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Post surgery discussion

An exploration into Psychology - could you benefit?

Part 2: What can Psychology Offer Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) Patients?

Dr Liza Morton

In Part 1 we explored some of the emotional challenges of growing up with a heart condition, suggesting that Psychology, the study of human mind and behaviour, may help to heal emotional scars. Of course, not everyone who is born with a heart condition will want or need this approach. We are all different, but there is no harm in being aware of the options available and deciding for ourselves. Psychology helps us understand ourselves, why we think, behave and feel as we do. This understanding can help to free us from past pain, learn to manage difficult feelings in the present and embrace the future.

It is important to note that seeking support does not mean that we are ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ or ‘weak’. It just means that we are human, that we feel a normal emotional response to unusually difficult life events, and that this can be overwhelming. We don’t hesitate to seek advice when we experience physical symptoms so it’s only sensible to seek help when we feel overwhelmed by emotional discomfort. Admitting that living with a heart condition can be difficult does not prevent us from being thankful to our doctors or mean that we are being disloyal to those who care for us.

We take for granted that those with other life-threatening health problems, such as cancer, will struggle at times. We know that this is because of their condition and treatment. It is only fair that we allow ourselves the same right to voice all sides of our story.

Acknowledging difficult emotions does not take away from the strengths that can come from growing up with a heart condition, such as increased resilience, courage, wisdom, humour, determination and a fuller appreciation of life and empathy. Rather, dealing with the difficult emotions frees us to make the most of our lives. Surely, this is the best way to express our gratitude to all who have contributed to our survival? It can also inform better support and make the experience easier for everyone. Recent studies indicate that emotional health can aid recovery from illness and improve physical health. So, a holistic account of living with CHD could offer better physical and emotional health and a better quality of life for us and for others.

What can Psychology offer us?

Self Help & Emotional Support:

For mild to moderate mood difficulties Self Help material could help. GUCH PA continues to develop specific resources for CHD patients (visit Emotional and Mental Health Resources) and lists relevant reading materials and websites (see Self Help). Your care may include a Cardiac Liaison Nurse who can offer emotional support. GUCH PA also has a range of contact points: Helpline (0800 854 759), email (helplineraguch.org.uk) and The Somerville Foundation Community Forum.

Psychological Therapies:

There are lots of different kinds of ‘talking therapies’ available.

Person-Centred Counselling

A Person-Centred Counsellor will listen to you in a warm and supportive way. You are given space to process difficult emotions, make sense of your story and feel heard without being judged. This could help you make difficult decisions or deal with surgical interventions and other difficulties, such as grief and loss (e.g. loss of ‘‘normal’’ childhood or a further loss of health). It is often easier to gain access to a Counsellor through the NHS. For private sessions, a Counsellor will charge less per session than a Chartered Psychologist.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) 

CBT helps to change unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaviour that have become vicious cycles. Early therapy aims to understand how these patterns contribute to current mood difficulties and how they have developed. Work then focuses on breaking these patterns by challenging negative ways of thinking (e.g. always assuming the worst), unhelpful behaviour (e.g. staying in the house if you feel nervous about socialising) and managing physical symptoms (e.g. using relaxation techniques). CBT may help you to overcome health anxiety and panic attacks, challenge the unhelpful beliefs that may underlie low self- esteem and change unhelpful coping strategies (e.g. the use of alcohol or drugs).

CBT is advocated in NICE and SIGN guidelines for the treatment of anxiety and depression and is offered by most Chartered Psychologists and CBT therapists.

See Part 3 in the next edition of the newsletter for information about some more kinds of Psychological Therapies and how to access them.

About the Author

Dr Liza Morton, born with complete Congenital Heart Block, was recently fitted with her 9th cardiac pacemaker.  She has also had an ASD repaired by Open Heart Surgery.  Liza, a volunteer for The Somerville Foundation, is a trainee Counselling Psychologist.  She has studied Psychology for many years, an interest that was driven by her wish to understand how her heart condition and extensive medical history had shaped her.  As part of her training she has undergone therapy with both a Counselling Psychologist and a Body Psychotherapist work she heels has helped her process the difficult aspects of living with a heart condition from birth. 

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