When people email or talk to me after they've heard my heart attack story, I get a lot of the same questions:
"Do you have a family history?"
"Do the doctors know what caused it?"
"What did the heart attack feel like?"
So many questions focus on the physical and technical aspects of heart attacks, but there is a very real and scary mental health side to being a survivor. While 1 in 10 Americans suffer from depression, approximately 33% of heart attack patients are affected. I was no exception.
Right after everything happened, I had a year where I was depressed. If I wasn't feeling numb, I was crying over anything. I worried I would die in my sleep, worried that I would have another heart attack, sad that I wasn’t running, and concerned my life would never be the same. It truly felt like I would never have a happy day ever again. The financial stress of hospital bills, specialist co-pays and expensive medications only added to my misery. A thick layer of survivor’s guilt covered everything. At one point I actually visualized myself driving off the highway.
After the depression subsided, the anxiety sunk in. I still struggle with overwhelming feelings of anxiety to this day. Feelings of anxiety and depression in heart attack survivors is 3x as prevalent in survivors as in the general population. I don't get anxious over anything in particular, it's more like random anxiety attacks that are overwhelming and cause me to bail on running, hide in bed for the night or stare at a TV screen for hours. It's not linked to anything in particular, like stress at work or school, it just comes on randomly and stays a few days. Then, if something stressful happens during that time it is heightened. So on the one hand, I'm much more relaxed every day, but when the anxiety flares, I'm a mess. I know, I don't get it either. #confusing
For me, medication and counseling were essential components to my road to recovery. There are a number of ways of working through depression with heart attack survivors. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI) can also be used.
Regardless of how you feel about mental health help, reach out survivors. You can’t do it alone and you don’t have to. Healing psychologically is just as important as healing physically. In fact it has been shown that survivors with a positive outlook not only fare better with their mental healthy, but have a lower mortality rate. So stay positive and seek help.
Sarah Klena is a blogger, educator and runner living in Orlando, Florida. After surviving a massive widow maker heart attack at the age of 31, she has made heart disease awareness her mission. Through her blog, Heart Attack at 31, work with the American Heart Association and speaking engagements, she tells her story and motivates others to take care of their hearts. Her story has been featured in Good Housekeeping magazine, The Dr Oz show and in numerous online publications.
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