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Mindfulness training helps COPD patients

A new research project from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital shows that eight weeks of mindfulness training helps patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) so that they can better deal with anxiety and depression.

2018.02.08 | Anne West

COPD is an incurable disease of the lungs with stressful physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing and mucous formation in the airways. Furthermore, many COPD patients experience psychological problems such as anxiety and depression in their everyday lives.

Researchers from Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital have collaborated with researchers from the University of Cambridge (UK) and Trinity College Dublin (Ireland) in finding that an eight-week psychological treatment programme – known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy – alleviates the patients' psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression. The results also indicate that mindfulness training also alleviated the patients’ physical symptoms.

The study has just been published in the recognised lung medicine journal European Respiratory Journal.

Self-care strengthens patients

The 84 COPD patients who participated in the study drew lots to determine whether they should either receive an eight-week mindfulness training programme as a supplement to the normal physical rehabilitation, or whether they should receive the physical rehabilitation alone. Mindfulness training teaches the participants meditation exercises with the aim of them becoming more aware in a non-judgmental manner of both positive and negative experiences.

“The results showed that the patients who had received mindfulness training as a supplement to their physical rehabilitation experienced significantly fewer anxiety and depressive symptoms after the treatment compared to the patients who had only received physical rehabilitation,” says Psychologist and PhD student Ingeborg Farver-Vestergaard, who has been responsible for the project.

“In particular, it increased the self-care that is a part of mindfulness training, which also alleviated the symptoms of anxiety and depression. This makes sense as we are dealing with a group of patients who unfortunately often reproach from themselves and others because of the role of tobacco smoking in the development of COPD. These patients need a serious potion of self-esteem in order to feel better.”

Mindfulness training possibly improves physical symptoms

Mindfulness training may also benefit the patients' physical state, explains Ingeborg Farver-Vestergaard.

“In studies of other patient groups such as cancer patients, we have found that mindfulness training can alleviate physical symptoms such as pain. We therefore hoped that the psychological treatment could also have an effect on the COPD patients' physical symptoms, for example shortness of breath. And, in fact, in our study we have seen a tendency towards the patients who participated in mindfulness training experiencing fewer physical symptoms after the training compared to patients who did not receive mindfulness training.”

Good news for an overlooked patient group

Bobby Zachariae, professor at the Unit for Psycho-Oncology and Health Psychology at Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital, believes that mindfulness training is a good supplementary treatment option.

“Mindfulness has the potential to benefit the many COPD patients who daily struggle with big challenges. They are a group of patients who are unfortunately still relatively overlooked in our society," says Bobby Zacharie

He is supported by Anders Løkke from the Department of Respiratory Diseases and Allergy at Aarhus University Hospital.

“We have long known that COPD patients benefit from physical training, but it is encouraging to see that psychological training can further improve the patients' well-being”, says Anders Løkke.


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

  • Around 430,000 Danes suffer from COPD.
  • As a rule, COPD both develops and is discovered relatively late in life.
  • The disease is most often caused by smoking and/or air pollution and work-related contamination.
  • The most important and serious symptom is an increasing shortness of breath.
  • Other significant symptoms are coughing, mucous formation in the airways and fatigue.
  • Every day, 16 Danes die because of COPD.
  • About one third of COPD patients in rehabilitation experience anxiety and depression.
  • Anxiety and depression in connection with COPD are often associated with shortness of breath, reduced activity levels and social isolation.

The research results – more information

1. Type of study: Randomised controlled trial

2. Partners: Anders Løkke and Elisabeth Bendstrup, Department of Respiratory Diseases and Allergy, Aarhus University Hospital; Kai Ruggeri, University of Cambridge (UK); Frances Early, Addenbrooke's Hospital (UK); Padraic Dunne and colleagues, Trinity College Dublin (Ireland).

3. External funding: The Danish Lung Association’s Research Foundation; Aase and Ejnar Danielsens Foundation; Health Science Research Foundation, Central Denmark Region; The Moller Foundation for the Promotion of the Health Sciences.

4. Link to the original article: Farver-Vestergaard I, O’Toole MS, O’Connor M, et al. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in COPD: a cluster randomised controlled trial. Eur Respir J 2018; 51: 1702082:



Ingeborg Farver-Vestergaard, Psychologist and PhD student, Unit for Psycho-Oncology and Health Psychology, Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital 
Email: ifarver@psy.au.dk 
Mobile: (+45) 2062 1005

Bobby Zachariae, Professor, MD, DMSc, Unit for Psycho-Oncology and Health Psychology, Aarhus University and Aarhus University Hospital
Email: bzach@aarhus.rm.dk 
Tel.: (+45) 8716 5878/2423 5356 

Anders Løkke, Consultant, Department of Respiratory Diseases and Allergy, Aarhus University Hospital 
E-mail: andloe@rm.dk 
Mobile: (+45) 2889 4197



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