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COVID-19: What is post-pandemic stress disorder and how can it affect your heart?

Two London physicians recently warned that up to 300,000 people in the UK are facing heart-related illnesses due to post-pandemic stress disorder (PPSD). It is said the effects of PPSD could result in a 4.5% rise in cardiovascular cases nationally, with those aged 30-45 most at risk.

What is post-pandemic stress disorder?

Post-pandemic stress disorder is not yet an official term. But, it was coined by psychotherapist Owen O'Kane as a way of describing the mental impact of living through the pandemic.

According to O'Kane, symptoms of PPSD are similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They can vary from person to person, but can include:

  • Increased anxiety.
  • Feelings of hopelessness.
  • Low motivation.
  • Feeling out of control.
  • Disrupted sleep.
  • Increased or decreased appetite.
  • Feeling numb.
  • Withdrawing from social situations.
  • Being easily agitated.
  • Catastrophic thinking and imagining the worst.

O'Kane says that people with existing mental illnesses could be more susceptible to PPSD, and their symptoms might be more intense.

"If you have previously experienced anxiety or depression, the symptoms may be worse. If you were functioning well before the pandemic and are now experiencing these symptoms, it is likely you are experiencing PPSD," he says.

He stresses the importance of seeking support if you experience these symptoms and they occur regularly. If your bad days outnumber your good days, you should make a GP appointment and they can offer help, such as therapy or medication.

The pandemic has been a challenging life experience for most people, so there isn't any shame in asking for some mental support. There is always help out there if you've endured a traumatic life event.

How can PPSD affect your heart?

Mark Rayner, a former senior psychological therapist, has said as many as 3 million people in Britain are already suffering from PPSD. This is due to increased stress and anxiety from the effects of COVID-19.

He fears these mental ramifications of the pandemic could have greater physical consequences and lead to major health issues, such as coronary heart disease. If cases of PPSD are not recognised and treatment is not offered early on, the consequences could be fatal.

Heart and circulatory diseases already account for 25% of all deaths in the UK (more than 160,000 deaths annually) and around 7.6 million people live with a heart or circulatory disease in the UK.

With research suggesting that patients with symptoms of depression are 64% more likely to develop coronary artery disease, and 59% more likely to have an adverse cardiovascular event, we should take seriously stress caused by the pandemic.

"It is widely recognised that reducing stress and mental health problems is crucial to the prevention and recovery of cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and strokes. We are talking about as many as 300,000 new patients with heart issues," says Rayner.

The pandemic is still ongoing, and it will be a long time before we are fully aware of its after effects, including how it has damaged people's hearts. However, general stress can cause high blood pressure, increasing someone's chances of a heart attack or stroke. With most of the world facing new challenges over the last 18 months, and unexpected stressors, it isn't unreasonable to suggest stress from COVID-19 could have contributed towards heart conditions.

There is a particular concern surrounding young people, with doctors saying they are seeing far younger patients admitted to hospital for surgery and medical intervention for thrombosis-related vascular conditions.

If you have a heart condition, how can you look after your mental health?

If you are living with a heart condition, reducing stress in your life can improve your heart health, or lower your risk of a cardiac arrest or death.

There are some steps you can take to practise stress management:

Get regular exercise - exercise reduces your body's production of the stress hormone, cortisol. It also releases endorphins, which are chemicals that make you feel good. You should find activities that you enjoy and gently ease yourself into a workout regime. Do not push yourself, however, and consult your GP before taking part in any strenuous physical activity to ensure it is safe for you.

Practise yoga - if exercise isn't for you, yoga can be a more gentle way of managing your stress levels. It helps to relax your body and calm your mind, as well as providing great exercise for your heart. Yoga can lower your blood pressure and your risk of developing heart disease. It also helps when you just need time out, away from the stressors of everyday life.

Breathe deeply - practising deep breathing exercises can be a beneficial way of combating stress. Relaxation exercises help bring more oxygen into your body and have been shown to reduce blood pressure levels and stress hormones.

Get plenty of sleep - having a solid structure around your sleep is important for easing stress. Organise a manageable bedtime routine and allow yourself to unwind before going to bed. Try to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night where possible.

Socialise - spending time with people you love can be so good for your mental health. One study actually found that spending time with friends and children helps to release the natural stress-relieving chemical, oxytocin. Many studies have also suggested that people with a strong friendship group tend to live longer and recover better after traumatic health events, such as a heart attack. Having people close to you to lean on also means you can offload your stress, and talk about what is bothering you.

Set boundaries - however, learning how to say no can be a saviour for those who struggle with stress. If you're struggling to keep up with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, it might be wise to sit out of social plans and take time for yourself. Your friends and relatives will understand if you need a break. Schedule in time for yourself, as well as for other people, rather than trying to be everywhere with everyone, all the time.

Where can you find support?

If you are struggling with your mental health - either as a result of the pandemic or other life events - you can contact the Samaritans for urgent support. You might also benefit from joining a local support group, which your GP can signpost you towards. Your doctor can also prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, or refer you for a suitable form of counselling, as well as keep an eye on risk factors for heart conditions.

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