Heart and Mind: Battling the Depression of Heart Disease
You have just been handed a diagnosis of heart disease. For some it may mean an immediate heart procedure and the fears provoked by any surgical procedure. For others, it may be a more insidious fear that a time bomb lurks deep inside you chest waiting to explode. I fall into the latter group.
My first relative died of a heart attack at age 54. I am currently two months shy of that age and almost dread each passing day. Of course, I am doing everything humanly possible to avoid the fate of my close relatives - things that they never did. I get yearly heart scans to track this murderous invader. Advanced blood testing has identified the culprit (lipoprotein(a) in my case) and I employ a multitude of weapons (diet, supplements, drugs, etc.) to fend of the attacking disease at every avenue of approach. Some years I win the battle for my body and some years I lose. But every year, the paranoia over "the stalker" stays with me. The next battle we must all win is the battle for control of our minds!
Numerous studies have found that depressed persons suffer a significantly greater heart attack risk compared to the non-depressed persons. Here are links to a few studies you can review for confirmation.
Having realized that the mind exerts powerful effects over heart disease, the next step is to take action. Many of us have become self-taught experts on battling the physical aspects of heart disease. The time has come to take a similar approach in order to gain the same control over the mental and emotional factors that affect heart disease. Here are some useful strategies I have used.
Your Brain is Just Another Organ: Treat It Like One
Perhaps the greatest impediments to gaining control of our minds are the misconceptions and stigmas associated with anything related to mood, emotion, or mental function. Regardless of your personal beliefs about who you are and what makes "you" you, we cannot escape the fact that chemical reactions in the brain exert a powerful effect on how we "feel" and behave. We readily accept that diet, exercise, supplements, drugs, and the advice of cardiologists and other doctors can help our hearts. Why be irrationally opposed to the same strategies to enhance the performance of our brains - especially if it will help us gain control over our hearts? Do the same homework you do to treat the organ known as the "brain" as you do to treat the organ we call the "heart." Seek out qualified psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists (only psychiatrists can prescribe medications and most require a referral from a psychologist or therapist). Study what has worked for others while maintaining a degree of skepticism to avoid "quackery" (the quacks abound in every medical market). Any military strategist will tell you must first, "know your enemy" to beat the enemy.
Understand the Risks
Having heart disease is more about managing risk than it is about managing an outcome like heart attacks. Modern medicine is pretty darn good at managing what happens after a heart but two-thirds of heart attack victims never make to the hospital. Our goal is prevent a heart attack from ever occurring in the first place. Ignorance is not "bliss" it is morbidity. The person without a diagnosis for heart disease, cancer, or any other potentially life-threatening disease is in more danger than an informed individual. The difference is the informed person knows their risk and can therefore take steps to reduce it. The ignorant person is defenseless. Who should be more worried or depressed?! Think about it.
You take a risk every time you drive your car and the statistics for motor vehicle death and injury are well known. But, that doesn't stop you from driving and perhaps does not even motivate you to do so much as buckle your seat belt. Many people would prefer to drive 500 miles rather than fly because of an inordinate fear of flying yet the risk of death over a 500 mile trip is far greater in a car. There are many new and more precise tools for quantifying your heart attack risks and how to reduce them. Stress tests and cholesterol screenings, while useful in some situations, are hopelessly outdated in terms of accurately assessing your personal risk. Do your homework and gain control over risk.
Find or Create a Support Group
Don't expect someone who has no idea of what you are going through to fully understand the mental or physical aspects of heart disease. Find those who share our common foe. There is an old saying that, "Misery loves company." Dark humor to be certain but it speaks to the power of sharing common goals as well as burdens. A good place to start is right here at HealthCentral. It is also a great place to do the "homework" I suggested in the previous strategies and you will find many people willing to share their experiences about "what works" without being judgmental. One of the biggest factors feeding depression is the overwhelming feeling that you are alone. Trust me, YOU ARE NOT!
Heart Disease is a NOT a Death Sentence
Perhaps the most powerful driver of depression among heart disease sufferers is the misguided notion that heart disease inevitably progresses to disability and early death. Let me be as blunt as I possibly can, heart disease can be "cured" (to the extent that any disease can be cured - you can always relapse) and heart attacks can be prevented. This is not wishful thinking, it is a fact proven in practice by pioneering "preventional" cardiologists such as Dr. William Davis (who also blogs at HeartCentral) and Dr. William Blanchet. Like any disease, the "cures" for heart disease are not perfect but they are becoming increasingly more effective everyday.
As a heart health consumer advocate I have also seen the dark side of health care for heart disease. The dark side is equal parts ignorance, arrogance, and greed. You do not have to sit idly by waiting for the surgeon's knife or impending doom. Most recently the COURAGE study found (quite to the dismay of its authors) that stents, for example, "did not reduce the risk of death, myocardial infarction, or other major cardiovascular events when added to optimal medical therapy."
So let's recap. Depressed over heart disease? Do this.
- Get over the stigma of treating your brain just as you do your heart.
- Understand your personal risks - not those of the general population.
- Look for support groups. You are not alone!
- Heart disease is not a death sentence. Do your homework and find your cure.
Depressed is no way to live and it is another risk factor for heart disease. Empowered, self-directed healthcare is the prescription. Take a dose every day!
Looking out for your heart health,