- Many clinicians do not consider treatment of the emotional impact of asthma.
- Some patients with asthma whose emotions are not addressed can suffer from serious on-going symptoms and complications of their medical therapy.
- Therapy with hypnosis in 1-2 sessions can help greatly improve asthma by teaching patients to better deal with their emotional triggers.
In the early 20th century, asthma was thought of as a psychosomatic disease, which means that the illness was caused by psychological problems that lead to development of physical symptoms. At that time it was thought that a child’s development of anxiety related to separation from his or her mother led to the development of asthma. Research did not confirm this belief. By the middle of the century, it was recognized that asthma can be affected by different kinds of emotions.
By the late 20th century, the medical establishment focused on the fact that asthma resulted from development of narrowed airways (bronchospasm) and inflammation in the airways. These symptoms can lead to coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, which are characteristic of asthma. Since then, treatment for this disease has focused on prescription drugs to counteract its physical problems. This was driven to a large degree by pharmaceutical companies that promoted new and better drugs to treat this condition (Anbar & Hall, 2012).
Emotions and Asthma
However, lost in the mix was that it remains clear that asthma episodes can be triggered or prolonged because of psychological stressors. For example, a patient can develop severe shortness of breath because of an asthma attack. The shortness of breath may lead the patient to end up in an emergency department and may even necessitate use of adrenaline shots or hospitalization as treatment. In such a scenario it is predictable that when the patient next develops an asthma episode he or she also will become anxious for fear of ending up with a severe attack again.
Anxiety can lead to worsening shortness of breath, which can be even worse than the effects of the underlying asthma. For such patients, treatment of their shortness of breath with asthma medications alone often is insufficient. As many clinicians do not consider treatment of the emotional impact of asthma (sometimes because they have no idea how to treat emotions) they end up overtreating the patient with asthma medicines that do not relieve the anxiety-associated symptoms.
It should be noted that psychological stressors arising independently of asthma can also affect this illness. For example, work or school-related stress can make patients more likely to develop asthma flare-ups. Such patients may benefit more from a discussion of how to better manage stress than from intensification of their asthma therapy.
I have met patients who were so overtreated for emotionally triggered asthma symptoms that they developed bad complications such as stunting of their growth, and obesity. Other patients whose emotions were not addressed ended up missing months of school because of lingering asthma symptoms.
Clues that asthma is likely to have emotional triggers include complaints of difficulty with inhalation, a feeling that something is stuck in the throat, respiratory symptoms that only occur during waking hours, dizziness, shakiness, and/or numbness or tingling in the extremities. Other clues include reports that the asthma is triggered by anger or sadness, or that a patient develops an emotional reaction to an asthma flare-up. Finally, patients with asthma who respond inadequately to medications often have complicating psychological issues.
Hypnosis for Asthma
Fortunately, hypnosis can be easily used to help patients with asthma better deal with their emotional triggers, simply by teaching them how to calm themselves during an asthma episode. Such instruction can take place in only one or two sessions. The calming can be achieved when patients learn how to shift their focus from anxiety about their breathing to a pleasant thought. Once calm, oftentimes their asthma symptoms improve greatly, which often allows their medication treatment to be reduced, and in some instances even discontinued (Anbar, 2021).
Occasionally, patients benefit from use of hypnotic metaphors to help resolve their asthma symptoms. For example, to control asthma associated cough they can be taught to turn down a cough dial in their minds. To help relax their airways, they can imagine untying a knot that is restricting their airflow when they exhale, as if they are letting air out of a balloon. To help reduce their airway mucus patients can be taught to imagine sending mini-vacuum cleaners into their lungs that scoop up the mucus.
Some patients with asthma have even been helped through use of hypnosis to revisit their memory of the first time during which they struggled to breathe and were afraid they might not survive. I teach the patients to use hypnosis techniques to calm themselves while recalling the difficult breathing episode. Thereafter, patients report that they no longer recall feeling scared for their lives at that time. Through this method, patients end up feeling much calmer about their asthma, and some of them no longer develop recurrent asthma symptoms, even once all their medications have been discontinued.
Take Home Message
Hypnosis can help treat asthma by teaching patients how to calm themselves or use healing metaphors in the face of an asthma episode. Use of hypnosis in this setting can help asthma symptoms improve or even resolve.
Anbar, Ran D. 2021. “Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center.” Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Anbar, Ran D, Howard R. Hall. 2012. “What is a functional respiratory disorder?” In: Ran D. Anbar (ed), Functional Respiratory Disorders: When Respiratory Symptoms Do Not Respond to Pulmonary Treatment. New York, NY: Humana Press, pp. 3-17.