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How to manage stress when living with cardiomyopathy

Living with a long-term condition such as cardiomyopathy can be challenging and easily lead to stress, whether it is about ongoing health problems or treatments, lifestyle changes or the future. Left unchecked, however, stress can exacerbate many health problems.

Why is stress management important when you have cardiomyopathy

Cardiomyopathy is a general term for diseases of the heart muscle. The walls of the heart chambers may have become stretched, thickened or stiff, impacting the heart's ability to pump blood around the body. Although some cardiomyopathies are inherited, there are many causes, including damage from a heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms, drinking too much alcohol, heart valve disease and high blood pressure.

Although not everyone will experience symptoms or symptoms may be mild, living with cardiomyopathy can still cause stress. It's normal to feel worried about your health and treatments, or anxious about the impact on your work, relationships or lifestyle. However, chronic stress can have a serious impact on your health - so it's important to take care of your mind as well as your body.

"It's important that anyone with a heart or circulatory condition manages their stress levels," says Julie Ward, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation. "Being stressed can make you more likely to make choices that are bad for your health, such as eating unhealthy food, smoking or drinking too much alcohol."

In some cases, long-term or chronic stress can increase the risk of problems such as high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms and mental health issues such as anxiety and low mood.

Takotsubo syndrome and stress cardiomyopathy

Chronic and sudden stress can also cause a certain type of cardiomyopathy called takotsubo syndrome. A sudden and acute form of heart failure, it is also known as broken heart syndrome, acute stress-induced cardiomyopathy and apical ballooning.

In almost 3 in 4 cases, it occurs when a person experiences sudden acute stress. The heart muscle becomes suddenly weakened, causing one of the heart's main chambers to change shape. It may be caused by a surge of hormones, particularly adrenaline, during a period of stress and is more common in women. The main symptoms are chest pain, breathlessness and dizziness, similar to those of a heart attack.

"Takotsubo syndrome is a specific type of cardiomyopathy that is not inherited and usually occurs in people who have experienced physically or emotionally stressful events, such as a bereavement," says Ward.

"However, there is no identifiable trigger in around 30% of cases. We're still learning about the condition and don’t yet fully understand what causes takotsubo syndrome and why some people respond in this way to stressful events while others don't."

There are effective treatments for stress cardiomyopathy, Ward adds. "Although most people start a spontaneous process of recovery, for some it can take longer for the heart muscle to improve," she says.

How to reduce your stress when you have cardiomyopathy

There are several ways to reduce your stress levels if you are finding things difficult.

Take time out

"Working on lowering stress through meditation or taking time out when you need it is one of the ways to help to lower the symptoms of cardiomyopathy and reduce further heart failure," says Ward.

When you are stressed, it can be tempting to keep pushing on. However, this can often exacerbate stress and make you feel worse for longer. If you can, take some time for yourself or book some time off work to focus on relaxing. It isn't always easy to take time off, but you will feel the benefit in the long run.

Activities such as meditation and deep breathing can also provide temporary relief from stress too.

Eat well and stay active

"Many people with cardiomyopathy can continue to lead a full and active life, but it is important to manage this properly by reducing your alcohol intake, lowering cholesterol by eating less saturated fat and trying to get regular exercise," says Ward.

Even though you might think a drink can help you relax, regularly drinking can actually increase feelings of stress, anxiety and low mood. Research suggests alcohol can alter the balance of hormones in the body and change the way the body perceives and responds to stress. It can also disrupt our sleep, making stress harder to cope with.

Exercise is known to be a good stress-reliever, but this doesn't have to mean hitting the gym for an intense workout. A short walk or an online yoga video are good ways to clear your mind for a few minutes.

Talk to people

Peer support is an excellent way to keep your stress levels at bay. The charity Cardiomyopathy UK runs online support groups which give people the chance to meet other people who may have similar experiences.

These groups enable people to talk about their worries or concerns in a supportive and friendly environment. If stress is affecting your life, your doctor may be able to offer you advice and guidance. You can also self-refer for talking therapy on the NHS.

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