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An exploration into Psychology -could you benefit?

Part 4: The Good News

Dr Liza Morton

"We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival."

Winston Churchhill

Throughout this series of articles we have explored some of the emotional challenges in life that living with a heart condition from birth may present. When dealing with physical symptoms there is not always the opportunity to deal with these feelings and adequate support is not always available or known. As such, it seemed important to highlight these issues to promote understanding and an exploration into the various types of help available.

However, this does not mean that living with a heart condition from birth has only a negative impact on our lives. In fact, many studies suggest that a solely negative focus on the impact of congenital illness provides an incomplete picture of this experience.

In particular, such studies have found that many people report positive personal change following such adversity. This is known as post traumatic growth. Such positive factors include a more positive perspective, a deeper appreciation of life and increased personal strength. Further, enduring these dramatic life events can promote closer relationships with our families, friends and peers. Often we compensate for what we cannot do by making the most of what we can do with a keen determination. Many of us who have endured a difficult start in life develop a greater sense of empathy and altruism and feel driven to prevent others from suffering, explaining perhaps why so many of us are drawn to the caring professions (such as nursing, social work, advocacy or charity work). It is this resilience that can enable us to effect positive changes in light of difficult life events.

It is not the case that some of us respond negatively to adversity while others remain "strong" and "resilient". In fact, studies suggest that the same people who report post traumatic symptoms can also experience post traumatic growth. These responses may become entwined, perhaps making it more difficult for others to understand and notice the hurt behind our stoicism.

However, several factors are known to provide a pathway to healing and personal growth following adversity. These include having the opportunity to share our story to feel heard and understood by others and ourselves. This is one of the main reasons that counselling or therapy can be helpful. Chatting with peers, reading similar biographical stories and writing about our experiences can also be insightful and therapeutic for the same reason. Good social support and nourishing relationships can help to protect us from mental health problems and having strong role models may inspire us and help us to focus on positive goals. Creating meaning from our suffering also helps many of us to heal. Another important factor is feeling empowered to manage some aspects of what is happening to us, particularly regarding our health (e.g. by having a good understanding of our condition and feeling heard by our medical care providers).

In conclusion, a congenital heart condition has the potential to weave itself through most aspects of our lives, sometimes for worse, sometimes for better. This is certainly not an easy life. Perhaps few of us would choose it. Yet, that does not mean that life can't be lived fully, meaningfully and enjoyed. At times we may be tripped up by the emotional cost of living with such a condition. This is understandable. Taking the time to know the roots of this suffering can better equip us to meet such challenges and to find adequate support. As our lives move forward and we encounter challenges, and build the resources within ourselves to manage and succeed, we can enjoy a personal growth and build a resolve that can often really only come through navigating such obstacles from birth.

This series of articles have been adapted by Dr Liza Morton for The Somerville Foundation from Morton, L. (2011) Can Interpersonal Psychotherapy meet the psychosocial cost of life gifted by medical intervention? Counselling Psychology Review, Vol. 26, 3, p 75-86.

Please consult the original article for a full list of references.

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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