How to Protect Your Mental Health After a Heart Attack

There’s a strong link between heart disease and depression

Older man serious with wife in background

It’s normal to not be your usual chipper self after a heart attack or heart disease diagnosis, or after having heart surgery. There might be some fear and uncertainty about what’s to come, and changes to your lifestyle that will take some adjusting to.

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So a certain amount of sadness and fatigue are par-for-the-course with a heart event or diagnosis. But, it should be temporary. As you get back into a routine, your mood should lift, too.

If it doesn’t, it’s important to tell your doctor ASAP. Depression is intricately linked to heart disease, and it can put your recovery at risk.

A two-way relationship

Studies show that people who have heart disease ― including heart failure or a heart attack ― are more likely to develop depression than those who don’t. And depression is associated with worse outcomes and an increased risk of death for heart patients, so addressing it is critical.

“For some people, their depression could be triggered by something pertaining to a cardiac event, such as their physical symptoms, medication reactions, recovery, changes in lifestyle or feeling overwhelmed,” health psychologist Carolyn Fisher, PhD, explains.

The relationship between depression and heart disease also works in the opposite direction: Someone with a history of depression is more likely to have a heart attack.

Bouncing back — mentally and physically

Because our minds and bodies are so deeply connected, feelings of depression can affect how a person recovers (or doesn’t) from a heart event or surgery in many ways. It can dampen their motivation to take their medications, for example, or to choose healthy foods, or to get up and exercise.

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So if you or a loved one has had a recent heart event or surgery, it’s important to be aware of how your mental health is recovering, too.

“I suggest that patients start with giving themselves permission to take the time and effort to take care of themselves during this difficult time,” Dr. Fisher says.

It sounds simple, but it’s often easier said than done.

“Many patients have had a longstanding role of being ‘the helper’ or ‘provider,’ and the idea of taking care of themselves might seem foreign,” she says.

Taking care of yourself after a heart event means choosing a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and not drinking in excess or smoking. Other elements of self-care might include saying no to obligations that tire you out or make you feel stressed, prioritizing activities that you enjoy and practicing relaxation techniques.

Your doctor might recommend a cardiac rehabilitation program to help you understand nutrition, develop sustainable healthy behavior changes, stick to safe levels of exercise and improve the quality of your everyday life.

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When to seek help

It can be normal for someone’s thoughts to turn more to death after experiencing a life-threatening event such as a heart attack, Dr. Fisher says. “What’s important to watch out for is if these thoughts start to become consuming, or the individual starts to have thoughts about taking their own life,” she says.

Symptoms of clinical depression that may emerge after heart surgery, a heart attack or another heart condition include:

  • Withdrawal from people and activities.
  • Difficulty carrying out daily routines.
  • Not finding pleasure in things that used to bring joy.
  • Suicidal thoughts or feelings.

If symptoms persist beyond the first few weeks, talk to your primary care doctor or cardiologist. He or she will ask you some questions about your experiences and recommend next steps.

“I encourage patients to use their support system,” Dr. Fisher says. “Asking for help when needed can be a challenge for many patients after a heart attack, but it is critical that patients feel supported.”

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