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Get the social support you need if you have coronary artery disease

Annoyed by constant digestion and other nagging symptoms, Marybeth Neyhard of Broomall, PA, went to see a doctor in July 2017. “I said, ‘If this is how 65 feels, I do not like it,'” recalls Neyhard, who soon recovered. some disturbing test results.

A scan of her coronary artery showed she had several significant blockages, and instead of going with her husband on a planned London holiday, she went to an operating room, where she eventually underwent emergency bypass surgery.

Neyhard, the eldest of six siblings and a married mother of three grown children, woke up and found that she had quite a lot of company. “My whole family was around me,” she says. Neighbors rushed over with good wishes and meals, and friends near and far checked in to see how she was doing.

And when she noticed a sign in the hospital elevator for a monthly women’s support group at the Lankenau Heart Institute, she decided to go to the next meeting.

“I’m not the kind of person who’s afraid to reach out,” says Neyhard, who is determined to do whatever it takes to avoid a second operation. “I do not want to be a repeat offender.”

Maintaining connections – and forming new ones – is a critical part of cardiac rehabilitation for patients like Neyhard, says Yale professor Matthew Burg, PhD, a clinical psychologist who investigates how tension and influence emotional factors cardiovascular disease.

Years of scientific studies have shown a clear pattern. “Social support is good, and not having it is bad,” Burg explains. For people who do not feel they have someone to rely on or rely on, the risk of adverse events can double, he says.

Here’s what you need to know about social support, why it’s such a big issue for you heart, and how to make sure you have people to help you through difficult times.

Why social support touches your heart

For decades, scientists have understood that the mind and body are connected, explains Kim Feingold, PhD, founder and director of cardiac behavioral medicine at the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern. These links appear with many medical conditions, but are especially pronounced with heart disease patients.

“This is the disease [where] it is clear that how we act, think and feel affects our physical health, ”says Feingold. Do not just do things like depression, anxiety, tension, and social isolation does not feel good, but it is also linked to other health problems.

Social support plays into each of these factors. “We are social animals. It is in our DNA, ”says Burg. That’s why we’re very comforted to know there are people around who can help – it can help them know that if something goes wrong, they’ll be right, he says. When we do not have that reassurance, it is stressful.

“The question is, how does that stress get under your skin?” says Kevin Larkin, PhD, who heads the Behavioral Physiology Laboratory at West Virginia University’s Department of Psychology. The answer: Through your head.

When you feel stressed, your brain take in that information and send signals to the rest of your body. Research shows that these reactions, including the resulting infection, likely to contribute to heart issues and other health issues.

What counts as social support?

The term “social support” is difficult to define because it means so many things.

As Burg remarks, you sometimes need a lot of practical assistance: “If my car breaks down, is there anyone I can call? Are there people who can shop for me? ”

Emotional needs are just as urgent, Feingold says. She points out the importance of laughing, sharing stories and flushing out problems.

And when it comes to changing lifestyle behaviors – like quitting smoke or get fit – which may require a different kind of support. “If you get a partner to exercise with, you are more likely to achieve your goals, ”says Feingold.

In some cases, a spouse may provide much or all of this type of support. But not always, says Burg, who has seen married patients still score low on a social support scale. He says it is common for women to excel as caregivers when their husbands have heart problems, and that the opposite is true when the roles are reversed. “The man does not act to help or change expectations,” he says.

Of course, many men are great at providing social support. In any partnership, one person may feel more supported than the other or be better at social support, not just in husband-and-wife couples.

Neyhard has encountered similar situations among members of her support group, as well as women whose families resist putting heart-healthy food in the fridge or on the dining table. “Maybe they are supportive at first, but they are not about to change them. diet because she has to, ”she says.

So it may be important to go beyond your existing networks to get the full range of support you need.

Ask for social support

When clinical psychologist Valerie Hoover meets people with heart disease, she encourages them to consider whether they may have more support than they realize.

“When they say, ‘I do not have people I can turn to, I let them generate a list of everyone they know – friends, family, neighbors – and whether they go to that person,'” Hoover, PhD. , a clinical assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University.

“There tends to be different ‘Aha’ moments for patients. When they sit down and write out that list, they are amazed at how many people are in their lives. ”

The next step is to examine how comfortable they are asking for that support.

“A lot of people have the idea that it’s saying something negative about them, or that it’s bad to ask for help,” Hoover says. She tries to get them to see it differently. She asks them to think of times when people have turned to them for help in the past, and how it felt rewarding.

When it’s time to ask for real help, Hoover encourages them to be as specific as possible. (For example, rather than asking your partner to do more in-house, you might offer a specific task to perform, such as making dinner.) And, she says, it’s important to make that request with gratitude. and follow-up appreciation.

Building a support network

Some people may write out their list of social ties and find it quite short. The two most common situations, Burg explains, are people who have never made many connections and those who once had social circles that have since fallen apart.

“Maybe there’s an older woman whose husband died, her friends moved south and her children live at a distance,” Burg says. For someone with that profile – or someone who finds it difficult to trust others – it can be stressful to tell them to just go out and make friends. And that stress, he points out, is not good for their hearts either.

Feingold’s advice: Take your time and find ways to make connections that feel right for you.

“Cultivating social support is practical and possible, but it is a process,” she says.

One way to start is to search for common shared interests, perhaps through a hobby, a book club, or a place of worship. “Challenging yourself to step out of your comfort zone can feel uncomfortable at first,” she says. But these types of groups not only offer potential friends, but also a chance to establish new routines and a motivation to leave home every day.

Cardiac patient support groups have the added benefit of bringing together people who have faced similar challenges. “They can relate and exchange resources,” Feingold says. “They understand each other in a way that other people cannot.”

That was true for Neyhard. Her support group gives her the chance to discuss topics she would normally rather avoid.

“When I go to lunch with my friends, I’m not going to talk about my diet choices,” she says. But with her support group, she does not hesitate to ask questions and share recipes. “It gives me an outlet to talk about all these health things without ruining the party.”

How the pandemic has improved social support

Social distancing and the reduction in many personal activities over the past 2 years has had clear consequences.

High blood pressure and stress disorders flourish in this area, ”says Larkin. He is particularly concerned about the long-term effects on university students, who missed the opportunity to build relationships which often lasts for decades and provides a framework for making and keeping friends until adulthood.

For many older adults, the pandemic made it challenging to maintain existing tires and form new ones.

Feingold sees a silver lining: Online support groups have promoted access for people who have not been able to attend in person before. Attendance is up in the group Larkin is running. She counts it up to easier logistics. “They do not have to drive downtown, find a parking space and drive home,” she says.

Seeking online help can work well, Hoover agrees. But what matters most is the level of support you end up getting.

“A like on a Facebook post is not a conversation,” she says. Your heart needs more than that.

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