How to deal with PTSD
It’s common to feel anxious or depressed after a heart event. The experience can even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. Katherine Woods explores the signs and treatments.
In 2011 Rosemary Harris developed a pain in her neck. “It started out of the blue,” she says. “I went to the doctor who sent me straight to hospital, where they found a small blockage in one of my heart arteries.” Rosemary, from Salisbury, had a stent fitted, and for three months all was well.
Before I knew what was happening, I was in an ambulance with flashing blue lights.
“I started getting pains again, and the exercises I’d been doing as part of my recovery were getting harder,” she says. “Before I knew what was happening, I was in an ambulance with flashing blue lights.” Doctors discovered Rosemary’s stent procedure had been unsuccessful and she needed an emergency double bypass.
“I was absolutely terrified. I remember the horror of feeling totally out of control, not knowing whether I would make it, and having to let my son know where I was. It’s lucky I was in a high-dependency unit, because I had a cardiac arrest while waiting for the operation.”
Living with fear of another heart event
Rosemary, then 78, had retired 17 years earlier and lives alone. Although she made a full recovery after surgery, she found it hard to cope emotionally. “For the first few months, I just felt relieved it was over and glad I’d survived,” she says.
I kept reliving the fear, and was constantly worried something might happen when I was home by myself.
“Then I started getting flashbacks of the blue lights, being told I needed the double bypass and the cardiac arrest. I kept reliving the fear, and was constantly worried something might happen when I was home by myself. I tried to fight my thoughts and believed because I was physically better I should be fine, but I wasn’t. I didn’t feel safe going out of the house, worried it might happen again.”
Five months after the surgery Rosemary was booked to go on a cruise. She got to Portsmouth, but was too afraid to get on the ship. “My heart was pounding and jumping all over the place,” she says.
Reaching out for help
Rosemary’s flashbacks and panic attacks continued. Eventually, she talked to her GP, who explained that she might be experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suggested psychological therapy.
“Seeing the psychologist helped me realise I wasn’t the only one feeling like this, and that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself,” Rosemary says. “Realising that what I was going through was normal turned my life around.”
Dr Heather Salt
Dr Heather Salt, a clinical health psychologist who specialises in treating cardiac patients, says it’s important to ask for help. “Some people worry they’ll be seen as overreacting, but PTSD is an understandable reaction to a difficult experience, and it’s important to acknowledge how you’re feeling and seek help.”
PTSD is usually treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). “CBT helps patients piece together their memories, meaning the fearful event can be remembered as an experience, rather isolated flashbacks,” explains Dr Salt. “It also helps people place their trauma in the past, so they no longer feel threatened and fearful in the here and now.”
Some people worry they’ll be seen as overreacting, but PTSD is an understandable reaction to a difficult experience.
Dr Heather Salt
Cardiac rehabilitation education and exercise sessions can also help in building confidence to be more active: “By taking small steps and seeing that going outside or raising your heart rate doesn’t result in another catastrophic event, it becomes easier.”
It was difficult, but Rosemary knew she had to face her fears. “I made myself go to see friends, although it wasn’t always easy and sometimes I would dip out.” Since these first steps, Rosemary built up to a cruise across the Indian Ocean to Myanmar, though she still feels happier and safer holidaying in Europe.
“Keeping busy is very important for me – I like walking and exercise classes,” she says. “Memories of the bypass do return, but they are more distant now, and I’m no longer afraid to talk about it.”