Heart disease is a very serious illness that affects millions of Americans. It’s also the #1 cause of death in the United States, according to Medical News Today. Thousands of people die each year of heart attacks and heart disease.
Many more people survive heart attacks, fortunately. However, that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods. A study out of the University of Alberta and Emory University concluded that 15% of people who survive heart attacks develop post-traumatic stress disorder, better known as PTSD.
What Is PTSD?
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), PTSD is a physical and emotional reaction to trauma. Once upon a time, people used to call it “combat fatigue” or “shell shock.” About 3.5% of adults in the United States develop PTSD in their lifetime. Women suffer from PTSD more than men, two to one.
Symptoms of PTSD
People who have PTSD exhibit myriad symptoms, and not everyone will have all of them. That said, post-traumatic stress disorder sufferers will often have nightmares or flashbacks about the traumatic event. They experience strong emotions, like anger, fear and sadness.
They tend to avoid situations that remind them of the PTSD-inducing incident. However, they may have intrusive thoughts about the experience, making it impossible to avoid the subject all together. PTSD also makes some sufferers detach from others. Finally, stimuli, like being touched or loud noises, however accidental, may trigger a reaction.
What Kind of Events Cause PTSD?
Traumatic events, both direct and indirect, can cause PTSD. Direct Events would be events that a person experiences first hand, like being raped, living through war, experiencing interpersonal violence or being fired from a job. This list isn’t exhaustive. Rather, it’s meant to give people an idea of the types of direct events that can cause the disorder.
Indirect events are events that people experience indirectly, like hearing about a loved one dying in a violent way, listening to a recount of a traumatic event or watching traumatic events on TV. Many first responders, like doctors, firefighters or police officers, get PTSD over the course of time because they’re repeatedly exposed to the trauma of others.
What Are Heart Attack Patients More Vulnerable?
Heart attacks are traumatic. Having heart surgery, particularly open-heart surgery, is traumatic. This event brings the patient close to death. Correcting the problem often requires an invasive surgery that basically cracks the patient’s chest open while the doctors work on the heart and the surrounding veins.
But as Healthline warns, the danger for these patients doesn’t end once the person has surgery. Having PTSD can make heart attack victims more vulnerable to another heart attack. There is a blood vessel disorder that is associated with the stress of PTSD called Ischemia. It’s a type of coronary artery disease. PTSD sufferers are more likely to have this type of coronary artery disease, which is exacerbated by stress.
Coping With PTSD and Heart Attacks
Most heart attack patients have a period of recovery after their heart attack and surgery that’s directed by the hospital. This recovery is called cardiac rehabilitation.
It includes physical therapy, as well as prevention education. Much of this addresses the physical aspects of the heart attack. It may also give heart attack sufferers some emotional support as well. However, those who find this support lacking may also want to do one or more of the following to address their issues with PTSD.
- Counseling and Art Therapy: Both talk therapy and art therapy have been shown to be effective for some PTSD sufferers. Many therapies today are trauma-informed therapies, which means they center around the unique needs of those who have experienced trauma. These therapies help the patient come to terms with the trauma and to develop coping skills for the symptoms of PTSD.
- Mindfulness Meditation: Meditation has been shown to significantly reduce stress, and fortunately, it doesn’t take long for meditators to see the stress-reducing benefits of a meditation practice. This is true even if the person hasn’t meditated for very long, making this an ideal coping skill for new heart patients.
- Get Moving: Exercise has been shown to be an effective stress reliever. Most post-heart surgery therapies include gentle exercises, like walking. Other good stress-relieving exercises include yoga and pilates.
- Support Circle: People who have experienced trauma prosper when they have a support circle. This group can include family and friends, but it can also include more formal therapy groups for both heart patients and PTSD sufferers.
- Diet: Many people who suffer from heart attacks have a poor diet, which has been shown to be a major contributor to heart disease. However, there is also a newer form of psychology that acknowledges the role that diet plays in mental health. Either way, changing diets can help the heart patient develop good nutritional habits that support mind, body and spirit.
Heart attacks cause physical, emotional and mental trauma. A small percentage of people who have a heart attack go on to develop PTSD. This condition is marked by intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, strong emotions and situational avoidance.
Unfortunately, due to the physical changes caused by the PTSD, the heart patient becomes more vulnerable to having another heart attack. This is caused by a specific type of coronary artery disease, one which heart attack patients often suffer from.
However, there are steps the patient can take to rehabilitate both physically and psychologically from heart attack. Immediately following treatment of the heart attack, the patient is put on a post heart-attack recovery regimen. This can include physical therapy, diet tips and other counseling. If this follow-up isn’t enough to make the patient feel supported, it’s often helpful for him or her to seek out counseling.
It is additionally helpful to participate in activities, like meditation or yoga, which are known to reduce stress. All of these rehabilitative measures can help the patient learn new health habits, as well as some coping skills, both of which help to reduce the likelihood of a second heart attack.