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Monday, January 9, 2012

Relaxation exercises may benefit asthmatics

I can personally attest that knowing how to relax is very beneficial to asthmatics.  The following is a post I wrote on this topic for

"Relaxation exercises for asthmatics may benefit you," originally published April 14, 2011

I mentioned in my post about breathing exercises that I should write a post about my experience with asthma, anxiety, and relaxation exercises.  That time has arrived.

Studies have linked asthma with anxiety disorders, and as a lifelong asthmatic I can tell you I've had my share of anxiety. This was especially true when I was a kid. Something what really helped me to control my anxiety was a method called Progressive Muscle Relaxation.

The stress of an asthma attack in itself can cause anxiety. Yet new wisdom confirms that anxiety may exists even while asthma is controlled, or even if asthma goes into hibernation. In fact, anxiety is up to six times more likely in asthmatics than non-asthmatics.

The reason the link remains a mystery. Likewise, it's not known if asthma came first or if the anxiety came first.

Regardless, I remember my first bout with anxiety/ depression. It came in November of 1976. I was a six year old kid and my great grandpa passed away. I remember pacing the living room for hours mulling this over in my head while the rest of my siblings went about their normal playful routine.

I also remember this effecting me in school. I remember in music class while the other kids were singing I couldn't get death out of my head. This was a recurring theme that repeated itself at least once a year. It wasn't always death that triggered an episode.

My mom even reminded me recently about how I'd worry "so much as a kid." She said she'd worry about me because I'd worry so much. Once my mom even grounded me from watching the news because I'd worry about the bad news. I'd be afraid that killer would find his way to our house, or sneak in my bedroom window.

I also remember being nervous and anxious especially around other people. Unfortunately, I was never diagnosed with anxiety until I was admitted to National Jewish Hospital in 1985 for my asthma. It was there that doctors were aware of the asthma-anxiety link.

While helping me get my asthma under control, they also helped me with my anxiety. This was key because not only is anxiety an asthma trigger, anxiety can also effect the way you take care of youself. If you're anxious, you may not be taking your medicines properly; you may not be compliant; you may not be a gallant asthmatic.

In retrospect, I know this is true. However, I was in a major state of denial back then. Tell a 15-year-old who knows everything he has an anxiety disorder and it's only natural he will deny it. Yet most of us wise up eventually.

To help me with my anxiety my doctors back then put me on an anti-anxiety medicine called Xanax, had me work with a counselor, see a psychologist, and encouraged me to participate in a relaxation classes held by one of the nurses once a week.

She took us young asthmatics to a calm, quiet location. In the spring of '85 she took us outside to a cool, shady area. She'd have us lie in the grass and close our eyes and concentrate on our breathing. She had us breathe slowly through our noses while doing diaphragmatic breathing.

She'd say something like, "Imagine an object, a tiny sun perhaps, in the air above you. Now picture this sun moving to your right foot. Curl your toes until you feel tension in your ankles, and hold it there. Hold it! Hold it! Concentrate on your breathing. Your stomach goes out when you inhale... and in when you exhale.... Now relax your foot.

"Now the sun moves over to your left foot..." She continued this process through the rest of the body all the way to the head. By the time she was finished I'd feel the weight of my body, completely relaxed.

Then she would continue talking, her voice alone soothing, "Now picture yourself at some happy place. Perhaps you're walking along a beach. Now you can hear the waves." Here she might turn on a tape so we could hear the waves. "You can feel your body melting away, blending to the soft sand behind your back."

Eventually she would stop talking, and almost always I hoped she would continue. I never once fell asleep during these classes, yet many times I could hear snoring or heavy breathing by the other kids.

I wanted the relaxation to last a long time, and I wanted to appreciate every moment, so I didn't let myself fall asleep like some of the kids did. 

Sometimes we'd lie there like that, all relaxed, all concentrating on our breathing (or sleeping), for up to a half hour. And when she finally said the class was over, we'd all pick ourselves awkwardly off the ground feeling like wet noodles.

To this day I still use this method, sometimes several times during the day. Sure I still have anxiety, yet I control it instead of the other way around.  I haven't used anxiety medicine since 1985, and if you met me today you'd never guess I had this history (at least I'd hope not).

Being a well-educated adult helps a great deal, and admitting I have this anxiety helps too. Yet when needed, the methods I learned from the good people at National Jewish have come in use many times.

It's helped me many times to get a grip on those tense, stressful moments. It also helps when my asthma is acting up. Relaxation exercises, along with breathing exercises, are proven to help control asthma, reduce symptoms, and help you with your overall wellbeing.

National Jewish Health provides a good picture of what Progressive Muscle Relaxation is all about. To learn more click here.

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