A new UK study discovers psychological trauma is commonplace after a heart attack.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and social withdrawal were discovered in a sample of seventy-four people who had experienced a heart attack in the previous twelve weeks.

Susan Ayers of the University of Sussex and colleagues Claire Copland and Emma Dunmore sampled individuals attending a cardiac rehabilitation program. The sample was predominantly male (76 percent) with an average age of 62 years.

The study is published in the British Journal of Health Psychology.

Participants completed questionnaires assessing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, as well as perceptions of the severity of their heart attack and the extent to which they believed their lives were in danger. Physical health, anxiety, depression and impairment of social activities were also measured, as were dysfunctional coping strategies such as denial and avoidance.

Of the participants, 16 percent met clinical criteria for acute PTSD and a further 18 percent reported moderate to severe symptoms. Those with PTSD symptoms were more likely to have poorer psychological health and social impairments.

Findings revealed that people who tended to use denial and avoidance coping strategies were more likely to develop PTSD symptoms – this was a more powerful predictor of symptoms than patients’ perceptions of the severity of the heart attack and the threat to life.

Dr. Ayers said: “Around 150,000 people in the UK survive the acute stage of a heart attack each year. Feelings of fear, anxiety and depression are common after such an event. The findings of this study suggest that a high proportion experience very severe distress – this has the potential to impair recovery, quality of life and threaten future health.

“It is therefore vital that cardiac patients are screened for psychological distress, such as anxiety, depression and PTSD, and offered appropriate treatment if necessary.”

Source: British Psychological Society