Heart disease and mental health

A heart condition can affect all aspects of your life – especially your psychological or emotional health. Sarah Brealey reports on the revelations of our exclusive survey.

Heart conditions affect people psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically, as Heart Matters’ survey of 2,777 readers with heart conditions reveals. These respondents are living with all types of heart issues, although the most common were high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack and angina.

Our results reveal the scale of the issue. More than two thirds – 68% – said their condition had affected them mentally, emotionally or psychologically. Of those who said their heart condition had affected their emotional wellbeing, anxiety was the most common symptom, with 77% saying they suffered from it. Over half (51%) said they had felt low, depressed or tearful, 47% felt scared and 38% felt other people didn’t understand how the condition affected them (see graph below).

Emotional effects of heart condition graphic 

Having a heart issue can cause feelings of fear. Our respondents’ most common fears are of having a heart attack, stroke, or cardiac arrest, especially among people who have already had one of these, and/ or a fear of dying. Linked to these were concerns about loved ones, such as the man who wrote: “I may have another heart attack and leave my family without a dad.”

But there is also a brighter side. Forty-eight per cent of people felt lucky to be alive, while 9% said they felt relieved. People who were diagnosed more than three years ago felt this way the most strongly, and those diagnosed in the past year were least likely to feel that.

Talking to someone

Illustration showing 68% of people affected emotionally by their conditionDespite these strong feelings, most people (67%) did not speak to anyone about the emotional or psychological impact of their condition. For 45% of people, this was because they didn’t feel it was necessary.

More worryingly, about 40% didn’t speak to anyone because they didn’t think anything could be done to help them, they did not know how to talk about it, thought their doctor wouldn’t be interested, or believed that other people would judge them.

One woman who has had a heart attack and suffers from daily anxiety, said: “I didn’t think anyone would be interested.” A woman with heart valve disease said: “I felt it was important to me, but I did not think it would be to my doctor.”

Ripple effect

The results show how widespread the mental impact of cardiovascular disease can be

Dr Mike Knapton

The mental effects of your heart disease can affect all areas of your life, including work and relationships. Nearly a third (29%) of people in work said the mental impact of their condition affected their ability to work. This included being less productive at work, having to leave their job, taking time off or reducing their hours.

It can also affect your relationships, though sometimes in positive ways. Of those in a relationship, 26% said their relationship had strengthened as a result of their heart condition, while a slightly smaller number (22%) said it had strained their relationship. A further 2% said their relationship had ended as a result.

Finding support

Illustration showing age groups which have been affected The most common route to finding support was by joining Heart Matters, which was mentioned by 59% of our respondents. Leaflets and books provided support and information for 44%, and 39% attended a cardiac rehabilitation programme in their area.

Only 10% of people sought professional help, the same number that chose to deal with their issues through a new activity, such as volunteering. However, 20% didn’t do anything to deal with their issues and this rises to 37% of those within a year of diagnosis.

Dr Mike Knapton, a GP and our Associate Medical Director said: “The results of this survey show how widespread the mental impact of cardiovascular disease can be. It’s really important to talk to someone about your problems, otherwise it’s hard to access support.

“Most doctors are aware of these issues and willing to help. If you’re not getting the support you need, you can ask to see someone else at the surgery or consider other ways to get help.”

I feel like a ticking time bomb. A lot of my family have succumbed to heart attack or stroke... will I go the same way?

Man with high blood pressure

Some people used exercise or other lifestyle changes to help themselves psychologically. One woman with a heart rhythm problem said: “By exercising gently I found I could keep my heart rate at manageable levels and this increased my confidence and decreased my fear levels.”

We asked people if they felt there was enough emotional support available for recovering heart patients. Sixteen per cent felt they could not offer an opinion, and of those who did, opinion was split; 30% agreed or strongly agreed there was enough support, while 33% disagreed or strongly disagreed.

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