Why Asthma Makes Your Panic Attacks So Much Worse

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Neither panic attacks nor asthma are a walk in the park. (In fact, if your asthma's triggered by allergies, taking a walk in the park is probably the last thing you want to be doing right now.) But the two conditions have more in common than you'd think — and, if you have both, they can make each other a lot more difficult to deal with.
As anyone who's been prescribed a super sexy inhaler already knows, people with asthma have trouble breathing (to put it lightly), MedlinePlus explains. That's because the airway passages of their lungs are inflamed and, therefore, narrow. The less room in those passages for air to get through, the harder it is for you to breathe. On top of shortness of breath, asthma can cause coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness, and a severe combination of all those symptoms, also known as an asthma attack, can actually be life threatening.
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It's usually possible to control those symptoms with medications that prevent attacks, and by using a rescue inhaler if you do get an attack. But even well-controlled asthma can cause problems every once in a while.
And that's especially a bummer for people with anxiety. According to a study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, having asthma makes it over four times more likely for you to develop panic disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by repeated panic attacks.
This is partly because the symptoms of asthma are annoyingly similar to those of panic attacks, which may occur on their own or be associated with a mental illness. For some, just having a minor asthma flare-up can cause a panic attack because those folks' panic is actually triggered by the physical sensations in their chest, Calm Clinic explains. That chest pain along with having trouble breathing may make you think you're having a serious asthma attack (even if you're not), or it may mimic the symptoms of a heart attack or a panic attack. Plus there's the fact that anxiety can make your asthma symptoms worse, creating a very stressful feedback loop.
If you've had a panic attack before, the fear of another one coming on may be enough to actually trigger one. Although that's true even for people who don't have asthma, the chest tightness and difficulty breathing that asthma causes can make it seem like a panic attack is already on its way.
Although the connection between anxiety and asthma isn't fully understood, it does suggest that getting both of them under control is key. And that tackling one condition may make it easier to manage both of them. Learning what your triggers are (e.g. allergies for asthma and shortness of breath for panic attacks) can also help you avoid those triggers as much as possible — and be prepared when you can't avoid them.
Of course, that's all best done with the guidance of your doctor and/or therapist. They can help you figure out exactly what's going on and how these two issues contribute to each other. With that, you'll be well on your way to breathing a lot easier.
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