Bill Sylvester has known most of his life that his heart could one day get him in trouble. The family history of heart disease goes back at least three generations. Her mother, three uncles and two grandparents all died of the disease before the age of 65.
Sylvester, a 63-year-old custom baseball bat maker in Big Bear, Calif., Did everything he could to outsmart his genes. He did not smoke or drink. He exercised and followed a low fat diet.
But eventually, Sylvester noticed heartburn-like symptoms in his chest, especially on uphill walks with his wife and dogs. Over time, it spread to his neck and arms. In 2015, doctors found three partially blocked arteries and diagnosed him with coronary artery disease.
A diagnosis that changes life
Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart disease. In this condition, sticky plaque builds up in your arteries and can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, and even a heart attack. Some people respond to the diagnosis with panic, anger or numbness, says Naomi Torres-Mackie, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and head of research at the Mental Health Coalition.
Still others “go into overdrive mode and dive head first into their concerns, working day and night to address them at the expense of their own rest and well-being,” she says.
Sylvester had lived in fear of a heart attack since he was a teenager. This fear escalated when a friend died of a heart attack in the middle of a bike ride.
“He was a bit like me. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he exercised, his weight was good. Sylvester thought he too might die a sudden death.
Sylvester’s anxiety is not unusual. About 1 in 3 people with heart disease suffer from depression and anxiety. Poor mental health in turn makes it harder to heal from heart disease.
It helps to be as kind to yourself as you would a friend. Give yourself the same pep talk, support, and encouragement that you would give your loved ones.
Sometimes you may need professional help if your sadness, anger, anxiety, or other emotions persist for more than a few weeks, or if you have been having thoughts of suicide.
How to deal with your emotions
Ironically, Sylvester was finally relieved of his constant worry about a sudden and fatal heart attack when his doctor confirmed he was in fact suffering from coronary artery disease.
The diagnosis, he says, means “I no longer live year after year wondering if I have heart disease or if I will suddenly die of a heart attack.”
Once you’ve come to terms with your illness, it can be helpful to confide in family and close friends. If you want to keep your CAD diagnostics private, that’s okay. But sharing the news with others gives them a chance to offer valuable support.
You can also connect with a community, online or in person, of people who understand exactly what you are going through. Look for support groups that focus on coronary artery disease in particular or heart disease in general. You’ll find them on social media or through organizations like the American Heart Association. Find a group that can help you ease your anxiety and find new therapies and other helpful information.
A counselor can also help you manage your feelings about this new diagnosis. One study found that for 1 in 3 people who, during their cardiac rehabilitation, also had a type of therapy called metacognitive therapy, which helps you control negative thoughts, their anxiety and depression improve to ‘to one year.
Finally, take care of yourself mentally and physically. And remember the parts of your life beyond your heart problems.
“Take the time to take care of these other parts of yourself so you don’t feel like your diagnosis or condition becomes your whole life,” says Torres-Mackie. “This might be a scary new chapter, but you are still the person you were before your diagnosis.”
For Sylvester, learning as much as possible about his illness has helped him avoid the emotional burden of living with a serious illness.
“It’s a lot less stressful and anxious to know what my condition is and to know that the artery is now reopened with the help of a stent and that I can resume normal activities,” he says.
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