How to Treat Asthma Attacks Without an Inhaler (By Preventing Them Instead)

In her fight for breath, one woman ends up transforming her entire life.

Like clockwork, a 2 a.m. asthma attack shut down my airways and jolted me out of sleep. The sweet relief of breath was at arm’s length, in the emergency inhaler on my night table. One quick spray and within seconds I felt my bronchial tubes begin to relax, allowing precious air to enter.

The next development was all too predictable. The drug made my heart race, and I couldn’t fall back asleep until just moments before the alarm clock rang, ending my brief respite.

Scenarios like this are typical of the hold asthma exerted on my life for many years. Episodes came and went, with spasms gripping my bronchial tubes, inflammation swelling the mucous membranes, and phlegm choking the breath out of me.

The attacks were at their worst when I lived in Florida, where the intense humidity caused mildew to flourish, aggravating my condition. I often felt like I was trying to breathe under water. Nor did my job as a tech writer in an old airplane hangar—full of mold, chemical fumes, and cigarette smoke—help matters. I can’t count the times when it seemed impossible to think clearly enough to get through the day. I tried allergy shots, but hated having to poke myself with a needle, so I quit the job instead. When a doctor told me my only option was to take medicine for the rest of my life, I finally found the courage to say enough.

My first order of business was to stop an attack without using inhalers. I accomplished this within weeks through a variety of methods, including taking first hot, then cold showers to relax the spasms, and hovering over steam infused with eucalyptus oil for long periods. But I was still living from one attack to the next. I needed to get to the root of the problem.

Once I began digging, clues turned up everywhere (even in King Tut’s tomb, where the anti-inflammatory herb licorice, now known as a decongestant, was unearthed alongside other treasures). Ultimately, though, putting the disease behind me required tending to much more than my closed airways. Top of the list? Stress.

Once I started paying attention, I realized almost anything—a cold, deadline pressures, bad news, or bad weather—could start me wheezing. Emotional stress of any kind was a particularly powerful trigger.

Elson Haas, a physician and director of the Preventive Medicine Center of Marin in San Rafael, California, isn’t surprised. Stress kicks off physiological responses that lead directly to breathing troubles, he says. What’s the first thing people do when they’re nervous? Take shorter breaths, of course. Plus, the body releases certain hormones when we’re under stress (particularly adrenaline and cortisol) that open up the airways—but once the stress goes away and these hormones subside, the bronchial tubes can tighten up again.

Clearly, I needed to coax my body into staying calm. (Stop and smell the roses? I was allergic to them!)

You’d think my living situation would have been a help. I was part of a yoga community at the time, and what better way to relax than breathing deeply and doing a few sun salutations? But we also did a lot of service work, taking care of people who were troubled or dying, and I found it difficult to say no to anyone in need. As a result, I suffered from “compassion fatigue.” On some occasions, I’d be overcome by wrenching grief, which was particularly bad for my lungs. As sobs burst forth, I noticed an unconscious urge to hold back the flow, which resulted in—you guessed it, another asthma attack. I needed room to breathe.

One of the first people I turned to for help was homeopath Jana Shiloh of Sedona, Arizona, who treated me with the herb pulsatilla, the “windflower,” an apt metaphor for the way I felt—blown around by outside influences. It helped enormously.

The next step was to create a stress-free zone for myself. I started by making a point of not going straight home after work so as to avoid the numerous responsibilities that might ensnare me. Instead, I’d spend 20 minutes riding my bike or walking on the beach, soothed by the sounds of the ocean. Asking a friend to massage my shoulders helped, too. As my muscles softened, my breathing became noticeably less labored. I also began to meditate and to use yoga to work on my breathing. Inhaling and exhaling to the count of ten helped me regulate my breath and relax my mind at the same time.

I also took a series of dance classes that approach movement as spiritual practice. Those sessions gave me insight into how I move through my world and face obstacles. In one, everyone danced randomly through a small space; the idea was for us to observe whether we felt pushed around and tense or enjoyed our own agility, greeting each new face with a smile. It was one “aha!” after the other, as I learned to transform my initial responses, which were more often constricted, into welcoming smiles.

Eventually, I felt as if I was in control of my life again. I had given up inhalers, and I had identified, and learned to manage, the key ways in which stress was exacerbating my asthma. Then, my strategies were put to the test.

One day, I went to visit a friend with AIDS who was on his deathbed. As I walked into Robert’s house, a cat rubbed up against me. Then I saw a second, and a third, and I panicked. I’m extremely allergic to cats and usually react with severe asthma attacks. As I approached my friend’s bedside, more cats materialized until seven of them had me surrounded.

My mind went into overdrive. Would I be the one who ended up in the hospital? I wheezed just looking at those cats, but how could I leave Robert? Then I recalled something I’d recently learned: By focusing my attention on the top of my head, I could raise my awareness above the panic that was contributing to my shallow breathing. I visualized the breath leaving through that space. In yoga, this is believed to be the place where the spirit leaves the body during meditation.

Perhaps that choice was more apt than I realized. As I held Robert’s hand, I breathed deeply and was transported to a wide open space, similar to states I had experienced in deep meditation. It felt as though some essence was sustaining me, as if I were a plant taking in sunlight.

In my peripheral vision, I saw cats on every side of me and had to quell a distracting rush of fear. If I allowed myself to sink into it, I would be in serious trouble. I could make the visit short, I told myself. But later when I looked at the clock, I was surprised to find that several hours had passed and not only was I breathing just fine, I felt completely renewed.

My friend Robert died two days later, but not before teaching me something I will never forget about the power of compassion. For love is what kept me glued to Robert’s side, determined not to let my own troubles keep me from a higher task. Potent medicine. And a final frontier for conquering what ailed me.

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