 

I still get scared, embarrassed, and panicky, even now. I'm working on this, and I am getting better. Yet, too few people don't consider the emotional impact of having asthma. I need to use each episode as a learning curve to cope better with the next one. 

During an unexpected flare-up, I remind myself I have gotten through this before and will get through it again. I have learned to trust the medication and to trust in my own ability to manage my asthma. 

Now, I choose the view that every attack has, in some way, made me stronger. As they lessen in quantity, I push myself to celebrate every small success I've achieved - despite my condition. 

NPS-IE-NP-00373 August 2022