Although chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) primarily affects your lungs, you may notice other changes that go along with the condition as well. Beyond physical limitations and fatigue, COPD can create emotional challenges, limiting your zeal for life and the activities you enjoy. According to researchers at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, people with COPD are more likely to suffer from depression than people with other chronic diseases. An estimated 40 percent of people with COPD will be affected by depression, compared with just 15 percent of the rest of the population. If you have COPD, you are also more likely to have problems with anxiety.
COPD and Anxiety
You have a subconscious monitoring system within your brain that never stops analyzing your blood to ensure you’re getting enough oxygen and breathing healthy air. If anything goes awry with your breathing or the quality of the air you breathe, your brain sounds a “suffocation alarm.” When this warning goes off, it can make you feel a fearsome wave of panic or distress. Your heart races, your hands tremble, you get lightheaded, and you feel on edge.
Nothing is more anxiety-provoking than not being able to catch your breath, so when you have COPD you may be constantly on alert for the next episode of shortness of breath. Vijai Sharma, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Cleveland, Tenn., who works with people with COPD and who was diagnosed with COPD himself nearly 20 years ago, says that a vicious cycle often develops. Breathing difficulty creates anxiety, and the anxiety in turn produces more breathlessness. This mindset can lead to an overactive “suffocation alarm” system — and even more anxiety from false alarms. In some cases, even just strong odors like perfume can trigger an alarm.
“Untreated anxiety can be a full-time affair, keeping you constantly worried, fearful, and even sad,” Dr. Sharma says. “It can affect your family and relationships, and your participation in social life.” You might feel isolated from your partner and family and lose interest and joy in relating to others. Anxiety can also exhaust what little physical energy you do have.
COPD and Depression
Having a chronic disease like COPD can lead to feelings of hopelessness and depression. COPD symptoms such as fatigue and sleeplessness are related to depression, and other effects of the condition, such as eating problems and needing supplemental oxygen, can leave you feeling down in the dumps. If you have COPD, you may feel weak and unable to participate in enjoyable activities, or you might stay home because you don’t want to have a coughing spasm in public or are uncomfortable carrying an oxygen tank. These are all reasons for an increased risk of depression among people with COPD.
It’s important to get help with the emotional stress caused by COPD because anxiety and depression will only worsen the condition. According to National Jewish Health, people who have depression and COPD are less likely to follow their treatment plans, and not managing COPD can lead to more flares, emergency room visits, and hospital admissions.