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Man browsing the food aisles, checking the produce won't trigger his asthma

Managing (and Ignoring) Triggers with Asthma and MS

Reading time | 4 mins
Robert Joyce has to keep a firm handle on his lifestyle to manage triggers.
Sometimes, however, he gets the urge to rebel. 

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As a 50-something-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 asthma and multiple sclerosis (MS) has forced me to adapt to how I live and 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 often had severe asthma attacks close to birthdays and Christmas.

Whether it was the stress or the excitement, 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 realize my way of managing this was purposely withdrawing or dampening 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 hospitals 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. Over the years, this has come at a cost. For example, I find developing friendships difficult because my natural instinct is to be alone. 

Stepping back can be helpful

Choosing how to react to a situation isn't all bad, though. Life with asthma has taught me this: The first thing I do when something problematic arises is take a step back and a deep breath, then observe the situation. These actions helped 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 in caring for 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 in California, I indulged in waffles with bacon, toast and maple syrup, and ice cream at every opportunity.

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. A cold can be very draining when you live with asthma. 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. Before it subsided, I had to have interventional treatment for the infection and extra asthma medication.

The inevitable mental health fallout

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

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

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

Coming from this experience, I must remember to channel my focus into 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 and 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 I can 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 all the 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, and eating small amounts of meat and lots of vibrant, colorful, luscious vegetables.

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

However - whether it's a lapse of judgment or actual rebellion - feeling the wind in my hair during these moments can be worth it.

NPS-ALL-NP-00429 JULY 2022