For the more than 25 million people living with asthma, the world can often feel like a minefield of potential hazards. At any moment, something in the air could trigger the inflammation that leads to an asthma attack, constricting airways and making it hard to breathe.
A new study, though, reveals that maybe the atmosphere isn’t quite as harmful to asthmatics as it seems, and that for some people, it’s how they think about potential triggers that’s actually causing the attacks.
What’s That Smell?
Imagine this: You’re at home, when you suddenly catch a slight chemical scent in the air. You do some investigating, and after a few minutes, you realize that the odor is coming from your neighbor’s backyard, where he is using a harmless spray solvent to clean some yard equipment. You close the windows, the odor goes away and you don’t give it another thought.
If you are an asthmatic, though, there is a good chance that this same incident could have triggered an asthma attack, even though the smell wasn’t harmful at all. According to researchers at the Philadelphia-based Monell Chemical Sense Center, simply thinking that a scent is harmful is enough to cause airway restriction in asthmatics, even if there is no imminent danger. In a recent study, a group of asthma patients was exposed to the scent of phenylethyl alcohol, which is not a known lung irritant. Half of the participants were told that the smell, which is similar to that of roses, was therapeutic. The other half were told that the smell was potentially irritating.
Some of the participants who believed that the smell was good for them found it to be mildly annoying or unpleasant, but none of them had any adverse effects. The other group, though, who believed that the smell as harmful had both psychological and physical reactions to the odor. Not only did they report that the smell was more annoying than the other group, they also showed signs of lung irritation almost immediately upon the smell being introduced — and the inflammation remained for more than 24 hours.
The researchers believe that this study supports the idea that there is a psychological component to asthma, something that has long been a subject of debate. However, many doctors are quick to point out that while thoughts and emotions can exacerbate symptoms of asthma, it is most definitely not something that is “all in your head.”
Anxiety, Stress and Asthma
There’s no denying that having asthma makes one more sensitive to the environment than the average person. Asthmatics know that an attack can come on without warning, and something as simple as a lady’s perfume — which doesn’t bother anyone else — can trigger serious airway constriction.
It’s this unpredictability that causes stress, and stress can lead to physiological changes that cause an attack. In fact, the researchers theorized that the stress caused by thinking that the odor of the phenylethyl alcohol was harmful was what led to the inflammation for the subjects in the Monell Center tests.
Doctors and scientists believe that stress and anxiety causes asthma attacks in several ways. First, stress causes the body to release more chemicals, include histamine and leukotrienes, which cause inflammation in the airways. Because everyone reacts to stress differently, these chemicals aren’t always released, or are released in reduced levels, therefore not causing any inflammation. For someone who is concerned or fearful that a smell could trigger a reaction, though, it could be just enough stress to release those inflammatory chemicals.
It’s not just the physical changes that can cause an asthma attack, though. Studies show that when asthmatics are under a great deal of stress, they often aren’t as committed to the management of their symptoms. They may forget to take the medication that helps them manage their asthma symptoms, or wait until it is too late. In addition, stress can also negatively affect the immune system, making it more difficult to fight off viruses and infection, both of which are very common asthma attack triggers.
Manage Stress to Improve Your Asthma
While you certainly can’t always think your way out of an irritant-induced asthma attack, or avoid one by positive thinking, you can certainly reduce the likelihood of a serious attack by remaining in control of your emotions and reducing your stress and anxiety. The calmer you can remain, the less likely you are to have a serious attack.
To that end:
Identify the greatest causes of stress in your life, and take steps to either avoid them or find better ways of managing them. This could mean delegating, reducing commitments or even making larger changes, like changing jobs.
Learn relaxation exercises that will help you get through stressful situations without triggering your asthma. Meditation, breathing and visualization exercises can all help quell an attack before it starts.
Take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep, eat a healthy diet and exercise; the healthier you are, the better equipped you are to both handle stress and fight off harmful viruses.
Carry your medication with you at all times, and follow your doctor’s instructions for proper usage.
Learning to identify what triggers anxious and fearful thought patterns can help you better control your asthma — and maybe even avoid an attack altogether.