Asthma has a way of flaring up at the worst possible moments: during a job interview, a first date, a big presentation. Researchers have spent the last several decades uncovering a strong link between stress and asthma exacerbations. But the reality has turned out to be much more complex, so researchers are now turning their attention to understanding why different people have different responses to stress. The insights coming from this research are suggesting new ways to manage asthma focusing on our emotional and social lives.
Researchers believe one of the key reasons stress may cause asthma exacerbations in some people but not others lies in social support. The relationship between social support and health is well-documented. People who feel they have friends who support them, both emotionally and practically, may generally feel happier and that their lives are more stable than those who feel they are on their own. Happiness and feelings of stability are both protective of health.
Another way social support may be protective is by limiting the effects of stress on health. People get stressed out when they feel that they are not able to meet the demands of a situation. Think public speaking, when people about to make a big presentation are convinced they are going to humiliate themselves and wind up feeling awful for days afterward. They are stressed because they do not believe they can do a good job, and when they inevitably fail they will end up feeling terrible. But people who believe they have a good social support network tend to feel like they will be able to cope with potentially bad outcomes—they have friends and loved ones they can turn to who will help them feel better. In turn, this makes the situation less stressful and limits its effects on health.
Joshua Smyth at Penn State University along with colleagues at Northern Illinois University and Misericordia University set out to study how social support is related to asthma exacerbations during periods of stress. They followed 97 people with asthma for eight days taking five measurements per day at random times of mood, activities, social interaction, stress, asthma severity, and peak flow, among others. What they found painted an intriguing picture of how the relationship between stress and asthma symptoms depends on social support.
Smyth and his colleagues divided their research participants into two groups: one that felt they had a lot of social support, and one that felt they did not. For those who felt they did not have a lot of social support, stress strongly affected asthma: when they were stressed out, their asthma got worse. On the other hand, people who felt they had a strong social support network did not have worse asthma symptoms when they were under stress. Stress makes asthma worse… but only for people who don’t feel they have a strong support network.
These research findings suggest it may be possible for people with asthma who feel they do not have a sufficient social support network to improve their functioning during times of stress by cultivating new and more supportive relationships.
These resources about developing new relationships and improving existing ones may be helpful: