How to recover after a heart attack

Stephen Joseph, Professor in Psychology, Health and Social Care at University of Nottingham

Professor Stephen Joseph, Professor in Psychology, Health and Social Care at University of Nottingham, shares his advice on moving forward.

After a heart event such as a heart attack, many people will feel distressed. You might have symptoms such as intrusive memories, nightmares, anxiety or difficulty blocking out negative thoughts.

The first thing is to understand that having a heart event is often a traumatic experience, and that you’re not alone.

Perhaps your assumptions about yourself, for example, as a healthy person or someone who does a particular job, are shattered. But it is an opportunity to reconfigure your assumptions and hopes. Post-traumatic stress can lead to post-traumatic growth.

One patient I worked with had a heart attack and was frightened he would have another. His thoughts kept returning to the original event, and he started panicking.

Post-traumatic stress can lead to post-traumatic growth

But that helped him realise how much he loves life and wants to live each day to the full. He’s developed his love of reading history, which helps him put things into perspective. He realised how caring his wife has been, and instead of taking his marriage for granted, he now spends more time with her.

Often, people reprioritise their family life or social relationships; they realise that the most important thing in their lives is their relationships with other people.

Imagine that a vase that’s precious to you has been shattered. You can pick up the pieces and put it back together. It may look the same, but it’s vulnerable to future disaster. It may be better to use the pieces to build something new, like a beautiful mosaic.

Sometimes recovery from a heart event is like that. You may not be able to do all the things you did before, but you can let go of them and find things to replace them.

I’ve developed a six-stage THRIVE model for helping yourself to recover after a heart attack or heart surgery. It stands for:

1. Taking stock

Take time to make sense of what has happened to you. Look after yourself by eating well, being physically active, learning to relax and connecting with other people.

2. Harvesting hope

Being hopeful for the future. Stories of other people who have got through similar experiences can offer inspiration and hope – the stories in Heart Matters are examples, or you could join a support group.

3. Re-authoring

Think of yourself as a survivor, not a victim.

4. Identifying change

Noticing the positive changes you’re experiencing, such as new strengths or interests.

5. Valuing change

Think about what’s important to you and how you can pay more attention to those parts of your life.

6. Expressing change in action

Doing concrete things, whether it’s signing up for a charity run, enrolling in an evening class or cooking a nice meal to show your partner how much you love them.

Professor Joseph is a senior member of British Psychological Society’s Register of Psychologists and author of the book What Doesn’t Kill Us: a guide to overcoming adversity and moving forward (Piatkus Books).

More useful information