Probing the psychophysiology of the airways: Physical activity, experienced emotion, and facially expressed emotion


  • The research reviewed in this article and the preparation of the manuscript were partly supported by the German Research Society (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Projects Da 148/7–1, Da 148/11–1, Ri 957/2–1, and Ri 957/3–1), the German Academic Exchange Service, and the Hanseatic University Fund. I am particularly grateful to Bernhard Dahme, Andrew Steptoe, and Walton T. Roth for their support throughout the years. I also acknowledge the invaluable help of all other collaborators who are named as coauthors on our publications.

Address reprint requests to: Thomas Ritz, Psychological Institute III, University of Hamburg, Von Melle-Park 5, 20146 Hamburg, Germany; e-mail:


This article reviews research on airway reactivity in health and asthma within a psychophysiological context, including the effects of physical activity, emotion induction, and manipulation of facial expression of emotion. Skeletal muscle activation leads to airway dilation, with vagal withdrawal being the most likely mechanism. Emotional arousal, in particular negative affect, leads to airway constriction, with evidence for a vagal pathway in depressive states and ventilatory contributions in positive affect. Laboratory-induced airway responses covary with reports of emotion-induced asthma and with lung function decline during negative mood in the field. Like physical activity, facial expression of emotion leads to airway dilation. However, these effects are small and less consistent in posed emotional expressions. The mechanisms of emotion-induced airway responses and potential benefits of emotional expression in asthma deserve further study.