Don’t Ignore Depression and Anxiety if You Have COPD

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“You have COPD.” Those three words can trigger an avalanche of confused emotions and responses that often start with “Why me?” The fact that there is no cure for COPD can add to the confusion and anger. All of a sudden, you’re confronted with your own mortality. Your world has been shaken, and all that gives your life meaning, purpose, and enjoyment might seem at risk.

When given the diagnosis of COPD, a person can experience a range of reactions, including sadness, anger, bitterness, and fear. Throughout the ensuing months and years, it’s not uncommon for a person who has COPD to face several crisis points surrounding optimal treatment, overall prognosis, and long-term survival. When these concerns result in prolonged difficulties, an evaluation for a mood disorder such as depression or anxiety is indicated.

Many people with COPD suffer from depression and anxiety. One study of more than 1,000 people with COPD or other chronic breathing disorders reported that 80 percent had depression, anxiety, or both. Another study reported that the psychological toll of COPD is especially hard on women: They face twice the risk of developing depression as a consequence of their COPD than men.

Despite the prevalence of depression and anxiety among people with COPD, studies show that only about one third get help for these mental health conditions. Fortunately, both are treatable. That’s why it’s so important for people with COPD and their loved ones and caregivers to be on the lookout for signs of depression and anxiety, and to seek treatment quickly.

COPD is a serious diagnosis, and a typical reaction includes periods of denial or despair, along with a mixture of symptoms of despondency, anxiety, insomnia, and irritability. For the majority of patients, these symptoms last a few days to several weeks after diagnosis, but then adjustment ensues as they learn—with the help of family, friends, and doctors—to cope with the ongoing medical treatment process. But in many cases, depression is more persistent.

Left untreated, depression can be debilitating, eroding one’s quality of life and even under-mining adherence to prescribed treatments and lifestyle changes intended to enhance the chances of long-term survival. Occasionally doctors, even pulmonary specialists, view depression in a patient with COPD as “normal.” Granted, sadness and grief are normal reactions to loss, but clinical depression requires aggressive treatment. Clinical depression is not a normal consequence of COPD diagnosis and it must be addressed and treated promptly—just as the COPD itself is being treated.

It’s not surprising that COPD can lead to depression and anxiety. The realization that you can no longer do things you once enjoyed coupled with the social isolation that results from reduced mobility can lead to depression. Thankfully, depression is highly treatable. When the condition is diagnosed accurately and early, and treated with a combination of antidepressant medication and non-drug therapies (often psychotherapy, or “talk therapy”), most people can be helped through their depression so they can refocus their energy on coping with their COPD and improving their quality of life.