When Is Stress a Real Killer? Mindfulness Helps

We all know life can be stressful, and too much stress can be harmful. It can be bad for our mental and even physical health.

Now imagine you’ve recently had a heart attack or heart surgery. The stress caused by the uncertainties of a challenging rehabilitation can actually slow your recovery. Stress can be detrimental to your health and quality of life.

Recent studies have shown us something about stress and the progress of our patients in cardiac rehabilitation. We’ve found many patients who have heart disease or coronary artery disease suffer from considerable anxiety or depression. In fact 10 percent of men and 21 percent of women suffered from clinical anxiety. We also found 14 percent of women and 24 percent of men had clinical depression.

We’ve taken evidence-based steps to help improve our patients’ post-surgical progress and enhance their recovery. We’re now incorporating mindfulness training in our outpatient cardiac rehabilitation program.

Mindfulness is an age-old Far Eastern meditative practice that’s become widely accepted as an effective contemporary stress-management tool.

Our outpatient cardiac rehab program usually starts a week to a month after the patient is back home. The program includes:

  • Targeted exercises to help the patient rebuild strength.
  • Education on how to reduce the risk of future heart problems
  • Health coaching about adopting healthy habits. These include making ongoing physical activity a regular routine, eating healthfully, quitting smoking and managing weight, blood pressure and cholesterol.
  • Now we’ve added mindfulness education to help patients better cope with today’s busy lifestyles. Without good coping skills, the pace of life can leave many of us with less time for relaxing leisure. Even essential sleep can get short changed. Daily stressors can lead to mindless eating and unsatisfying inter-personal relationships.

Mindfulness education includes:

WellnessWe help patients understand how to be mindful of their breathing, restorative sleep and physical activities. We also help patients improve their interpersonal communications.

Weight Management — We discuss mindful eating as an important element of healthy eating. 

Understanding Stress — We discuss how busy multitasking – the lack of mindfulness – and other aspects of our busy 21st Century lives contribute to unhealthy stress. 

Self-management of Stress — Our patients learn to relax through mindful breathing, mindful meditation and guided imagery.

Mindfulness in daily life teaches a person to manage time more effectively and pay attention to daily activities. Mindfulness provides coping skills that are essential for self-management of stress.

One patient in the program found an added bonus to mindfulness, as she described in this letter:

“I began utilizing mindfulness deep breathing techniques I learned from the medical director about five months ago. I am a professional classically trained singer and voice teacher, actively performing as a jazz and cabaret singer/pianist, so deep expansive breathing used in singing is a part of my daily life. Adding mindfulness incorporating the medical director’s techniques gave me another tool to help deal with anxiety attacks that came on about three years ago after undergoing emergency open heart surgery to repair a severely damaged mitral valve. In the last few months I've been diagnosed with afib and Takotsubo cardiomyopathy.

“As I resume my normal activities, I find mindfulness to be incredibly calming, and I am once again incorporating slow deep breathing into my daily life. This includes teaching it to my voice students — an added bonus!!”

When practiced properly, mindfulness helps our patients progress beyond stress, anxiety and depression. They enhance their lives by discovering how to relax, enjoy daily activities and live a happy life.

Meet the Author

Internist V. Shrinivas Murthy, MD, is director of cardiac rehabilitation at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center and director of preventive cardiology for Aurora Cardiovascular Services in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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