You have had a heart attack and the worst is over. If you are like most people, you will be able to return to work and the activities you enjoy within just a few months. Depending on how much heart muscle damage is present, some activities may be more limited. In either case, easing back into life after a heart attack is not always so easy. What can you expect and how can you cope with the challenges?
Having a heart attack is, for most people, a traumatic experience. The first few days are often marked by shock and feelings of being overwhelmed. You might experience elevated levels of stress, anxiety, and depression after being hospitalized for a heart attack. During your hospital stay you are subjected to an onslaught of tests, drugs, and information. You may need to rest and let your heart heal, but your environment may be anything but restful. Your family may be scrambling around, hovering over your bed, and perhaps demanding information from your doctor. You may feel as though your family and your doctor are throwing too much at you and that things are happening much too fast. Keep in mind that the shock of your situation is perfectly normal, and that soon you will be going home.
The next phase of adjustment takes place when you leave the hospital. While many people are eager to return to the comforts of home, some may be frightened of leaving the safety and constant attention of the hospital coronary unit. During this time, it is not uncommon to feel lost and worried about the absence of a doctor or nurse. Your family may also share these feelings, and may be excessively watchful.
Under your doctor’s advice, you will gradually become more active. Depending on your condition, you may need assistance with daily tasks such as maintaining the house, shopping, cooking, bathing, and remembering to take your medications. As a result, family roles may change as well. Your spouse or children may make changes in their lives so that they can help take care of you. While these changes are intended to help, you may find that they sometimes stir up uncomfortable feelings.
After a heart attack, it is normal for people to experience negative feelings such as:
It is healthy to talk about these feelings with your family, a compassionate friend, or a therapist. In time, these feelings should go away.
Your family and friends may feel:
Talking openly about these feelings can help you and your family to cope more effectively with the situation.
Rehabilitation is the longest and often the most difficult phase of the recovery process. It requires not only that your body heal itself, but also that you take an active role in helping it to get stronger.
During this time, you will probably continue to increase your activity level, make some changes in your diet, reduce your level of stress, and give up any habits that could negatively affect your health, such as smoking and drinking too much alcohol. You will almost certainly have new medications to take, perhaps along with some mild to moderate side effects. These medications will greatly reduce your risk of another heart attack, but they must be taken as directed. Some people find themselves highly motivated to make and continue needed changes. Others begin the changes, but gradually fall back into old habits, becoming complacent after they feel better. You are more apt to make and continue lifestyle changes with proper information, resources, and support.
The support of family, friends, a therapist, or support group may reduce some of your fears, stress, and feelings of isolation.
Perhaps along with social support, you may need additional help as you recover. Some people experience anxiety, depression, or other psychological distress after they have a heart attack. Addressing these psychological conditions via therapy may help ease the distress after a heart attack. Talk with your doctor if you are interested in learning more about mental health therapy.
By making the right choices during the recovery process, you have a good chance of returning to a full, active life. Here are some tips that can help:
Your doctor will provide you with guidance about resuming your normal activities after your recovery. Most people are able to go back to work within 1-3 months. Depending on the condition of your heart and the strenuousness of your work, you may have to make some changes in how you do your job.
Most people are able to have sex after they recovery from a heart attack. As with other activities, you may need to start slowly and work up to your normal patterns. If you or your partner have any concerns, talk to your doctor.
Recovering from a heart attack can be difficult. But the aftermath of a heart attack can present an opportunity to re-examine one’s life and clarify important values. For many people, the experience is a springboard to a healthier and more fulfilling lifestyle.
American Heart Association
National, Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Canadian Cardiovascular Society
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Chronic illness & mental health. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/chronic-illness-mental-health/index.shtml. Updated 2011. Accessed July 24, 2017.
Cossette S, Frasure-Smith N, Lespérance F. Clinical implications of a reduction in psychological distress on cardiac prognosis in patients participating in a psychosocial intervention program. Psychosomatic Medicine. 2001;63(2):257-266.
Heart attack recovery FAQs. American Heart Association website. Available at: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HeartAttack/PreventionTreatmentofHeartAttack/Heart-Attack-Recovery-FAQS_UCM_303936_Article.jsp#.WXYnGoTytQI. Updated September 19, 2016. Accessed July 24, 2017.
Life after a heart attack. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/heartattack/lifeafter. Updated January 27, 2015. Accessed July 24, 2017.
ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T115392/ST-elevation-myocardial-infarction-STEMI. Updated June 12, 2017. Accessed July 24, 2017.
Tips for recovering and staying well after a heart attack. Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: https://familydoctor.org/tips-for-recovering-and-staying-well. Updated June 2017. Accessed July 24, 2017.
Last reviewed July 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 11/18/2013