Running With Asthma

Running With Asthma, Is It All In Your Head?

It really bugged me when he said it was all in my head. His credentials came with a therapist certification, but he wasn’t a runner and he didn’t have asthma.  So as far as I was concerned, he didn’t know what he was talking about. I immediately dismissed his assessment by rolling my eyes, pursing my lips and refusing to look him in the eye for the rest of our time; which wasn’t hard because there were only ten minutes left. Ten, way-too-long minutes. When I arrived at home, I paced for a long time. How could he say such a ridiculous thing? How could he dismiss my symptoms, the diagnosis, all the medication? How could he so carelessly invalidate me, and the Doctor, and basically accuse me of lying? I was pissed.

He made the comment during his explanation of the mind-body connection in relation to illness.  When our minds are not in the right place, when we stuff our pain instead of dealing with it, the body takes it in and turns it into disease: tumors, cancer, acid reflux, gastrointestinal disorders, asthma, you name it. We swallow a lot of pain from life through divorce, death, abandonment, rejection, etc. and if we don’t purge it out of us in a healthy way it will stay in our body and reek havoc.  This was all fine until he said the asthma was all in my head. He laughed and insisted that I did not have exercised-induced asthma.

I did what any good rebellious woman would do. I went into the hills and ran. The dirt is my thinking ground. I did three loops on the cross country track, up and over, around and around.  Five miles later I was pooped and my lungs were burning. I couldn’t stop thinking about something else he said:  You need to set some boundaries and stop letting other people run your life. THIS I believed. I resolved to make it happen. I made an appointment with my mom and set the ground rules: no more men. One dad and two step dads is enough for me, I do not want anything to do with number four. Keep it to yourself. For the next year I had to practice keeping that boundary each time she pushed it.

Next I set boundaries with my husband. No more being responsible for his guilt and insecurities. Again, practice makes perfect to keep everyone on their own side of the fence. Once successful, I was gaining some self confidence. The half marathon was coming up and I was determined to run this one med free.  I wanted to be done with the twice-a-day Advair, the once-a-day Singulair and Alegra, and the just-before-a-run Albuterol  for a total of $150 per month.  The thought of running 13.1 miles med free was frightening, but I was determined so I pushed harder.

In another run through the hills, I started thinking about my mom and the more I thought the angrier I became. I had never been given permission to grieve the divorce, now 20 years in the past, because my anger made her feel guilty; so it was banned.  Running up the hill I felt my body begin to give out, I was running out of steam.  My breathing was labored.  My inhaler was back in the car. I allowed the anger and began to scream in my head, “She’s not my mother! She’s not my mother!” To this day, I do not know what I meant by that, but at  the time it worked as a release. As I came down the other side of the hill I was overcome with grief. For the record: it is physically impossible to run and cry at the same time. The lungs cannot multi-task. I stopped running, bent over and sobbed. Tears and snot ran from my eyes and nose. I let it all pour out of me and into the dirt. I stopped running away.

Sometime later I was forced to acknowledge that my asthma was getting better. There was no denying the relationship between my mental health and physical health; as the mental got better, so did my physical and vice versa.  I slowly weaned myself off of all the medication and ran the ½ marathon completely med free.  Then I came across some sort of spiritual book, which I can’t remember the name of, that listed all types of medical problems, from bladder infections to eye diseases, to cancer, to you guessed it…asthma. Each diagnosis had a corresponding reason to go with it. I flipped to the only one I cared about. “Asthma:  comes from not having a voice, feeling trapped.”

So I guess that annoying therapist who doesn’t run and who’s never had a breathing problem had a good point, much as I hate to admit it. My symptoms were real. My diagnosis was real. I failed the breathing diagnostic test at the hospital with flying colors. My disease was real. But the problem wasn’t in my lungs; the problem was in my soul. My mind, being the control freak that it is, and not knowing what to do with a soul feeling of being trapped, a feeling of not having a voice, sent the problem to my lungs. It was too much for them to bear;  they began to shut down and I couldn’t breathe.

I’ve run five ½ marathons so far, two of them med free and one full marathon, without so much as an inhaler. I feel free when I run; the wind blowing my hair, the music in my ears.  And my soul is happy with every deep and relaxing breath.

-Tara Schiro is the author of No Arms, No Legs, No Problem: When life happens, you can wish to die or choose to live NOW AVAILABLE on Amazon and Barnes and Noble

10 Comments so far
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I’m new to your blog, so I can’t wait to read all of your older posts. I too have struggled with EIA, and now just regular all around mild asthma. I do feel mine has gotten worse from not training, so I can’t wait to read your training advice.
While I don’t think your asthma was all in your head, I don’t think it was all in your lungs either. I do think the issues with your mom and husband definitely made you feel worse. Stress is underestimated as a contributor to our illnesses. I have dealt with that the past 3 years- the coming to terms with my stress as the reason why I’m so tired and my adrenals are shot, etc. Good luck with the new boundaries! I hope they keep you med- free!! Can’t wait to read your next post.


Comment by accbritumblrcom

This is very interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger. I’ve
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Comment by Adriana

Hi Adriana,
Thanks so much! I will be writing more info very soon. I’ve been recovering from pneumonia and am basically starting over with the running. Never a dull moment. Thanks again, Tara


Comment by TaraSchiro

Thank you so much for sharing this. I have suffered with EIA since I was 10 and it has gradually worsened. I was able to run track my first year of college and half of my second, unfortunately do to increased illness and asthma I was forced to stop. I had every doctor tell me I had asthma and hinted to end my running career, finally one doctor just flat told me I needed to quit. I was devistated. Along with the news that I could no longer run, that same doctor informed me that surgery would probably be in order. I thought to myself, surgery?! I then asked him what kind of procedure and he claimed it would be something for my sinuses since they didn’t really know what was wrong. I was infuriated and haven’t been back since. I stopped taking all medications and began feeling a bit better, now however, I am ready to put those free runs on. I have felt quite defeated thus far, but stumbling across this blog has been very motivational. Thank you for sharing.


Comment by Holly

Hi Holly,
Thank so much for sharing your story with us. Surgery?! Wow. I have been on hiatus so I apologize for not getting back to you earlier. I hope that you have started a regular exercise routine. Unfortunately, there are many doctors who just don’t get it. And, there is so much medication available that they just prescribe what is at their fingertips. There is a time and place for medication, it’s not evil, but the doctors just don’t seem to have any solid information beyond the meds. It’s frustrating. In my own experience, exercise has made my lungs stronger. The down side is that sometimes you have to go slower, but unless you are really bad off you don’t need to stop. You can always walk if you can’t run. The key is to build a strong, consistent, methodical foundation. If you exercise consistently throughout the year, you will be stronger and less susceptible to triggers. I do not have allergies but I do have allergic rhinitis and if I don’t control it, it turns into a chest cold/congestion. I take Alegra during certain times of the year to keep my sinuses from swelling and dripping and this helps. But check with your doctor before taking anything. Let us know how you are doing! You can do it! Thanks for writing in, Tara


Comment by TaraSchiro

Wow. This is such an unexpected, controversial thing to hear you say. My anecdotal evidence is completely different — I have had periods where my asthma completely went away and I was able to go off meds and it was during very stressful times when I happened to be running a lot. Are you sure your asthma improvement has nothing to do with all your intense training, strengthening your lung function, and improving your body’s immune system with exercise? I’m sure reducing stress helps, and it’s always great advice to work on healing your soul, but you don’t necessarily need to embrace pseudo-science to get better.


Comment by mtjhax

Hello mtjhax: Thank you so much for contributing your thoughts to this blog. I see from your various comments that you are indeed a runner with a fair amount of miles and experience under your belt. Kudos to you. I also infer from your comment, “this is such an unexpected, controversial thing to hear you say,” that you have read some of my other posts on this blog. The great thing about being a writer is that I am able to explore and articulate to the page as I navigate running with asthma. The bad thing about being a writer, and publishing it, is that if a reader only looks at one sample, and disregards how that piece fits into the whole journey or body of work, there is a danger of being misunderstood or coming across as unexpected or controversial. I went back and read my words, on this specific entry, as well as a few others, and I do stand by what I said, but, I will add a little more here to try and make it a little more clear. If you still stand by your opinion, I am completely okay with that; we can agree to disagree. I admire your thoughts and respect your passion for the sport. But alas, this is my blog, so let me pontificate a bit (not that I haven’t already)…

1. You say your “anecdotal evidence is completely different.” Of course it is. The readers of this blog are the same in that we all have asthma, but, if you read through the comments, each case is completely different in how it manifests in the reader/runner. Which is why I started this blog in the first place. Because as I scanned the web, there was little or no content that spoke to me and my situation. Running with my mouth closed is not helpful. Well, okay, it did help once, but in general, I find this to be a joke. Some runners find complete relief running this way. I started this blog, allow people to speak their minds, and respond when I feel appropriate, in order to come up with some semblance of continuity or familiarity. But with all the ways in which we have shared experiences (spring pollen is nasty), there are a million other ways in which our asthma is different. Case in point: the Dr.’s generally do not know what to do with us, except give us more and more medication, try this try that, see if it works…they are generally clueless to what we go through; can I get an Amen on this? Yes, your evidence is different.

2. You say, “you have periods where asthma completely went away…went off meds…during stressful times when I happened to be running a lot.” I am in complete agreement with you here. Exercise is the number one way to get rid of being allergic to exercise. I have said this many times in my other posts. It seems like an oxymoron, to do the very thing that causes inflammation, to get rid of the inflammation. It is not an oxymoron. The lungs are a muscle and the stronger they are, the less susceptible they are to triggers. That is not to say they will never again constrict, but, it is to say that when something is strong and fortified, it is less likely to be broken down and malfunction. Pollen and animal dander and the stuff in the hills and grass we can’t see, the wind, the cold; these are out of our control. I like to take Alegra to help with the reactions to these. But in general, the stronger the lungs the better. Even during stress. Weak lungs, as well as a weak mind, are susceptible to EVERYTHING. So, yes, I am not surprised one bit that even during stress you were able to stay off the meds because you were exercising and were strong. But here is the key that you missed in my post: I wasn’t under stress. I was under an identity crisis. I did not have a voice. That is completely different than stress. I felt that if I spoke up for myself, I would get in trouble. This is against the very nature of who we are as human beings and it reeked havoc on my body.

3. You said, “are you sure your asthma improvement has nothing to do with all your intense training…” Here is where you need to go back and read through all of my other posts, boring as they may be. I have said it many times: all the exercise has everything to do with my asthma improvement. I think by not taking all the written work here into consideration as a whole, you missed the point entirely. The hard training showed me many things: my lungs can get strong and improve, my asthma is getting better with the consistent exercise, I am capable, I can do this, I am worthy of being at the start line with 300 or 3000 other people, I am strong, I can believe in myself, I have a voice, I am a runner, no matter my pace. That is what running has taught me. My asthma would NOT have had such an improvement without all the consistent training and hard work. I have also said many times that in the early days when I did not maintain a regular running schedule, that my asthma would flair up and take over; with or without stress. Yes, yes, yes, the exercise is so crucial that without it, I would not be med free right now. BUT, the mind is a powerful thing. Which brings me to your last point.

4. You said, “… but you don’t necessarily need to embrace pseudo-science to get better. Let’s get a definition so we are on the same page:
Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary, © 2007 Merriam-Webster, Inc.

Medical Dictionary
a system of theories, assumptions, and methods erroneously regarded as scientific

Cultural Dictionary:
A system of theories or assertions about the natural world that claim or appear to be scientific but that, in fact, are not. For example, astronomy is a science, but astrology is generally viewed as a pseudoscience.

Answer to point 4. Ok, I will give you this one. I seem to have thrown you off when I mentioned I got the correlation between asthma and not feeling like I had a voice from a “spiritual book.” And yes, according to the above definition, this would seem like psuedo-science. For the record, I do not engage in New Age Spirituality, or Astrology, and the like. I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I read the Bible. The spiritual book was on my shelf, I can’t remember how it got there, whether I bought it or someone gave it to me, but I was in the process of cleaning out some things to take to Goodwill and the Library (which is why I can’t remember the title because I don’t have it anymore), and I before I put this book in the pile I browsed through it, looked up asthma, and ding, ding, ding. On that day, in that time of my life, I was still sucking everything in, but was in the process of trying to figure out why I was doing that, and when I read the words, “feeling as if you don’t have a voice,” something snapped inside me. It was a recognition of what I was feeling but not yet aware enough to articulate it. Those words articulated for me what I was feeling. During this time, the day I read those words, I was running consistently and was well into my journey but still on asthma medication, and that is where the two posts were eventually birthed from about asthma being in your head and being cured. I do not believe that psuedo-science is the answer to anything. I don’t buy it. I’m a concrete kinda gal. But, I also cannot ignore the timing of my asthma, the timing of the onset of symptoms in childhood P.E. class, which directly coincided with my parents marital problems, and with the timing of my adult diagnosis which coincided exactly with my own marital problems later in life. I was not running or exercising at that time, hence the barrage of medications. As a side note, I have mentioned that my dad had allergy asthma as a child, and guess what? He was physically and mentally abused by his father. Not to say that all roads lead to asthma, of course they do not. Nor to say that simply healing the mind will heal all physical ailments, it does not. I do not have the space here in the blog, it would take an entire book, but if I did, I could tell you time after time after time in my life where outside issues, all dealing with self worth, had a direct correlation with my physical health. RUNNING SAVED ME. Well, okay, so did Jesus, He saved me first I suppose. But, through Him, I had the strength to become a runner. Not a fast runner. But a runner with asthma, who finally figured out who she was, who finally discovered her voice, who finally realized through running, yes I can because I am worthy. Am I making sense? Do you understand what I’m telling you? Running, the physical training, the exercise, strengthened my lungs, my heart, my mind, and my soul. That book simply gave me the words to explain what was going on and it pointed me in the direction I needed to go. I was lost and now I’m found.


Comment by taraschiro

Way more response than I expected (or my comments deserved!) Thanks for taking the time to explain in more detail. I have a strong knee-jerk reaction to the phrase “it’s all in your head”. I’m certain that asthma and particularly EIA can be improved by reducing stress (it’s medically documented — changes in endocrinology, etc). However, I still take offense when someone who has never struggled with this and was born with perfect lungs asserts that we can completely cure ourselves if we just believe — implying that we lack some mental discipline that helps them to not have asthma? I hear what you are saying, and I understand that I reacted to a piece of your story taken out of context, but where you hate to admit the therapist was right, I would still say they were wrong. It wasn’t all in your head — it sounds like it was in your head, your body, and all aspects of your life. Keep writing, I do catch up on your posts once in a while and find them inspiring!


Comment by mtjhax

I wonder if the book was “You Can Heal Your Life” by Louise Hay? It’s a good one.
What you observed is really interested. My asthma has really been bothering me while running in the past couple months….which coincides with some really stressful stuff going on in my life. My father in law sounds a lot like your neighbor and told me to think about what kinds of things I was afraid of and to think about releasing them. I rolled my eyes, too. Sounds like I should give it more thought…

Thanks for posting.


Comment by Heather

Good for you that you can run well and that your asthma has receded. But there will be a medical reason for that. Fitness can help alleviate asthma and sometimes it can just go away. I simply do not believe that asthma is ‘all in the head’.


Comment by gwen

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