Coping with change
Going through change can be unsettling, especially when it’s caused by a heart condition. Sarah Brealey discovers how Trevor Munkenbeck coped with life after a heart attack.
When Trevor Munkenbeck had a heart attack, he felt his world had changed. “Suddenly I had to take medications,” he says. “I felt my friends saw me differently, not as a fit and healthy person. I felt flawed.
And I’d lost my hopes and dreams: the vision I had of attending my five-year-old granddaughter’s wedding one day no longer seemed a certainty.”
As Trevor found out, a heart attack, surgery or being diagnosed with a health condition can change your life. But even if you are in good health, we all have to deal with change. Whether it’s the breakdown of a relationship, bereavement, moving house, losing your job or retirement, it can be hard to adjust to a new scenario.
Just to be able to voice your fears and feelings is helpful
A retired psychological therapist, Trevor was surprised to feel anxious and tearful in the weeks after his heart attack. “I thought I knew how to deal with stuff like this, but when it came to me, I didn’t.”
Karen Rodham, Professor of Health Psychology at Staffordshire University, says changes often create a sense of uncertainty that we naturally find difficult. “As human beings, we like to feel life is ordered and will go in the way we expect,” she says. “When something happens to change that, such as a heart condition, it can make your future seem uncertain and scary.”
Not surprisingly, this can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression or both. Our survey of Heart Matters readers showed this affects numerous people with heart conditions, and many of you asked for tips on coping with change.
Understanding that these feelings are normal can help you to deal with them. Professor Rodham says: “Feeling depression after something like a heart attack is very normal. It is a life-changing event; it is normal to feel down and fed up. It takes time to process it. You can allow yourself to feel it – no one has to be chipper all the time.”
Trevor, too, wants people to know these feelings are common. “This is something that does affect us. You are not being silly in thinking these things,” he says.
“Find someone around you to listen, but if you need to, you can get professional help.”
“The way I have come to terms with it is by talking through it. Just to be able to voice your fears and feelings is helpful,” says Trevor. He found talking to people who’d been through the same thing particularly useful, whether at cardiac rehabilitation, or chatting to friends and acquaintances who’d experienced heart attacks. He also found talking to loved ones, such as his wife and children, helped a lot.
Heart Matters has also been a source of support. “Reading things like Heart Matters is very useful,” he says. “The article about Dr Richard Gale and how he felt after his heart bypass was wonderful – to read that and think someone else has gone through the same thing and feels the same way.”
It was a massive kick in the teeth, but it has been a turnaround
As the months passed after his heart attack in March 2014, Trevor found coping got easier. “Time is a great healer,” he says. “At first I kept worrying that I was going to have another heart attack, but I don’t now. I think what hit me at first is that everything happened so quickly. It takes time to adjust to it.”
Like Dr Gale, Trevor thinks there needs to be more focus on the psychological side of heart problems.
“The physical side is sometimes seen as more important, maybe because it is easier for someone to fix. But the psychological side is important too.”
Trevor feels fortunate that his heart didn’t suffer much damage and says many of his fears, such as being unable to go walking on Dartmoor, have not been realised.
He’s now focusing on the positives; he’s improved his diet and lost a stone-and-a-half in weight. “I can now join in with my grandchildren’s games, which I couldn’t before,” he says.
“It was a massive kick in the teeth, but it has been a turnaround. It’s as if someone said: ‘This is a warning, it is a little knock, but you have the chance to sort things out.’ I feel grateful.”
Where to find help
Not everyone needs professional help to cope with change, but if you feel you would benefit from it, your GP is a good place to start. They may refer you for psychological support to help you come to terms with what has happened. Health psychologists are particularly useful because they understand how physical health affects your psychological health and vice versa.
If you are willing to pay, you can also see a counsellor or a health psychologist privately. Find a directory of chartered psychologists at The British Psychological Society website or counsellors at The British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy website.
To speak to someone at the BHF, you can call the Heart Matters Helpline on 0300 330 3300. If you’re finding it difficult to talk, you might want to consider visiting the Relate website or calling 0300 100 1234.
The Samaritans are not just for people who feel suicidal; they are also there if you are feeling really fed up. Visit the Samaritans website or call 08457 90 90 90.