Overcoming Depression After a Heart Attack
A heart attack can cause various waves of emotion. Many survivors feel scared and nervous, while grateful to be alive, and many also slip into depression. Though feeling down may seem like a natural reaction to heart trouble, depression shouldn't be taken lightly. Left untreated, the condition can sap a heart patient's strength. Those who have recently suffered a heart attack should know that overcoming depression can be the key to recovery.
How common is depression after a heart attack?
Very common. The days and weeks immediately following a heart attack can be rocky. Major depression strikes about 20 percent of all people recovering from an attack, and another 20 percent suffer mild depression. Furthermore, in any given year, one out of three long-term survivors of heart attack will slip into depression.
How dangerous is depression?
Patients with major depression are three to four times as likely as other patients to die within six months of a heart attack. They are also more likely to suffer future heart attacks or return to the hospital for heart trouble.
Why are depression and heart disease such a dangerous mix?
Part of the explanation lies in the body's reaction to stress. Depression can trigger the release of adrenaline and other "stress" hormones that have the potential to increase the heart rate, boost blood pressure, damage the inner lining of the heart muscle and disrupt the heart's rhythm. The hormones can also speed the buildup of fatty plaques in the arteries, setting the stage for another heart attack.
On a more basic level, depression can simply sap a person's will to fight heart disease. A study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that severely depressed heart patients were less likely than nondepressed patients to exercise regularly, give up smoking, eat a low-fat diet or generally follow their doctor's advice.
How can I protect myself from depression?
First, be aware that clinical depression is not a normal part of recovery. Second, remember that cardiologists and primary care doctors may not realize their patients are depressed. To best protect yourself or a loved one from depression, you'll have to watch for the signs yourself. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, you should suspect depression if a person has five or more of the following symptoms for at least two weeks:
- frequent feelings of sadness or emptiness
- loss of interest in pleasurable activities
- strange eating or sleeping patterns
- excessive crying
- thoughts of suicide and death
- difficulty concentrating or remembering
- feelings of worthlessness or helplessness
- unexplained aches and pains that don't respond to treatment
If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from depression, seek help right away from your doctor or a mental health specialist. You may also want to join a support group for heart attack survivors, such as Mended Hearts, which is sponsored by the American Heart Association.
Besides seeing a doctor, what else may help me recover from depression?
Getting regular exercise. Daily walks and a good exercise program, under your doctor's supervision, will improve your mood, boost your energy, and give you new strength to fight your disease. Of course, exercise will also strengthen your heart. And if you're battling depression and heart disease at the same time, you and your heart will need all of the strength you can get.