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The Emotional Impact of COPD

About COPD
Drawing on the support of others will help you feel less alone.

In most cases, COPD completely changes a person’s life, and it is hard to adjust to a new way of being in the world. You may have been active for all of your life, and now you can’t do the things you once enjoyed. You most likely feel slowed down and have lost much of the spontaneity you used to have.

Dragging oxygen around, sleep problems, and fatigue make it difficult to just pick up and go. You may be self-conscious about your oxygen or a chronic cough and become reluctant to go out in public. Many people miss doing the things that made their life fun, like traveling, dancing, gardening, walking, and spending time with family and grandchildren. Consequently, you may feel like a burden on your family.

These are important losses that must be grieved, just like losing a loved one. It is normal to feel angry, afraid, sad, depressed, guilty, stressed, and frustrated with all of the changes. It is critical to allow yourself to feel all of these things, even when it is uncomfortable. Drawing on the support of others will also help you feel less alone in dealing with these changes. Adjusting to an illness is a process; it will not happen overnight. Be patient with yourself.

Deep in our brain is a region that constantly samples our blood to be sure that we are breathing well and that we are breathing clean, “healthy” air. If it detects anything wrong with our breathing or the air around us, it can send out an alarm signal that something is wrong. This might feel like a sudden rush of anxiety, or even panic. This feeling is supposed to prod us to get up and get away from whatever dangerous situation has caused our breathing to set off our “suffocation alarm.”

It is normal to feel angry, afraid, sad, depressed, guilty,
stressed, and frustrated.

With COPD, you regularly have trouble breathing, and your suffocation alarm can become “hyperactive.” You might feel anxious and edgy. Even little changes, like strong odors or being hurried, can fire off a full suffocation alarm signal. This is the reason that people with COPD frequently complain of increased episodes of panic and anxiety. This response is common and does not mean that there is something wrong with you mentally or emotionally.

With help from your doctor, you can do a number of things to “reset” your suffocation alarm and your feelings of anxiety. These may include breathing retraining, counseling, and medications. Treatment can include medication and psychotherapy. Individual psychotherapy can provide support and encouragement, as well as teach you how to set new goals and develop new coping strategies. Family therapy can provide education to family members about the illness and help the family to adjust well. Usually a combination of treatments is most effective.

COPD can make you feel tired all the time and still make it difficult to sleep. It can be exhausting to eat, and the medications can take all the taste out of your food. You may be self-conscious about your oxygen or a chronic cough and become more reluctant to go out in public. You may have been active for all of your life and now can’t do the things you once enjoyed. All of these challenges can put you at risk for developing depression.

Depression is a miserable experience that leaves us feeling disconnected from our lives and often without hope that anything will ever feel better again. When depression is left untreated, it drains both your brain and your body. You not only feel bad, but you also have less energy to do the things you want to do, including taking care of yourself and managing your COPD. It can also make you feel hopeless – as if things will never get any better – and then you might not want to bother following your treatment plan.

You may say, “Well, look at all I’ve lost. Shouldn’t I be depressed?” The answer could be both yes and no. You certainly may have lost a great deal, and it is completely understandable that you may be feeling depressed. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to live with that feeling. Depression is a common problem that can be treated. Your doctor not only knows about depression but also has successfully treated many other people. All you need to do is talk to him or her, and you’ll get help.


Source: National Jewish Health,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, September/October 2010.