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I Changed My Mind About Psychotherapy After Surviving a Heart Attack

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I saw a psychotherapist for the first time a few months after my heart attack in 2015. My cardiologist recommended psychotherapy because I had survivor’s guilt and a lot of questions about how to move forward.

I was hesitant at first. I worried about the stigma of seeing a psychotherapist. I felt that people would think I was crazy. Isn't that what society teaches you to believe? You don't seek help like that unless there's something wrong with you.

But even though it wasn’t something I ever wanted to do, I realized that I needed help.

I’m so glad that I decided to see a psychotherapist. My practitioner and I immediately clicked at my first visit, and I’ve been seeing her ever since.

Not everyone needs to go to psychotherapy. But don’t let fear or perceived stigma stand in the way of seeing a professional. It could change your life, if you give it a chance.

How psychotherapy has helped me

A visit to the psychotherapist doesn’t necessarily involve lying on a couch and rehashing your childhood. I sit in a comfortable chair across from my therapist and talk to her in a conversational voice about what’s going on in my life right now.

We have great conversations. I share my issues, and she gives me advice.

I don’t worry about stigma anymore. I know that psychotherapy has helped me to:

Cope with survivor’s guilt

After my heart attack, I wondered why I lived when so many others experienced the exact same type of heart attack and died. It didn't make sense.

Even the doctors who saved my life said it was a miracle that I survived. That made me question my survival even more. Why am I still here? What is my purpose on earth?

I constantly ask myself these questions. I knew I needed someone to talk me through it.

Psychotherapy helps me to understand and deal with my survivor’s guilt. My psychotherapist helps me to reason through the answers to my own questions. Rather than speculate on why I survived, she talks me through the rationale on a professional level.

I thought I was “cured” of survivor’s guilt. But I experienced it all over again on the 2-year anniversary of my heart attack. It was a huge talking point with my psychotherapist for a few sessions. I don’t know how I would have gotten through it without a professional.

Treat depression

I’ve suffered from depression since my heart attack. It’s very normal. Some research has found that up to 40 percent of people with cardiovascular disease have also been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder versus 17 percent of the general population.

My sessions have greatly helped me to manage my depression. I look forward to having someone who listens and offers professional advice.

Many treatments can help manage the symptoms of depression, including psychotherapy and antidepressants. No one solution works for everyone. Just remember that you don’t have to suffer on your own. There is help.

Find new strategies to manage my emotions

Psychotherapy has been instrumental in helping me to understand my thoughts and emotions.

My practitioner explains the science behind why I experience certain emotions. She offers tips to help me change my behavior when I experience these emotions in the future.

I look forward to our visits so that I can share my insights and progress with her.

Tips if you’re considering psychotherapy

Thinking about trying psychotherapy? Don’t worry about what others will think. Do what’s right for you. Here are a few of my tips to help you get started:

Confide in people you know and trust

Talk with your primary care doctor or your cardiologist if you’re unsure about whether you should see a therapist. You may also want to open up to a trusted family member. Talking through your situation and your options can help you to determine if you need help.

Look for someone with experience treating people like you

Try to find a psychotherapist who works with people your age who’ve dealt with similar medical issues. This will likely make you more comfortable with your practitioner and help them be able to relate better to your condition and struggles.

Ask your doctors if they can refer you. My cardiologist highly recommended a psychotherapist who deals mainly with young cancer patients. I think this helps her to relate better to my experience. Her other terminally ill patients are young and faced death just as I did.

Don’t settle! I luckily clicked with the first psychotherapist I visited. You may have to visit more than one person before you find someone with whom you click. Don’t let the search deter you from getting the help that you need.

Set your rhythm

Once you’ve found a psychotherapist you like, talk about how frequently you should see each other and how long each meeting should last.

I see my psychotherapist for 1 hour about every 3 to 4 weeks as she feels it’s necessary.

You may also want to ask how long you’ll need to be in therapy. You can of course continue for longer if you find it’s beneficial. I’ve been in therapy for 5 years now. I have no plans of stopping anytime soon.

Be open with your therapist

Share as much or as little as you want to with your psychotherapist.

I share almost everything with my practitioner. It’s been so helpful for me.

Everything I bring up is linked to stress. And stress can affect heart health. My therapist helps me deal with stress, so it’s good for my heart!

Keep your visits as private as you want

Your friends, family, or colleagues don’t need to know that you’re seeing a psychotherapist. Share only what’s comfortable for you with the people who make you comfortable.

I tell my boss that I’m going to a doctor’s appointment when I ask for time off from work. I don’t give any other details. But I’ve talked to a couple of close friends about my sessions and encouraged them to seek psychotherapy in certain instances.

Not everyone with heart disease needs to see a psychotherapist. But please don’t be afraid to seek the advice of a medical professional if you’re struggling.

Share what you’re going through instead of keeping everything bottled up inside.

Talking through your concerns with a professional can change your behavior and how you deal with your emotions for the better.

For more information on how to manage heart disease, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team.

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