Stress and Asthma

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the connection that stress has with asthma and tension headaches


Asthma is a chronic and serious disease in which the airways of the respiratory system become obstructed, leading to great difficulty expelling air from the lungs. The airway obstruction is caused by inflammation of the airways (leading to thickening of the airway walls) and a tightening of the muscles around them, resulting in a narrowing of the airways (Figure 5) (American Lung Association, 2010). Because airways become obstructed, a person with asthma will sometimes have great difficulty breathing and will experience repeated episodes of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and coughing, the latter occurring mostly during the morning and night (CDC, 2006).

The effect of asthma on airways is illustrated. A silhouette of a person is shown with the lungs and airways labeled. There is an arrow coming from an airway in the lung leading to a magnification of a normal airway. A cross-section of the normal airway shows the muscle and the airway wall, with plenty of room for air to get through. An airway during asthma symptoms is also shown, and the labeled symptoms are narrowed airway (limited air flow), tightened muscles constrict airway, inflamed/thickened airway wall, and mucus. A cross-section of the airway during asthma symptoms shows the thickened airway wall, mucus and muscle. There is much less room for air to get through.

Figure 5. In asthma, the airways become inflamed and narrowed.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 4,000 people die each year from asthma-related causes, and asthma is a contributing factor to another 7,000 deaths each year (CDC, 2013a). The CDC has revealed that asthma affects 18.7 million U.S. adults and is more common among people with lower education and income levels (CDC, 2013b). Especially concerning is that asthma is on the rise, with rates of asthma increasing 157% between 2000 and 2010 (CDC, 2013b).

Asthma attacks are acute episodes in which an asthma sufferer experiences the full range of symptoms. Asthma exacerbation is often triggered by environmental factors, such as air pollution, allergens (e.g., pollen, mold, and pet hairs), cigarette smoke, airway infections, cold air or a sudden change in temperature, and exercise (CDC, 2013b).

Psychological factors appear to play an important role in asthma (Wright, Rodriguez, & Cohen, 1998), although some believe that psychological factors serve as potential triggers in only a subset of asthma patients (Ritz, Steptoe, Bobb, Harris, & Edwards, 2006). Many studies over the years have demonstrated that some people with asthma will experience asthma-like symptoms if they expect to experience such symptoms, such as when breathing an inert substance that they (falsely) believe will lead to airway obstruction (Sodergren & Hyland, 1999). As stress and emotions directly affect immune and respiratory functions, psychological factors likely serve as one of the most common triggers of asthma exacerbation (Trueba & Ritz, 2013).

People with asthma tend to report and display a high level of negative emotions such as anxiety, and asthma attacks have been linked to periods of high emotionality (Lehrer, Isenberg, & Hochron, 1993). In addition, high levels of emotional distress during both laboratory tasks and daily life have been found to negatively affect airway function and can produce asthma-like symptoms in people with asthma (von Leupoldt, Ehnes, & Dahme, 2006). In one investigation, 20 adults with asthma wore preprogrammed wristwatches that signaled them to breathe into a portable device that measures airway function. Results showed that higher levels of negative emotions and stress were associated with increased airway obstruction and self-reported asthma symptoms (Smyth, Soefer, Hurewitz, Kliment, & Stone, 1999). In addition, D’Amato, Liccardi, Cecchi, Pellegrino, & D’Amato (2010) described a case study of an 18-year-old man with asthma whose girlfriend had broken up with him, leaving him in a depressed state. She had also unfriended him on Facebook , while friending other young males. Eventually, the young man was able to “friend” her once again and could monitor her activity through Facebook. Subsequently, he would experience asthma symptoms whenever he logged on and accessed her profile. When he later resigned not to use Facebook any longer, the asthma attacks stopped. This case suggests that the use of Facebook and other forms of social media may represent a new source of stress—it may be a triggering factor for asthma attacks, especially in depressed asthmatic individuals.

Exposure to stressful experiences, particularly those that involve parental or interpersonal conflicts, has been linked to the development of asthma throughout the lifespan. A longitudinal study of 145 children found that parenting difficulties during the first year of life increased the chances that the child developed asthma by 107% (Klinnert et al., 2001). In addition, a cross-sectional study of over 10,000 Finnish college students found that high rates of parent or personal conflicts (e.g., parental divorce, separation from spouse, or severe conflicts in other long-term relationships) increased the risk of asthma onset (Kilpeläinen, Koskenvuo, Helenius, & Terho, 2002). Further, a study of over 4,000 middle-aged men who were interviewed in the early 1990s and again a decade later found that breaking off an important life partnership (e.g., divorce or breaking off relationship from parents) increased the risk of developing asthma by 124% over the time of the study (Loerbroks, Apfelbacher, Thayer, Debling, & Stürmer, 2009).

Tension Headaches

A headache is a continuous pain anywhere in the head and neck region. Migraine headaches are a type of headache thought to be caused by blood vessel swelling and increased blood flow (McIntosh, 2013). Migraines are characterized by severe pain on one or both sides of the head, an upset stomach, and disturbed vision. They are more frequently experienced by women than by men (American Academy of Neurology, 2014). Tension headaches are triggered by tightening/tensing of facial and neck muscles; they are the most commonly experienced kind of headache, accounting for about 42% of all headaches worldwide (Stovner et al., 2007). In the United States, well over one-third of the population experiences tension headaches each year, and 2–3% of the population suffers from chronic tension headaches (Schwartz, Stewart, Simon, & Lipton, 1998).

A number of factors can contribute to tension headaches, including sleep deprivation, skipping meals, eye strain, overexertion, muscular tension caused by poor posture, and stress (MedicineNet, 2013). Although there is uncertainty regarding the exact mechanisms through which stress can produce tension headaches, stress has been demonstrated to increase sensitivity to pain (Caceres & Burns, 1997; Logan et al., 2001). In general, tension headache sufferers, compared to non-sufferers, have a lower threshold for and greater sensitivity to pain (Ukestad & Wittrock, 1996), and they report greater levels of subjective stress when faced with a stressor (Myers, Wittrock, & Foreman, 1998). Thus, stress may contribute to tension headaches by increasing pain sensitivity in already-sensitive pain pathways in tension headache sufferers (Cathcart, Petkov, & Pritchard, 2008).

Think It Over

1. If a family member or friend of yours has asthma, talk to that person (if he or she is willing) about their symptom triggers. Does this person mention stress or emotional states? If so, are there any commonalities in these asthma triggers?


asthma: psychophysiological disorder in which the airways of the respiratory system become obstructed, leading to great difficulty expelling air from the lungs