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How Heart Failure Affected My Mental Health

Reading time | 4 mins

When I was diagnosed with heart failure, I thought of it in relation to my physical health. I didn't consider how it would affect me psychologically. 

I mean... why would I?

I understood that breathlessness, fluid retention and erratic blood pressure are all symptoms of heart failure. All of the medical tests concentrate on and confirm this. 

What they don't take account is the whole person. The fact that we have feelings, worries, and fears we won't readily admit. 

No medical test considers how the person feels about their diagnosis.

In my last article, ‘Learning to Live with Heart Failure’, I explained how my Cardiologist recognised that I was worried about the future.

Even then, he simply said: "You need to change your lifestyle". 

At no point did he suggest any kind of mental health support.

In this article, I want to talk about my mental health. I'll also dive into my family's mental health as a whole and the support provided to patients with heart conditions. 

I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers. But what I do have is the first-hand experience of deteriorating mental health brought on by my diagnosis.

Before I share my story, I would like to quote the British Heart Foundation

They surveyed 2777 readers with heart conditions. Here is what they found:

"Heart conditions affect people psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically."

And:

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 do not understand how the condition affected them.

As you can see, mental health issues are common among patients with heart conditions. The big question is, why we don't talk about them?

Heart failure and my mental health

If someone had asked me whether I felt anxious, angry, depressed, stressed, or emotional, I would have said no.

I wasn't looking for these symptoms. Honestly, I didn't recognise them even though I had them. 

I knew my mood was changing. I had lost motivation. I was irritable and sad. 

A mental health problem, though? Definitely not.

I went weeks without leaving the house. I was off my food. Struggled to sleep. Lost interest in personal hygiene. Didn't care what others thought of me and was agitated by the slightest thing.

In short, I was grieving for the life I lost. 

I remember being consumed, constantly, with thoughts about heart failure. 

I didn't want to die prematurely and leave my boys. I felt guilty about not having the chance to meet my grandchildren. I hated the fact I wasn't going to grow old with my loved ones. 

In my head, heart failure was speeding up the process and depriving me of a future.

I realised, the right word is grieving. 

I was grieving for the old me. Still, I didn't recognise I was suffering from poor mental health.

My family told me they were worried 

In the end, my family pointed it out. They saw the change and persuaded me to talk to my GP.

Reluctantly, I agreed. I was quickly diagnosed with depression, most likely brought on by my diagnosis.

The doctor prescribed medication and they advised me to open up about my feelings and ask for help if I needed it.

Medication and talking about mental health made a world of difference to me.

I did feel ashamed at first, but it soon passed. Taking medicine for a mental illness is no different from taking them for physical ailments.

My heart failure was impacting my family’s mental health

So far, the story has been about me, my heart failure, and now my poor mental health.

At no point did anyone consider what effect it was having on my family, including themselves. 

They were also suffering. My family knew I needed help but didn't know how to broach the subject. They were suppressing their own feelings and emotions, and it wasn't helping any of us.

Being diagnosed with depression was a win-win. It gave us a reason to discuss mental health. Without a shadow of a doubt, talking brought all our issues into the light. 

Once we spoke openly about mental health, it felt like a weight was lifted. It was no longer a dirty word. It's an illness and deserves to be treated as an illness.

For the most part, your doctor is best qualified to support you. As well as prescribing medication, they are the starting point if you need a referral to other services.

If you need help, please ask for it!

Wellbeing and self-help

It's quite ironic me writing about wellbeing and self-help. 

If I'm going to be 100 percent honest...  both the terms, "wellbeing" and "self-help", irritate me.

Do you know what irritates me even more? What the experts preach is true! 

We should: 

  • Stop smoking 
  • Reduce our alcohol intake 
  • Eat lots of greens 
  • Exercise more 

I just don't like being told.

However, now that I've started paying attention to my mental health, I see a clear link between my mental and physical state.

It's true what they say: "healthy body, healthy mind." 

I am learning to live with heart failure and everything else that comes with it. It's a work in progress.

The takeaway

Mental health problems are common among people with heart conditions.

Cardiovascular disease is a big deal. In fact, it's life-changing. The shock, fear and stress of a diagnosis are enough to test anyone. 

Yet, and please remember this, help is available.

Looking back at where we started, the overwhelming feeling was one of loneliness. As soon as I asked for help, the loneliness disappeared. 

If you take anything from this article, please let it be this: 

If you're feeling at all unsure about the way you're feeling, or reacting to the world around you, ask for help! 

NPS-IE-NP-00263 April 2021