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Heart attack

Coping with emotions after a heart attack

People often find they need to recover emotionally from their heart attack as well as physically. Learning there is something wrong with your heart can be distressing, and people's reactions differ. Here they talk about their feelings during the months following their heart attack and how they coped with their emotions.

A few people said their heart attack had not affected them too much emotionally; they could adopt a positive attitude quite soon afterwards. Others commented that it took a bit longer, but in time they had been able to accept what had happened to them, and they made a conscious effort to put it behind them and to move forward (see 'Attitude to life after a heart attack'). A few were still struggling to cope with their emotions several years after their heart attack.

 

After a short period of feeling sorry for himself he decided to get on with his life.

After a short period of feeling sorry for himself he decided to get on with his life.

Age at interview: 61
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 49
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I didn't really attach too much importance to it all. I'd had the heart attack, which surprised me. I couldn't really figure out why it had happened to me and after the short period of feeling sorry for myself and wondering why it happened to me, I just adopted the attitude well it had happened, so it was nothing unusual, so just get back on with life, which I did. 

The only thing I was a bit cautious about was doing any sort of sport, which involved explosive activity. So squash was out for instance, not that I played a great deal, but sort of things like that were out. But I still tried to keep myself fit, moving around and didn't really let it affect me all that much.

 

It took a bit of time to accept what had happened to her, but then she made a conscious effort to...

It took a bit of time to accept what had happened to her, but then she made a conscious effort to...

Age at interview: 63
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 63
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One has to stay positive. One has to say that the doctors have done what they can do and when they tell you this is mended, this is the way it's going to be. Then you just have to say, yes I believe and say that it's over and done with and go from there and just build your life again. You might not be able to do all the things that you did before. Your mind might not be able to think as clearly as it did before, but you can get over it. You can build up your life. You do slightly less if that's what it takes. 

You don't, you don't have to spend time thinking about it. You do some activity, maybe physical activity, or an activity with friends. I spend a lot of time sewing, so that keeps my mind busy. And just take each day as it comes and enjoy it as much as you can and just say well that's one chapter of my life that's done with. Let's go on to the next one and enjoy it as much as you can and think that life is good and there's only one life to enjoy so you might as well enjoy it.

 

Mervyn felt anxious and emotionally low after he left hospital but the support of his wife helped...

Mervyn felt anxious and emotionally low after he left hospital but the support of his wife helped...

Age at interview: 76
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 73
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I think it slowly wore off. I was encouraged by my wife to say, ‘Oh don’t worry you will be ok’. And things like that and everybody around me, family and it slowly, I say it slowly got better and I’m perfectly. I’ve got no anxiety. I feel really good now.
 
No. I didn’t try to hide it at all and every time I felt anxious or felt down in the dumps and whatever you like to call it I would tell my wife and she’d be very sympathetic towards me and say, ‘Let’s go out for a walk. I’ll come with you.’ And it seemed to work.
 
You said also that for a while you felt lonely.
 
Yes, yeah, yeah.
 
Was it because you felt that people would not be able to understand what you were going through?
 
I don’t know. I don’t know why I felt lonely. I’ve never felt lonely and I suppose it was just a reaction, you know, to what I’ve been through. That’s the only answer I can give you but it’s very, very strange, very strange.

 

 

 

Many people described feeling a range of emotions including'

  • fear of having another heart attack
  • anxiety
  • loss of confidence
  • anger
  • frustration
  • irritability and short temperedness
  • depression

A few people found it frightening to leave the security of the hospital, the first day that they came home. One man felt lonely at first, even though the house was full of relatives. A woman living alone had worried about going to sleep the first night she was on her own in the house.

 

She believed that she was so anxious before she started rehabilitation that this actually caused...

She believed that she was so anxious before she started rehabilitation that this actually caused...

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 53
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I didn't want to come home. I was frightened, I was frightened to come home. I didn't want to stop in hospital but I didn't want to come home. I thought, well my husband's got to go work, I'm going to be on my own and it's really frightening, that time.  

From, I think it's about 8 weeks, that 8 weeks from coming out of hospital to going to the rehabilitation, it's really frightening because you're sitting on your own and you have these twinges and you have pain in your chest, you know all these things are happening and I think all it is, is fear. When you're frightened you tense up, and I think that's what brings the pain on.  

And it's just fear, you're frightened of doing something or going out. I bought myself a mobile. I had to carry my mobile everywhere with me. If I went and took the dog for a walk, I'd be frightened in case I'd have to phone an ambulance and what would happen to my dog, because I couldn't take the dog in the ambulance. It's just really frightening.

 

So much was going on in his mind that he felt cut off from the people around him.

So much was going on in his mind that he felt cut off from the people around him.

Age at interview: 67
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 65
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When you get the panic attacks, I mean there was quite a few times I actually woke the wife up at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning because, and it was something she couldn't, a lot of people couldn't understand, I suppose. Feeling lonely,I think it was basically because of the things that was going on in your mind, more than anything. 

I mean there could be a house, I mean I was upstairs quite a few times and there, I knew there was a, you know, my son and his missus and my missus and other people down here, but still you felt lonely. It's, it's hard to explain. 

Yeah, it was, it, it's a very peculiar sense, sensation. There was many a time, as I said, we had a house'full, we had a house full of people and my son and his missus and my missus and the dog and all the rest of the people. You knew they were downstairs but you get this fear that you had to be amongst people. 

And many time I've actually come down and just sat in the chair and, of course, I could feel other people sort of, I could feel them looking at us and they were wondering, you know, what's, what's wrong like, you know? But I, I couldn't tell people what was wrong basically because I didn't know myself. I just couldn't put my finger on what was making us feel that way.

  

 

She worried about going to sleep the first night she was on her own at home.

She worried about going to sleep the first night she was on her own at home.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 53
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Yes I came home and my daughter looked after me for three weeks and then she had to go home because she was going back to University and then I was on my own, which was really scary, the first night on my own. Very, very scary. 

Can  you say a bit more about that?

Almost frightened to go to bed in case you didn't wake up again. Although logically, you believe you're going to wake up, you know I'd woken up for the past three weeks but of course it's the being on your own, you know it is scary. There's not somebody there to say 'you're alright,' so yes, I managed.

 

After leaving hospital Mervyn felt vulnerable and very anxious particularly when on his own.

After leaving hospital Mervyn felt vulnerable and very anxious particularly when on his own.

Age at interview: 76
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 73
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Mervyn' One thing that kept going through my mind was, ‘Am I going to have another one?’ But I did ask my GP and he said, ‘I can’t really tell you’. So I suppose I could or I probably won’t have another one. That’s a little bit of a worry. That’s still on my mind now actually.
 
So that has been your main worry?
 
Mervyn' Yeah. But when I first, when I came out of hospital I, although everybody was very good to me including my family and people at the gym and, they were all concerned and. I say they were very, very helpful indeed. I still, I felt extremely vulnerable and, and anxious all the time. I don’t think it was the fact that, you know, I felt alone as well. I can remember saying to my wife, ‘You know I feel anxious and alone’. And although I’m alright now, you know, but I can remember I felt really anxious. One evening I was very anxious. Can you remember [Wife]? I was very anxious and I had to call somebody out didn’t I?
 
Mervyn’s wife' [uh huh]
 
Mervyn' Do you remember? Yeah and a doctor came didn’t he?
 
Mervyn’s wife' Oh yeah.
 
Mervyn' Yeah. I’d. I was hyperventilating is it? Yeah but I soon got over that and he assured me I was perfectly alright when he came and…
 
Mervyn’s wife' When you were on your own you were anxious
 
Mervyn' Yeah when I was on my own I felt. Although I was very rarely on my own I felt quite vulnerable.
 
And for how long did you have these feelings?
 
Mervyn' I would say 6 months.
 
After the heart
 
Mervyn' After the actual heart attack and it, then it slowly waned.

 

Some said they worried about having another heart attack at first, but they had tried to adopt a positive attitude, to not dwell on it, and in time they found they worried less.

A few people had had panic attacks, caused by anxiety. One man said that these had continued for several years and he still gets them occasionally.

 

For the first few months she had panic attacks when she thought she was having another heart attack.

For the first few months she had panic attacks when she thought she was having another heart attack.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 53
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Well I had visitors, everybody sort of kept an eye on me without trying to be too obvious. I did have bouts of anxiety and I would go and stay with my mum. My son would take me over there and I'd stay for a few days and then I'd come back when I felt better. 

And apparently, this happens quite a lot with people who are reasonably young having a heart attack, you get these anxiety attacks, which again is this wave of feeling which is similar to the heart attack but, but not quite the same. 

And I would get it for no apparent reason; it was obvious that my brain was doing something that I wasn't really aware of. Then I would feel dreadful and I couldn't, I didn't want to be on my own, so my mum would look after me for a few days and that was nice.

Some people had lost their confidence after their heart attack. In many cases, this was only for a short while until they attended a cardiac rehabilitation programme (see 'Cardiac rehabilitation and support'). Others said that it had taken many months or in a few cases, years to build up their confidence. One man felt his confidence had not returned to how it was before his heart attack, ten years later.

 

He felt severely depressed, frightened and had lost his confidence after his heart attack.

He felt severely depressed, frightened and had lost his confidence after his heart attack.

Age at interview: 63
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 53
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That then was crunch time for me. Any confidence I'd had before just drained away. I, from that moment on, I became a failure. I did everybody down, I'd never be good enough to do anything worthwhile again. It was all psychological but it was overwhelming, and from that day I have never been the same. It was quite, quite horrendous. 

To go from being over-confident to frightened of everybody and everything that went on; every noise from then was tremendous. Anyone coming near me, apart from two of the doctors, even the nurses frightened me. Two of the doctors I welcomed seeing them, wife and family, fine. Any stranger; I actually retreated from them, I was terrified of them. They were a threat and I couldn't understand why, it was just there, but everything ensued; panic attacks.

Ever since I've had angina I don't go 48 hours without having angina. I get, there never seems to be any reason for it to happen. I eventually did come out of hospital after a, I was there for a fortnight. But when I got home, nothing was the same. I wasn't the same. 

There were days I would quite happily have died. I'd made up my mind, that if I had another heart attack, I wasn't going to be the one to send for an ambulance because I did not like what was happening to me; it was just so horrific, so depressing, miserable, it was just no way to live. And this of course was only a month after I'd had the original heart attacks. 

Some people who had felt a bit down or low for the first few weeks after their heart attack managed to overcome these feelings. A few experienced depression, which they had found difficult to overcome (see Interview 33). One man was severely depressed with suicidal thoughts during the first few months after his heart attack. Reiki and counselling had helped some of those we spoke to (see 'Complementary therapies and approaches after a heart attack') If depression continues beyond six weeks, people should talk to their GP or cardiac rehabilitation nurse, as it can hinder recovery from a heart attack.

 

He feels lucky to have managed to overcome any depression he felt.

He feels lucky to have managed to overcome any depression he felt.

Age at interview: 62
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 56
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I reckon you can have a heart attack and start to recover and be tremendously depressed by it but believe myself that you've got to sort of fight that. Everyone won't overcome it, there will be people that will be depressed by it and it will sort of really have an effect on their lives and I've got an awful lot of sympathy and understanding for that, which perhaps I didn't have as a younger person. But I believe that any depression I suffer from, I can overcome it at present. Hopefully touch wood, I always can. Okay.

What sort of things do you do to overcome it?

I just, well do the things I've always enjoyed doing. I've said, right I'm going to go to the golf club. I'm going to have a cup of tea or coffee, I'm not going to play but I'm still going to do that if I can because sort of talking to friends and acquaintances, other people that maybe have had other disabilities or whatever, it brings you out of yourself sometimes. 

I think the worst you can do is sit meditate and cogitate and think, 'Why has life dealt me this horrible deal of two heart attacks or whatever.' Many people are worse off than me. That's how I get over it, I just do. I might even like last week said, [wife's name], there's an offer in the paper here for a weekend in Dublin.' Booked it on the Wednesday and travelled Friday morning. That sort of thing, that cheered me up. I said, 'Right I can do that and let's go and do it.' That's how I deal with it.

 

He was severely depressed for many months after his heart attack.

He was severely depressed for many months after his heart attack.

Age at interview: 63
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 53
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I didn't want to go to bed, but then I never wanted to get up in the morning. I just, I really couldn't face the days. I was, it was so much, I was completely depressed; which was new to me, I didn't understand it, I didn't know I was depressed. I was actually suicidal but I didn't realise I was depressed, that had to be explained to me. 

I was having panic attacks over absolutely nothing. And I could just be on my own and just think of old army mates, or [sighs] or what I should be doing, and I'd panic, and it, and, panic attacks are absolutely dreadful. 

I wouldn't try to explain to anybody what a panic attack is because I'm just not clever enough to explain it, but it is absolutely dreadful. And because you don't know what caused it, it's difficult to stop it. It just goes on and on and on. 

A few people said they had not felt depressed but had felt quite tearful and emotional at times.

Some people felt angry or frustrated, especially those who had, had a heart attack at a young age. One woman explains that she tried to be positive, but often she felt angry and depressed at having a heart attack when she was only thirty-seven. One man, who couldn't do the things he could before, felt angry and frustrated during the first year after his heart attack.

 

She felt angry and depressed at having a heart attack when she was only thirty-seven.

She felt angry and depressed at having a heart attack when she was only thirty-seven.

Age at interview: 37
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 36
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Yeah, tired and still depressed and down and, because I don't know, who'd have thought I'd have to have the stent put in and I don't know, it's all so, so much to cope with at 37.

I think that's, maybe that's one of my main problems, it's because of my age and I, I just find it all so hard to cope with and I find it, even now I find it difficult to cope with because I look at some people and they're like older than me and I think, you know, they haven't had a heart attack and they're doing this and they're doing that and, and they smoke and, you know, I just look at other people and I think, and they're really overweight and then, they eat like this and that and, you know, so you start judging. You know, you start judging, I know you shouldn't but, you know, I can't help it sometimes.
 

He felt frustrated and angry at not being able to do the things he could before his heart attack.

He felt frustrated and angry at not being able to do the things he could before his heart attack.

Age at interview: 58
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 57
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I think you're angry with yourself, frustrated with yourself and angry with yourself because you see something, not a major thing that you'd being doing all your life, and you can't do it and you get, initially you get so frustrated, 'Now why can't I do it you know' 'Is there another way I can do it.' 

And then the frustration turns in to anger against yourself because again you're going in to this, 'my family are having to do this, am I becoming a burden on my family' and you go down that line of thought then and I know you shouldn't and I mean you can rationally say everything to yourself what needs saying, but when it's you talking to yourself, it's not as successful as when it's somebody else.

You tend not to listen to yourself and the frustration like I say stemmed from not being able to do things that I've done all my life, suddenly I could no longer do them, which impacted on the family as well.

Suddenly we could no longer do this together or that together and the frustration turned to anger as well you know, and really it was an on-going process. I mean, even now, although I deal with it an awful lot better, I don't get frustrated very often, I very, very rarely get angry with situations. Still now and then I will do, but it passes then because I've, in a positive way, I'm in total acceptance of where we are and what's happening.

A few people who said they had felt depressed, angry or frustrated were forced to retire early, which had contributed to these feelings (see 'Returning to work after a heart attack').

Some noticed they had become more short-tempered or irritable. One man said he was very short-tempered at home for three months after his heart attack, and he felt guilty about taking it out on his wife. Another described the 'black moods' he had after his triple bypass surgery.

 

Thinks that fear and anger at what had happened to him led him to take it out on his wife.

Thinks that fear and anger at what had happened to him led him to take it out on his wife.

Age at interview: 46
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 42
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But everybody else was saying how marvellous I was doing and you know patting me on the back for handling this terrible thing so well and I mean [my wife] was getting recognition for the support she'd given me as well but it was, I think it was, it wasn't fair that everybody was saying how fantastic I was handling it when [my wife] was getting the dark side.  

And I really was horrible, I was finding fault in things that weren't there. I was sort of picking on little things and making a lot out of them. I was so argumentative you know, I'd argue that black was white and, sometimes I sort of knew I was doing it and stopped an apologise but I'd then do it again two minutes later. And it really did get bad to the point that we had an absolute screaming row in the kitchen and it really was sort of hands on hips shouting. 

And it just all came out about how frightened I still was and that I was frightened that I might die. Well I still, I didn't actually, it sort of came out but then I, I didn't actually consciously sit there thinking you know I might die tonight or tomorrow or whatever, but it was just the fact that I think I've never even given, the fact that it was ever a possibility at forty two as I was. You don't feel quite immortal but you don't consider going quite so soon [laughs]. And now I had to face it and I didn't handle it very well at all. 

 

He had black moods after his triple bypass surgery.

He had black moods after his triple bypass surgery.

Age at interview: 63
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 40
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Yes, I would say, straight from the outset, I'm very, very glad that we had such, and still have such a strong marriage because the black moods, the despair and very much out of character after the triple bypass initially had me breaking down and crying for no apparent reason. 

I could have been talking much as I am now, to either my wife or a friend or a colleague, and I would start to cry and to this day I couldn't tell anybody why. I then got quite black moods, a case of 'Why me?', 'Why is it happening to me?' 'What have I done, what have I done to deserve it?'  

All the usual sayings and I think because it's the nearest and dearest, the only person that's with you at that time, you take out of them some of your own anguish, some of your own anger and poor dear, she suffered it for long enough and then she put her foot down in no uncertain terms and said, 'I am not having it, you will change or I will change you.' [laughs] And it brought me up short. 

I thought, 'Why the devil should I be taking all my inner anguish, all my anger at what's happened to me on the person who cares most.' She was right, I can't say anymore, she was exactly right. She didn't deserve the manner in which I was talking and carrying on. Had we not been so happy and strong initially, and since, it could well have caused great problems, much more than it did, much more than it did.  

One man still felt more irritable or short-tempered than he had done before his heart attack, and he wondered whether this might be caused by his medication.

 

He has become short-tempered, which he thinks might be a side effect of the ace inhibitor and...

He has become short-tempered, which he thinks might be a side effect of the ace inhibitor and...

Age at interview: 77
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 70
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But when it happens to yourself, I think you see the worst side of everything.

Can you explain that a little bit more?

Well, you know you see the bad side of the thing, you've had a heart attack, how bad has it been, what's the damage, are you going to have another one. If I do this I may have one. I mustn't do this, I mustn't do that. In a way it made life a bit hard for my wife. 

I realised that fully and the treatment I'm on, these various tablets, they do make you a little bit short-tempered, I'm to understand. And I snap at her sometimes when I shouldn't. But that may be one of the side effects of it.

Three men commented that their first heart attack hadn't had too much of an impact on them but hat their second heart attack had been harder to cope with.

 

His second heart attack was harder to cope with because he had done everything he could to...

His second heart attack was harder to cope with because he had done everything he could to...

Age at interview: 62
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 56
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Unfortunately I had a subsequent heart attack in 1999 and that itself was even more debilitating and surprising than the initial heart attack or, or what probably was the second heart attack, not being aware of what, I was told I'd had a first heart attack. So if we call the first one that I say, the second one, the final one, the one I knew about, with you know the classic chest pains again. 

That was even more disappointing and debilitating given that I'd made an absolutely one hundred per cent conscious effort to modify my diet. Certainly limit any alcohol intake, didn't smoke, exercised regularly, watched my weight. Didn't have any sort of inadvisable foods, all the rest of it. 

Given I'd done all that so I quite conscientiously, quite religiously almost, was so disappointed to think, 'Why am I that unlucky that I've had a subsequent heart attack,' and I found that one harder to take than the, the first one. But I've come through it, I mean I've done it. 

Last reviewed June 2017.

Last updated March 2013.

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