Patient Blogs | Asthma
When You Can’t Catch Your Breath
photo of young woman wading into ocean

Many of you probably remember the game you played as a kid. On a hot summer day, you’d jump into a pool and stay underwater for as long as you could without breathing. The game was to see who could stay underwater the longest. Now imagine that right when you are about to spring back up to the top, an invisible person is holding you down underwater – longer than your lungs can take. This is what asthma feels like to me.

When I’m having an issue with my asthma, it feels like my lungs have done all they could do. I've begged them for more and they've just tapped out. It's incredibly frustrating because I find myself saying: “You can do this Michele! There’s oxygen all around you!” However, that's not how it works with asthma.

While my asthma is pretty well controlled, there are certain factors, such as seasonal allergies or a cold, that can kick it up. Sometimes, everyday things like doing chores can wear me out a bit. My mind wants to go and go, but my lungs will sometimes have other plans. I have used face masks for years when cleaning my house, for example. But it's a double-edged sword. It prevents me from breathing in allergens that might lead to some asthma symptoms, but it's also harder to breathe.

During the pandemic, I’ve had to be intentional about buying masks that fit comfortably around my face and allow me to breathe easily. Something as simple as a quick sprint upstairs to share something with my husband can lead to me having shortness of breath. I have to pause, take a few minutes to catch my breath, and then continue with my conversation. You can’t struggle to catch your breath and talk at the same time. I think this is why experts say if you’re exercising and can’t have a simple conversation, then you’re doing too much.

On the topic of exercise, I've found that I've shied away from doing certain activities alone in recent years. I will often try to grab a friend to walk or jog with me when possible. It hasn't always been that way. I’ve always enjoyed walking or running alone. However, a few occasions of having difficulty breathing while exercising have been enough to make me change my behavior. I carry my rescue inhaler everywhere now, but that alone is unsettling. The reality that I must have a device with me at all times to potentially keep me alive is not how I wanted to live my life.

I remember being on a walk during the height of COVID, where most folks were still wearing their mask outside. I was enjoying myself. I called them my “sanity walks.” During one of those walks, I became short of breath and dizzy. I slid my mask down a bit to allow my nose to be free. However, that didn't help as much as I expected. At that point, I was pretty far from my car and realized I had forgotten to bring my rescue inhaler on my walk.

I'm not scared of much, but that had to be one of the most frightening times in my life. There was no one around to help me if I needed help. It was a stark reminder of how important it is to have your rescue inhaler with you at all times! I now have a few that I keep around the house as well as one in my purse and the car.

The anxiety about not being able to breathe has also led to some increased feelings of claustrophobia in recent years. These days I make sure I book an aisle seat on the plane. I have to do deep breathing exercises before any full-body MRI or scan. I avoid crowds and places that are too closed in to walk freely. I’ve been a fan of social distancing since long before it was a thing. I'm not sure if the two are connected, but because I know what it feels like to struggle to breathe, I'm more aware of crowds and being in close quarters.

It's not just activities in the daytime that can be challenging. I've had my share of struggles to breathe at night as well. Times when I’ve had a cold or sinus infection have been the worst. I've had trouble getting comfortable at night. I've had to prop my pillow up and sleep with a humidifier. When my asthma is at its worst, I can be fast asleep and wake up in a panic because it feels like I am drowning in my sleep. This happens sometimes when I have a bad cold or bronchial infection. This is one of the worst feelings.

At this point in my life, I've had enough scares with my breathing to take my health seriously. Whatever I can do to reduce my triggers and keep my asthma under control – I do. No one wants to be unable to breathe unless you’re a kid in a pool with a clear way out.



Photo Credit: Gary John Norman / The Image Bank via Getty Images

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Michele Jordan

Michele Jordan

Diagnosed since 2005

Michele Jordan, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, was diagnosed with asthma in 2005. Her writing background includes magazine and online journalism, grant writing, and now screenwriting. She is passionate about both physical and mental health and is the author of the book Thanking Your Way to Joy: Daily Gratitude Journal. When not writing, Michele enjoys traveling with her husband, trying new, healthy recipes, and cuddling beagles. Her latest passion includes exploring and discussing issues around equity in housing, health care, and the justice system.

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