Can trauma and PTSD be caused by a heart attack, cardiac arrest or open-heart surgery?

The quick answer to this is, YES of course it can.

Many people, like you and I, experience trauma when they are diagnosed with chronic health conditions like heart disease, cancer, MS, Parkinson’s etc.-, or have gone through a traumatic event like a heart attack, cardiac arrest or open heart surgery.

It may be something you are going through currently, after a diagnosis, or have done in the past. Well, firstly, it is completely normal to feel this way! This is a life-changing event in your life and trying to make sense of it and wondering how to manage your mental health, as well as your physical health and risk factors, can be daunting at first!

When it comes to something that has happened within us, it can make living in your own body feel like an unsafe place to be.

My best advice? KNOWLEDGE

Learning what has caused your trauma and how you can go about treating and managing it. Hopefully, this is where I can help and start you off.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in a nutshell, is anxiety which has been brought on by a traumatic event. This anxiety can form in different ways in different people, from re-living parts of the event, fear of going to sleep, an extreme increase in rage, guilt and irritability, avoidance of triggers that cause you to remember the event, very realistic nightmares and intrusive negative feelings and thoughts which affect your everyday life.

If you have avoided a hospital appointment following a diagnosis, decided not to take your medication or make lifestyle changes as you are worried this will make it all seem real, these are triggers which can cause your anxiety and feeling of panic to rise to very high levels. Hyperarousal, where you believe every feeling of discomfort inside you could be something far worse than it is, is also a symptom of PTSD.

Does any of this sound familiar? Well, a heart attack or major heart surgery is more than enough to bring on all the above!

You are certainly not alone with these feelings. Research suggests 1 in 8 people suffer from PTSD or trauma following a heart attack. It could be as many as 1 in 4!

Why does it happen? Well, following trauma, parts of your brain are programmed to remember the events that happened as a protection strategy. It will allow you to remember how you felt when you were in that certain time and place in the hope that you won’t be back in that position again. So, if the anxious feelings arise when you notice a twinge or a change in your chest or breathing or when you go to collect your medication or even driving past the hospital you were at, your brain will activate these emotional and physical feelings as a protective barrier. These are what we call your triggers.

Learning what your triggers are and realising what your coping mechanisms have been, is the key to treating your PTSD. 

PTSD and trauma, if not treated, can sometimes get in the way of your recovery, holding you back from feeling confident and able to cope emotionally. Not only that, it can increase your risk factors as  it is also said that stress can cause higher inflammation levels in your body, which as I’m sure you know, when it comes to your heart, this is the last thing you want. It can also increase blood pressure and can increase your chances of heart attack or stroke.

The first step of course is recognising these symptoms within yourself

Realising that you are experiencing some or all of the symptoms of PTSD. Being honest with yourself that you are worried and struggling is a big step but the most important one.

The second step would be to speak to your primary doctor. Whether you do this face to face or by phone it is vitally important you inform your doctor. They will be able to initiate the correct form of treatment and/or medication for you. 

It is important to remember that it doesn’t matter if you have lived with the effects of trauma for a while or if it is a recent occurrence, it is never too late to start treatment and to get help for this. You may not even have realised how much it has affected your quality of life.

Your doctor may sometimes start with something called “watchful waiting”

This is to assess and monitor your symptoms to see if they do decrease without medication and what can be triggering these feelings. For the most part, people do tend to see a decrease in symptoms just from this, but not everyone will, so if symptoms don’t improve then the doctor may then decide to refer you to a psychological therapist.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy teaches us how to recognise the triggers from trauma and how our brain has used these triggers as a protective mechanism after trauma. With time, the therapist will work with you to reverse these coping mechanisms by learning the link between your beliefs and feelings and behaviour. 

They will teach you how to control your feelings and how to build coping strategies so you feel a lot safer. This can be implemented in numerous ways including self talk. If you have been experiencing nightmares or even flashbacks, these can be treated by talking about the events that happened and recognising them and how you felt at the time.

You need to be able to treat your body after the event or diagnosis and being able to go to the treatment whilst controlling your feelings of anxiety is the key to coping and getting better.

There are things you can do to help yourself also, from exercising to talking to friends and family or support networks and just generally taking care of yourself.

You may or may not be offered medicine to help treat your trauma, antidepressants are commonly used in the treatment process, but make sure you talk this through with your medical team and do what’s best for you!

Above all, remember that PTSD is real!

It is treatable and common in people who have had a heart attack, cardiac arrest, have gone through heart surgery or have been diagnosed with a chronic illness and that you are never alone!

For more information about how to manage your heart health emotionally and practically, please give my book a read. Available now on Amazon “The Basics of Heart Health Management at Home”