Few doctors talk about these important steps…

If you are living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the simple act of breathing can feel like you’re pushing a boulder uphill.

What you may not know: Because your ability to breathe is affected by everything in your life—including your thoughts and emotions—few disorders have as strong a mind-body connection as COPD.

While most doctors talk to their patients with COPD about inhalers, oxygen therapy and sometimes even surgery, the additional approaches described here will help ensure the best possible results for those who have this disorder.


With COPD (which includes chronic bronchitis and/or emphysema), air can’t flow easily into and out of the lungs because of a blockage in the airways, typically caused by excess mucus, inflammation or dysfunctional lung tissue.

Being unable to breathe is a primal terror. The constant worry and anxiety that accompany this fear push the body into a stress reaction that makes breathing even more difficult, triggering more fear and stress. The key is to break the spiral and create a steadier breathing environment.

In addition to proper breathing techniques that should be practiced regularly—such as pursed breathing (as though you’re whistling) and belly breathing, which strengthens muscles that assist with breathing—try these simple steps…

SECRET #1: Change your thoughts. When you have a negative thought—such as I can’t do this anymore because of my COPD—your brain registers the emotion behind it and reacts by signaling the body to produce stress hormones and to speed up your respiration rate and blood pressure.

This is helpful in an emergency…say, if you fear an oncoming car and your body reacts to avoid a collision. But in the absence of an actual threat, the response can be physically harmful by lowering your body’s natural defenses and sapping your energy levels.

What helps: Positive statements reduce anxiety, help you cope and tell your brain that it’s OK to relax.

What to do: When you find yourself becoming stressed, stop! Break that cycle of anxiety by repeating a phrase, such as those below, to set your brain on a positive track…

  • “No more negativity…I’ll just focus on what I can do.”
  • “One day at a time. I got through yesterday. I’ll get through today.”

Positive thinking and deep breathing lower blood pressure, slow heart rate and make more oxygen available for breathing.

SECRET #2: Watch what you eat. Food choices are a surprisingly important factor in controlling COPD symptoms.

Here’s why: Breathing is a process that involves the exchange of carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen in the blood.

A person with COPD has a less efficient oxygen-CO2 exchange process. Anything that increases the amount of CO2 in blood (whether it’s stress or a certain type of food, such as soda or sugary food products) revs up your breathing rate—which worsens COPD.

What to do…

  • Cut back on foods that increase levels of CO2 in the blood. The worst offenders are carbonated beverages (even fizzy water)…and anything made with refined sugar or white flour (everything from cakes and cookies to certain breads and pastas).
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages, including coffee, tea and colas. Caffeine “wakes up” your nervous system, causing your body to work faster, accelerating your breathing rate. Whenever possible, replace soda and other caffeinated beverages with water. Why water? It helps thin mucous secretions and transports nutrients throughout our bodies. For variety, choose flavored waters (such as those infused with lemon or mint).

SECRET #3: Do the right exercises. For people with COPD, breathing alone is so physically taxing that it’s crucial to also improve physical stamina.

In a recent study of people with COPD in Respiratory Medicine, researchers compared the benefits of specific types of exercise. All the study participants did cardiovascular exercise (such as walking and biking) twice a week for three months, but one group added more strength training (including weight training for the upper and lower body) than the other group.

Result: People who did the most strength training had much stronger muscles throughout the body, which resulted in more efficient breathing.

In addition to doing upper-body exercises, such as bicep curls, try the following three times a week… 

  • Leg lifts. This exercise targets large muscle groups that allow us to move about freely. What to do: While sitting in a chair, straighten one leg and lift, foot flexed, as high as you can while keeping your back straight. Hold that position for a count of five, then lower your leg. Repeat five times with each leg. Don’t worry if you cannot hold your leg up for very long—your strength will improve over time.

Also: Aerobic exercise is crucial—try to get at least 2,000 steps a day (use a pedometer or fitness tracker) while going about your daily activities, including getting the mail, going shopping, etc. Try to exercise when your energy levels are high…and check with your doctor about the best time to take your medications when exercising.


People with COPD can experience a wide range of troubling emotions, including denial, guilt, anger and depression. If you believe that you need help coping, consider joining a support group.

The American Lung Association (ALA) sponsors Better Breathers Clubs across the US. These groups are led by a trained facilitator and offer educational presentations as well as emotional support.

To find a local group, call the ALA at 800-LUNGUSA…or look online at Lung.org (under “Support & Community,” click on “Better Breathers Club”).