Stress, both good and bad, is part of life. Most of us experience the stressors of work, school, and family that we must deal with regularly. There are also event stressors such as starting a new job, moving, losing a loved one, and so on. The list is endless.
However, living with congenital heart disease can pose additional stressors—surgeries, recoveries, checkups, and medical exams come loaded with their own unique stressors. I must say, in my younger years, I had kind of an “ignorance is bliss” attitude. I felt fine, so I just went along my merry way and pretty much ignored my CHD, Ebstein’s anomaly.
However, that all changed mid-life. Hearing the words “you will need surgery within a few years” shook me to the core. Suddenly, my world turned upside down and became filled with “what-ifs.” I was scared and terrified of the unknown.
Many emotional and physical disorders have been linked to stress. Therefore, anything we can do to keep our stress in check will have health and heart benefits.
I saw firsthand the effects of untreated and unacknowledged stress when my parents moved in with my family due to medical needs on two separate occasions. After they returned to their home in Boston each time, within three months I found myself in the emergency room, once with an uncontrollable nose bleed and then with chest pain. Neglecting self-care had not worked well. So, once I had my surgery date set, I developed a stress reduction plan that I still follow.
- The first thing I did was ensure I was following a healthy diet. I not only started to feel better, but I felt like I was taking control of what I could in my life.
- I also started exercising regularly at a level I could tolerate. The quickest way to relieve stress is to release endorphins through exercise. Find something you love and you are more likely to stick with it.
- A good night’s sleep is essential. Granted, sleep and stress tend to cause a vicious cycle – if you are stressed, then you cannot sleep, which makes you ill-prepared to handle the stressors of the next day, leading to more stress. To relieve stress before bed, I often practice relaxation techniques such as a five minute guided meditation body scan. Disconnecting from technology as much as possible an hour before bedtime also helps.
- I practiced guided imagery before surgery to help me deal with stress and anxiety. The body responds in essentially the same way to made-up imagery as it does to real experiences. Positive, relaxing images can be an effective tool for relieving stress. I visualized myself emerging from surgery healed and healthy.
- Deep breathing has definite healing powers. By slowing down your heart rate and lowering blood pressure, breathing deeply relieves stress. Counted slow, deep breathing exercises helped me relax and stay calm.
- Practice yoga. I have found yoga to be a wonderful way to stay centered and calm. There are many forms of yoga ranging from Hatha and Vinyasa to Bikram and even Chair Yoga, so you are bound to find something at your level.
- Learn to say no and to put yourself first. For many of us, especially women, this is hard—we tend to put other’s needs before our own. Take the time and effort you need to live healthfully.
- Professional help may not be for everyone but if you think you might benefit from it, it might be for you. I started seeing a therapist before surgery to help me deal with my stress and anxiety. She helped me develop an action plan and to identify those things that I could control and what I could not.
- Seek the support of others. Talk with an ACHA Heart to Heart Ambassador to help you work through your feelings. The ACHA webinars on living with CHD and dealing with stress (available in the archives) provided many valuable insights.
- Especially during recovery, I learned to savor the small joys in life, which reduced my stress. I found peace just sitting in my family room watching the birds visit our bird feeder. During my lengthy recovery, I focused on what I could do, not on what I could not. I also surrounded myself with positive people.
Of course, my stress did not end after surgery and recovery. My stress level still peaks before doctor visits. However, in following my stress reduction plan, I feel more control of my life. I may not be able to control what happens, but I can control my reaction.
Note: Always make sure to check with your ACHD cardiologist before beginning any exercise routine.
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The opinions expressed by ACHA bloggers and those providing comments on the ACHA Blog are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Adult Congenital Heart Association or any employee thereof. ACHA is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the ACHA bloggers.
The contents of this blog are presented for informational purposes only, and should not be substituted for professional advice. Always consult your physicians with your questions and concerns.