Looking after your mental health when you have a heart condition

This week I’m talking all about the psychological impact that having a heart condition can have. It can be so tough from the start – the symptoms that you don’t know what they were, hearing the words ‘your heart isn’t as strong as it used to be’, going back and forth to appointments, staying in hospital and living with a heart condition can play havoc with your mental health. Everyone reacts differently and you can go through different stages at different times. You want to get back to the ‘old you’ but you don’t know where you left yourself. Perhaps outside the waiting room? Let’s help you get your mental health back on track which is the number one thing that I feel isn’t addressed enough when you’ve had a heart attack or surgery. Let’s ask how YOU are, not just how your heart is!

adult alone anxious black and white
You are not alone

Anxiety, depression, fear, irritation, annoyance, anger and confusion. All of these are common when you have a heart condition. Whether it be worrying about every little niggle that you feel (this is normal and due to you becoming extra sensitive to pain after a heart problem) to fear about whether you will be able to do all the things you love again (tennis, golf, sex?). Can you even be bothered? Is it your heart holding you back, your energy levels or your mood? Were you this grumpy before???!

Stop for a minute – not only is it common, it’s completely normal. Everyone recovers differently and goes through several different cycles before they feel themselves again (well a different version of themselves but one just as good as the past version!). You may go through denial, fear, grief, frustration and sadness (sometimes all at the same time!). You may take months to come to terms with the new ‘you’.

You may ‘bounce back’ with a can-do attitude only to hit a brick wall a few months later. You may have the ‘tough guy/funny girl’ exterior but be in agony on the inside. You may have a million more different experiences unique to you. Everyone is different and don’t put pressure on yourself to recover quickly. Conversely, if you feel ok after your heart attack, there’s no reason to sit around. Get up and do things and get back to living your normal day to day life again. Other people may try to wrap you in cotton wool but there is no need for them to do this.

Whilst there is no quick fix, there are a few things that you can do to make sure you are looking after your mental health as well as your physical:

  1. Talk to someone about how you are feeling.
    Your partner, friend, children, doctor, nurse, rehab team, Facebook group (our Healthy Hearties group is amazing at picking you up when you’re feeling down). By talking about how you feel people will be understanding and helpful. You may be surprised to hear that they may have gone through something similar and can offer a lot of advice and support. Sometimes they don’t have to say anything, just being an ear to listen to you may be enough.
  2. See a psychologist.
    Often the impartial, stranger’s ear may be the best forgetting everything off your chest (literally). Often your local cardiac rehab will have someone that they can recommend or your cardiologist may work closely with one that they can recommend. It’s not as scary as you think – often you walk away feeling so much better just for having TALKED whereas before you were shutting things away.
  3. Use exercise as a source of stress and anxiety relief.
    Walking can be great for your mental health. Pop on some of your favourite music which can help to get you going. Even 5-10 minutes will do some good. Once you get going you’ll probably find that you can do more than you think. Vitamin D also helps you to feel better. Even when it’s cloudy you can still reap the benefits.

    exercise female fitness foot
    Fresh air and walking can really help.
  4. Avoid too much alcohol or caffeine.
    Both are ok in small amounts (if you can tolerate them) but caffeine will increase anxiety and feelings of stress and alcohol is a depressant that will make you feel better for a few hours and much much worse afterwards. Try herbal teas and water instead – not only will be more hydrated help you but you will have a more stable level of energy throughout the day. Save alcohol for special occasions.
  5. Try mindfulness and meditation
    Here is a list together below of Apps that you can download on your phone for free that can help you to unwind, relax and even help you get to sleep. Simply search on your App store on your phone for the names below. If you don’t have a smartphone, you can order meditation CDs from Amazon like this one.

    calm daylight evening grass
    Take some time out
    1. Sleep Easily Meditation
      This app a 25-minute guided meditation that combines soothing music with talking you through the relaxation process. It is surprisingly calming – I was out for the count within 10 minutes.
    2. Calm – meditation and relaxation
      This simple to use app presents the 7 Steps of Calm. There are seven guided sessions running from 2-20 minutes with a range of background scenes and sounds to choose from (think beaches, meadows and pouring rain). Free for iphone and ipad.
    3. Simply Being Guided Meditation
      Good for beginners, this easy-to-use app talks you through the basic skills in sessions ranging from 5-20 minutes. Choose your sound preference –the likes of ocean, rain and stream – and sit back and relax. It comes loaded with meditation tips too and is great if you’ve never tried this relaxing stuff before. Available for iPhone, iPad and Android.
    4. Headspace: Guided Meditation
      Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe is a former Buddhist monk aiming to make meditation accessible. He delivers the directed 10-minute sessions in his relaxed style – no hippy talk here, he strips it down to basics and throws in the odd joke.
    5. Room to Breathe Meditation
      Controlling your breathing is key in helping you keep calm and switch off. This app can help anyone who has had problems meditating. There’s a step-by-step-guide to breathing techniques with music options to choose from too. Available on iPad, iPhone and Android.

What other tips do you have that have worked for you? Share them below and I can add them to the list!

Also, know that this time too shall pass and although it’s tough now, it won’t always be this tough. Yes, things have changed, you will feel different. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy life. You have survived, you will survive and you CAN have a full, enjoyable life. Believe it and start enjoying things.

As a side note, if you do think that some of your low mood is caused by side effects of medication, please talk to your doctor asap. Not only is there alternatives, but you may also be able to change dosages if your doctor approves.

As always, please seek immediate help if you feel suicidal or are feeling unable to cope. You can call the Samaritans on 116 123 any time of day or night or visit them HERE.

Please note that the information provided is a guide only and does not take into account your individual circumstances. Please seek advice from a medical professional before commencing any exercise programme or new diet.

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