When you are diagnosed with a heart condition, your first thoughts are likely to be about your mortality and your physical health. However, there are good reasons to suppose that you’ll also need to keep a close eye on your mental health tips. For example, one survey of over 2,700 readers of a heart health magazine found that close to two-thirds felt their heart condition had influenced their mental or emotional health. Of those respondents, more than 75% suffered from anxiety, and over 50% had experienced at least some degree of depression. Here are nine mental health tips that will help you cope with the various ways in which living with a heart condition can impact on psychological well-being.
1. Don’t make assumptions about your limitations
Heart conditions are particularly likely to make people feel fearful of doing things that increase the risk of further problems or trigger a worsening of the condition. For example, you may think you need to give up your exercise regime, wonder whether it’s safe to get pregnant, think that you need to limit your international travel, and even worry that having sex could be dangerous. Instead, ask your doctor explicit questions about topics like these—you may find that the answers are encouraging, which can really boost your mood. In particular, exercise can be hugely beneficial in some cases, certain heart conditions tolerate pregnancy very well, and the connection between sex and cardiovascular risk is greatly exaggerated.
2. Practice mindfulness
As you probably know, mindfulness exercise can help your brain learn how to cope with stress more effectively. If you have a heart condition, practicing mindfulness will enhance your ability to cope with anxiety around your condition, and you’ll also be actively improving your heart health by lowering blood pressure and heart rate. For those who find themselves constantly fretting about whether their condition will be fatal, mindfulness can also assist you in peacefully living in the moment.
3. Know what to expect
As just suggested, fear of the unknown can play a big role in undermining mental health tips, encouraging you to imagine the worst-case scenario. Demystifying your heart condition can help to empower you and allow you to play a more active role in your care. For example, try making a list of questions before you see your cardiologist, and make sure you’re working with a doctor who is happy to answer. Meanwhile, do online research as well, and keep abreast of new scientific developments that are relevant to your condition.
4. Shift your focus
One particularly difficult part of adjusting to life with diminished heart function is coping with a new sense of fragility. For example, if you have had a heart attack then you may find yourself constantly tracking every physiological sensation as you look for clues that you might be about to have another. Even if you have been diagnosed with a progressive underlying condition, you may struggle with similar issues—those with heart valve disease sometimes report feeling uneasy as they picture their defective valve taking its toll on their heart muscle with every heartbeat. As well as doing mindfulness exercise, try to engage with hobbies that keep you distracted. Immerse yourself in a novel, experiment with crafts, and make regular arrangements to see your favorite people. If you feel you’re becoming obsessed with your heart condition, “thought stopping” techniques (such as permitting only 10 minutes of daily reflection on the topic) can help.
5. Help loved ones understand
In the aforementioned survey of over 2,700 people with heart problems, one remarkable finding was that 38% felt that others didn’t really understand how their condition affected them. There are a few different things you can do to try and ensure that your family and friends have a better sense of what you’re going through. Firstly, you can elicit empathy by plainly explaining that you worry about being fully understood and by saying that it can feel isolation to be a person whose body is no longer functioning as well. Secondly, you can offer leaflets and other easily readable publications that explain the condition in layman’s terms. For example, the British Heart Foundation offers free downloadable leaflets on almost every heart problem:
6. Do what you can to maintain physical health
You can reduce feelings of helplessness and further boost your sense of control by doing what you can to stay well. Keep your weight in check, eat a healthy diet, exercise in ways endorsed by your medical team, and kick self-destructive smoking or drinking habits. While you can’t control everything about your condition’s progression, you can give yourself a fighting chance at the best outcome.
7. Know about medication side-effects
While heart conditions themselves can certainly lead to mental health difficulties, it’s important to note that the medications prescribed to treat heart conditions can also have psychological side-effects. Ask your doctor about any possible connection between your prescribed drugs and anxiety or low mood—there may be other drugs you can try or further medications that reduce these negative effects.
8. Connect with others
If you’re part of a cardiac rehabilitation program then you may find that attending these appointments also provides opportunities to make social connections with people who understand the challenges you face. Online message boards can provide a similar outlet and space to bond, as well as a place to debate different treatment options.
9. Consider therapy
Finally, if you feel like your mental health is seriously suffering as a result of your heart condition, it may be a good idea for you to find a therapist who can work with you to overcome feelings of anxiety, loss or depression. It can be frightening to learn that you will be living with a heart condition, but try to trust that you can develop effective coping mechanisms to lift your mood and increase your resilience.