Psychotherapy for treatment of anxiety in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (chronic bronchitis and emphysema)

Why is this review important?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is commonly referred to as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. People with COPD are more likely to have anxiety disorders compared with the general population. Symptoms of anxiety affect various aspects of daily life, including quality of life and the ability to perform physical activities. Psychological therapies are used as part of clinical practice to treat these symptoms, however, there is little evidence to support these techniques.

Who will be interested in this review?

Health professionals and people with emphysema and underlying anxiety and panic.

What questions does this review aim to answer?

What is the current evidence on psychological therapies for anxiety in people with COPD and coexisting anxiety?

Which studies were included in the review?

Randomised controlled trials (research trials in which participants are allocated according to a random sequence either to the intervention to be tested or to a comparator intervention).

What does the evidence from the review tell us?

This systematic review found three studies with a total of 319 participants with COPD and coexisting anxiety. All three studies assessed psychotherapy (CBT) with a co-intervention, versus the co-intervention alone. There was limited evidence showing some improvements in reduced levels of anxiety and improved quality of life in the psychotherapy group. It is important to note that the overall quality of the evidence was low and hence further research is needed to increase our confidence in this effect. A limitation of this review is that all three included studies recruited participants with both anxiety and depression, not just anxiety, which may confound the results.

What should happen next?

Further research is needed to establish whether this therapy will reduce hospital admissions and length of hospital stays, as this was not assessed in the current evidence base. Larger studies of longer duration need to be conducted. There are at least two more clinical trials currently ongoing for this question. Once they are published, the evidence from them could increase or decrease our confidence in the findings of this review.

Authors' conclusions: 

We found only low-quality evidence for the efficacy of psychological therapies among people with COPD with anxiety. Based on the small number of included studies identified and the low quality of the evidence, it is difficult to draw any meaningful and reliable conclusions. No adverse events or harms of psychotherapy intervention were reported.

A limitation of this review is that all three included studies recruited participants with both anxiety and depression, not just anxiety, which may confound the results. We downgraded the quality of evidence in the 'Summary of findings' table primarily due to the small sample size of included trials. Larger RCTs evaluating psychological interventions with a minimum 12-month follow-up period are needed to assess long-term efficacy.

Read the full abstract...

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (commonly referred to as chronic bronchitis and emphysema) is a chronic lung condition characterised by the inflammation of airways and irreversible destruction of pulmonary tissue leading to progressively worsening dyspnoea. It is a leading international cause of disability and death in adults. Evidence suggests that there is an increased prevalence of anxiety disorders in people with COPD. The severity of anxiety has been shown to correlate with the severity of COPD, however anxiety can occur with all stages of COPD severity. Coexisting anxiety and COPD contribute to poor health outcomes in terms of exercise tolerance, quality of life and COPD exacerbations. The evidence for treatment of anxiety disorders in this population is limited, with a paucity of evidence to support the efficacy of medication-only treatments. It is therefore important to evaluate psychological therapies for the alleviation of these symptoms in people with COPD.


To assess the effects of psychological therapies for the treatment of anxiety disorders in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Search strategy: 

We searched the specialised registers of two Cochrane Review Groups: Cochrane Common Mental Disorders (CCMD) and Cochrane Airways (CAG) (to 14 August 2015). The specialised registers include reports of relevant randomised controlled trials from The Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, Embase, and PsycINFO. We carried out complementary searches on PsycINFO and CENTRAL to ensure no studies had been missed. We applied no date or language restrictions.

Selection criteria: 

We considered all randomised controlled trials (RCTs), cluster-randomised trials and cross-over trials of psychological therapies for people (aged over 40 years) with COPD and coexisting anxiety disorders (as confirmed by recognised diagnostic criteria or a validated measurement scale), where this was compared with either no intervention or education only. We included studies in which the psychological therapy was delivered in combination with another intervention (co-intervention) only if there was a comparison group that received the co-intervention alone.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently screened citations to identify studies for inclusion and extracted data into a pilot-tested standardised template. We resolved any conflicts that arose through discussion. We contacted authors of included studies to obtain missing or raw data. We performed meta-analyses using the fixed-effect model and, if we found substantial heterogeneity, we reanalysed the data using the random-effects model.

Main results: 

We identified three prospective RCTs for inclusion in this review (319 participants available to assess the primary outcome of anxiety). The studies included people from the outpatient setting, with the majority of participants being male. All three studies assessed psychological therapy (cognitive behavioural therapy) plus co-intervention versus co-intervention alone. We assessed the quality of evidence contributing to all outcomes as low due to small sample sizes and substantial heterogeneity in the analyses. Two of the three studies had prespecified protocols available for comparison between prespecified methodology and outcomes reported within the final publications.

We observed some evidence of improvement in anxiety over 3 to 12 months, as measured by the Beck Anxiety Inventory (range from 0 to 63 points), with psychological therapies performing better than the co-intervention comparator arm (mean difference (MD) -4.41 points, 95% confidence interval (CI) -8.28 to -0.53; P = 0.03). There was however, substantial heterogeneity between the studies (I2 = 62%), which limited the ability to draw reliable conclusions. No adverse events were reported.