What is PTSD?

PTSD written on a leaf

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that can be caused by very stressful events, including an event such as a heart attack or cardiac arrest. Clinical Health Psychologist Dr Heather Salt talks to us about PTSD causes and treatments.

How common is PTSD?

Research suggests around 15 per cent of heart patients experience PTSD – significantly higher than the general population.

What causes PTSD?

People might develop PTSD after an experience such as a heart attack, cardiac arrest or emergency surgery, where they felt extreme fear of death.

An implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) delivering an electrical impulse to regulate the heart’s rhythm can also be very scary. Because these situations are so emotionally charged, it affects the way people experience and remember them.

What are the symptoms of PTSD?

Characteristic symptoms are flashbacks to the event and intrusive thoughts, and people may avoid situations that remind them of it.

This constant feeling of an immediate threat can give rise to other symptoms

People can become very worried about their heart, avoiding anything that increases their heart rate, or might even be afraid of falling asleep or being on their own. This constant feeling of an immediate threat can give rise to other symptoms, such as trouble concentrating, being irritable or easily startled.

What help is available for PTSD?

PTSD is treated with trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Drug treatment might also be offered to people having difficulty sleeping, and people with depression may need to take antidepressants.

Talk to your GP or a member of your cardiac team about referral for treatment if you think you might be experiencing symptoms of PTSD.

Some psychological therapy services also encourage self-referral, so you can contact them directly. Visit Improving Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT) to find one near you.

There are also the following sources of support:

  • National trauma support organisations such as AfterTrauma.
  • Mental health charity Mind: call 0300 123 3393, email [email protected] or text 86463.
  • BHF’s online community HealthUnlocked offers advice and support from others affected by heart and circulatory diseases.

What can loved ones do?

Sometimes it can be difficult for people with PTSD to talk about their feelings or recognise their symptoms, and they might avoid thinking or talking about their traumatic event. They might also avoid activities or places that remind them of the event, and may not want to go out or speak to people, including loved ones.

If you notice signs of PTSD in a loved one, you can help by encouraging them to take part in daily activities and social interactions. You can let them know that while PTSD may resolve itself, it is also a treatable condition that they do not have to face alone.

Let them know professional help is available and show them how they can access it. It’s also possible to develop PTSD after witnessing a loved one having a cardiac arrest or heart attack. Although you may feel like you are not the ‘patient’, it’s just as important to seek professional help to treat the PTSD.


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