Coping with COPD? So what can you do now? Only your best, but no less than that: practice breathing techniques, adopt a mantra, adjust your diet, and exercise.
Simply catching your breath is exhausting when you suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Your doctors will tell you about inhalers and oxygen therapy. What you may not hear: compared to other illnesses, COPD is especially affected by your emotions, which actually gives you some control.
Most of the time, COPD is the result of many years of smoking. Especially if you didn’t try to quit, you can hold yourself responsible for your current suffering and the burden and expense you’ve put on your family and caregivers. That’s a big load of guilt, and it’s common to feel angry and depressed as well.
So what can you do now? Only your best, but no less than that: practice breathing techniques, adopt a mantra, adjust your diet, and exercise. Although you’ll still have COPD, you’ll know you’re doing your part.
Breathing. When you’re afraid you can’t breathe, your body tightens up, and that can make breathing even more difficult. Ask your doctors for breathing exercises: “pursed breathing,” letting the air out of a rounded mouth as if you’re whistling, and “belly breathing,” when you fill your belly on the inhale and relax your abdomen as you exhale. These exercises may not feel like a magic solution, but they’re likely to help you walk around or get other exercise, according to a 2012 Cochrane analysis of other research.
Adopt a mantra. Negative thoughts register in your body as alarm bells, and sap your energy, says Dawn Fielding, executive director of the nonprofit Chronic Lung Alliance. Whenever you feel yourself launching into self-criticism or despair, stop and instead think of your mantra, which might be “One day at a time,” or “Just do your best” or “Another day in Paradise!,” any encouraging or humorous phrase that feels meaningful to you. The right phrase will make your heart rate slow down a little and make it easier to breathe.
Mind your diet. Food that increases the carbon dioxide in your blood will speed up your breathing, exactly what you don’t want when you have COPD. Notice which foods affect you and steer clear of them. Carbonated beverages, including seltzer, can be a problem. Cake, cookies, pasta — anything sweet and made with white flour — could set you off. Caffeine, even in soda, is too stimulating for someone with COPD. Water, on the other hand, thins the mucus that is clogging your throat. Fielding suggests trying waters infused with flavor, though not sugar or fizz.
Exercise. People with COPD often develop weakness in the diaphragm and other muscles related to breathing. If you react to your breathing issues by sitting around, like anyone else you’ll get weaker. Wearing a pedometer or fitness tracker could help encourage you to move: Fielding recommends aiming for at least 2,000 steps a day. People with COPD also often find arm and chest exercises especially exhausting, but strengthening your upper body will actually help you breathe more easily, a 2016 Cochrane analysis reports.
At the moment, there is no strong evidence that any particular kind of exercise is best for COPD patients, so try some options and see what works best for you. Compare how you feel when you work on a treadmill at a continuous speed or try an interval routine that moves between different intensities. Also consider working out with styrofoam “weights” in a pool; water-based exercise seems to be about as effective as land-based exercise, according to a 2013 Cochrane analysis.
Your doctor can refer you to a pulmonary rehabilitation program, which normally includes coaching on exercise and nutrition, along with other information to help you live with the disease.
March 30, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN