When you’re in the throes of a heart attack, your body and brain go into panic mode, rendering you unable to think. As a result, you’re often left in a haze after the event is over. Confused and frightened, it may be difficult to understand what’s just happened and how you can cope with it.
You’ll probably leave the hospital after your first heart attack with a shopping list worth of prescription medications and an overwhelming influx of lifestyle advice. While it can be difficult to take it all in, there are ways to segment your aftercare.
Make sure to familiarize yourself with every facet of the recovery process, as it won’t just be physical. Doing this will help you develop a recovery plan that prevents future heart attacks and ensures you make a full turnaround from the last one.
Step 1: Re-evaluate your diet.
After a heart attack, the first thing to go is all those fatty foods that could be clogging up your arteries. It sounds unappetizing, but there are appealing ways to eat healthy. To start, however, be on the lookout for the following red flags:
- Fried foods
- Heavily processed or genetically modified foods
- High-sodium foods and snacks
- Sugary drinks
- Red meat
- Saturated & trans fats
- High-fat dairy products
Opt to keep sodium intake below 1,500 mg per day, and sugary beverages (like sodas and juices) under 36 oz. per week. Water filled with electrolytes should be your primary refreshment of choice. Similarly, swap out your whole milk for nonfat or 2 percent.
Also, make sure to substitute in the following eating habits:
- Plenty of white meat & fish (2 servings/week)
- Fruits & veggies (4 cups/day)
- Whole grains (three 1 oz. servings/day)
Being overweight will only increase your risk for another heart attack, and maintaining a healthy physique starts with diet.
Step 2: Establish an exercise plan.
Physical recovery will need to be one of your top-priorities after suffering a heart attack. For the first couple of weeks, the doctor will likely instruct you to take it easy and get plenty of rest. Make sure to take this restorative time to give your body a break, keeping physical exertion minimal.
With approval from your doctor, you’ll be able to eventually start picking up the pace. Make sure to establish a steady-state cardio regimen that is moderate but still energizing. Cardio is essential to your cardiac health, as it optimizes oxygen and blood flow to the heart muscle.
Start light by taking short, accompanied walks around your neighborhood. Once you start to feel out of breath, don’t push yourself, and just turn back. With time, you’ll be able to go farther and farther, picking up the pace gradually.
Once you’ve mastered walking, you might also consider swimming and bicycling. These are moderate-intensity, steady-state exercises that don’t push your muscles to the point of discomfort. High-intensity interval training is likely something you’ll want to avoid for now.
After a year, your doctor may clear for more intense exercises, like jogging or hiking, but always make sure to get their approval first. These higher intensity activities can be just as strenuous as they can be beneficial.
Step 3: Tend to your emotional health.
With a heart attack can come depression and anxiety. A fixation on health, aging, and mortality can accompany a health scare this big, so it’s important to treat your emotional health with the same care and attention as your physical health.
While feelings of depression and anxiety are normal for the first few days after a cardiac event, up to 20% of bypass patients face depression that persists for more than two weeks. Unfortunately, lingering anxiety and depression can also further damage heart health by increasing blood pressure. Cortisol, the hormone released when the body is stressed, correlates with increased cholesterol and higher blood sugar as well.
If your doctor is hesitant to prescribe anti-depressants, as they can interfere with heart medication, find other avenues of emotional support. For starters, talk therapy may help resolve any difficult emotions, and allow the sufferer to vent their frustrations to an objective third party. Meditation and breathing exercises can also help lower anxiety and stress levels.
Heart attack patients should also be educated about the differences between panic attacks and heart attacks, as they can feel frighteningly similar.
Step 4: Find social support
Going hand-in-hand with emotional health is social support. Numerous studies show that heart attack sufferers with little-to-no social support were more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. This impact to mental health could lead to further cardiac complications down the line.
Having a support system is not only crucial for mental health, however, it can have a major impact on physical health. Friends and family are a critical part of the recovery process, as they can assist with exercises, keep patients accountable for taking their medication, and contact emergency services if another heart attack occurs.
They can also drive their loved ones who are recovering to follow-up appointments, physical therapy, and the pharmacy. Heart attack patients can also forge a social network by attending recovery classes and support groups, where they will meet people who have faced similar circumstances and forge connections.
Step 5: Ease back into your normal routine.
There should be no rush to return to your regular day-to-day life, and no expectations either. No matter how hard you try to revert to life before your heart attack, things will be different, and acceptance of this is a key player in adjusting to your new circumstances.
Most doctors will approve heart attack patients to return to work two weeks to three months after their cardiac event. Naturally, this will depend on the nature of the work and the severity of the heart attack.
Individuals who work part-time or in low-stress environments will likely be able to make an earlier comeback. Full-time workers with physically taxing jobs that involve travel or manual labor, however, will likely have to wait longer. It’s also worth easing back into work by starting off part-time for a while.
Driving alone may take a while too. Doctors typically recommend waiting a few weeks before driving without a companion.
Making sure you’re always prepared for another occurrence can help your mental state and work ethic. Ensure your workplace has an AED handy in case of another event, keep a close friend or family member on speed dial, and consider purchasing a wearable (like the FitBit or Apple Watch) to keep your heart rate under close monitoring.
By doing your due diligence in every area of your recovery, you’ll be sure to make a heart-healthy comeback and live your best life in the process.