For some reason, in our society we are not very good at resting. We see it almost as a failure, something to feel guilty about. As a busy, working, mum of three, rest wasn’t something that came easily to me. However, we should… YOU should see rest equally as important to your recovery as your medication and healthy food.
Your heart is a muscle in the same way that your thigh is a big muscle. Both can survive surgery or trauma, but the biggest difference is, your thigh muscle gets to relax and be still, but your heart muscle has to keep working at all times. The medication you are on will be keeping your heart nice and relaxed, but this means, that it won’t have a lot of spare energy for a while. The spare energy it has is being used to fix and repair and get your heart strong again. So you will feel tired and you may feel breathless. I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll need a snooze in the afternoons for a while and that you’ll be shattered and wanting to be in bed by 9pm!
Don’t fight it
You have to see rest as a positive thing. Every time your body is saying ‘slow down, let me rest’ it is also saying, ‘Slow down so I can fix myself’.
Therefore, I hope you can see that rest is crucially important to your recovery.
I realised very early on, that good rest was something that I had to strive for. I was an achiever in life. Albeit, at this stage of my life, my achievements were based around getting myself and my three little ones, up, dressed and out in the fresh air, preferably for me with a bit of lippy on, matching socks and no baby sick down my back! Nothing to set the world on fire but these were my goals and achievements each day.
Suddenly after my heart attacks, everything changed overnight. My body was a stranger to me and I had to learn about the habits of this new person. I wasn’t in control of what I could do. I felt as though my heart had a mind of its own, it would support me one minute and then rob me of any energy, leaving me weak and exhausted the next.
Therefore it was important that I changed the way I viewed my world. Instead of seeing rest as a negative and a failure, it saw it as a positive action to help me get better and recover.
I began to practice 100% rest. Actually there is no other kind, there is no such thing as having a 50% rest is there? So I would plan for my rest and schedule it into my day. Therefore I was still achieving what I wanted to achieve. If I planned for a two-hour rest in the afternoon, I would make sure I was properly prepared. I’d have help in place for the children, the phone would be switched off and a post-it note stuck on the front door threatening anyone who dared to ring the bell for the next 2 hours! It worked. I started to feel the benefit or properly planned rest that was uninterrupted. I didn’t see it as a failure or a guilty pleasure anymore, I saw it as a crucial and life-saving element to my recovery and future health.
Going back to that thigh muscle for a second; If you had suffered an accident or surgery to your leg, you wouldn’t think it at all unusual for your leg to feel tired and ache at the end of the day would you? You would easily accept that you needed to rest your leg for the coming weeks and months. Six, nine or even twelve months after your ‘leg attack’ you still wouldn’t be surprised that your leg might ache from time to time and need putting up and resting. In fact, let’s be honest, you might like to milk it for all it was worth getting cups of tea brought to you at every opportunity!
Well, the situation is just the same with your heart. It is a muscle that has suffered trauma and it needs to rest in order to recover. You will have to accept that it may need rest for the coming six, nine or twelve months.
The difference is, because it’s your heart, it plays with your head!
When your thigh muscle is tired it will ache or give you pain to tell you to rest it. But your heart doesn’t work in quite the same way. When your heart muscle needs to rest and recover, it will tell you by making you feel tired and sleepy. When I speak to heart patients, many of them tell me that this is something that worries them. Many heart patients feel upset when they get tired, thinking that it means they have lost their energy forever and that they will never feel ‘normal’ again. This isn’t something that will last forever, but it is something that you will need to see in a positive light.
So when you do feel tired and sleepy, even if its 12 months or even longer after the event, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY and do as it is telling you.
Taking time for rest and sleep should not be seen as a failure – these are positive actions that will allow your heart to recover properly and help it to become strong again.
Another word for rest is ‘relaxation’
Relaxation has been proven to help people recover after a heart attack. Good relaxation techniques will help you reduce pain, help you sleep well, lower your blood pressure, ease anxiety and reduce your fears
We all have different ways we like to relax. Sleeping is the most obvious form of relaxation and if you manage to do this easily, you are half way there.
However, if sleep isn’t always easy for you to achieve, there are many other things you can do, either to relax you or aid you to eventually fall asleep. Walking, watching television, listening to the radio and reading are all great techniques but in order to achieve proper rest and relaxation, you need to try to switch off from the outside world.
Getting rid of stress is a great way to aid relaxation. I can truly tell you that this is something you can change in your life quite easily. I used to suffer a fair amount of stress and thought that this was just ‘the way I was made’. But it turns out that I have leant to live my life beautifully stress free and you can too.
Just a few minutes of practice per day can really help ease anxiety. I have used this technique when I’ve been travelling on public transport and starting to get a bit panicky. It’s really just about being in tune with your breath and the effect it is having on your body.
The process can be simple.
- Sit up straight with both feet on the floor.
- Close your eyes.
- Focus your attention on reciting, either out loud or silently, a positive mantra such as “I feel at peace” or “I feel quite calm.”
- Place one hand on your belly to synch the mantra with your breaths.
- Listen to your mantra in your head and block everything else out.
- You will feel your self start to relax on the inside.
- Take a few more deep breaths and let any distracting thoughts float by like clouds.
Repeat this as and when you need it. If you have problems sleeping, this is a useful exercise to do before bed.
Now, I know that very many of you will have read the paragraph above and thought – I’m not trying that! My friends, give it a go, you might get a surprise and want to do it again!
If you don’t want to go as far as the meditation and mantras, but you are still not able to switch of any worrying thoughts or the outside world, try this:
- Give yourself a 5-minute break from whatever is bothering you and focus instead on your breathing.
- Sit up straight, eyes closed, with a hand on your belly.
- Slowly inhale through your nose, feeling the breath start in your abdomen and work its way to the top of your head.
- Reverse the process as you exhale through your mouth.
Deep breathing counters the effects of stress by slowing down the heart rate and lowering blood pressure, so this is a really good one to practice.
We all spend our lives moving at high speed these days. We rush through dinner, hurry to our next appointment, race to finish one more thing on our agenda. Now try something different: Slow down. Learning to be still is a real accomplishment.
Take 5 minutes and focus on only one behaviour with awareness. Notice how the air feels on your face when you’re walking and how your feet feel hitting the ground. Enjoy the texture and taste of each bite of food as you slowly chew. When you spend time in the moment and focus on your senses, you should feel the tension leave your body.
Don’t be stubborn. Try it – it works!
A good social support system is one of the most important resources for dealing with stress. Talking to others, preferably face-to-face, or at least on the phone, is a great way to better manage whatever is stressing you out.
See if there is a local heart support group that you could join. This is great for you and your loved ones as they may be struggling with aspects of your recovery. It’s always good to talk to others who understand your point of view.
If you are not sure where to look, ask your heart nurse or GP.
Tune into your body
I love this. If nothing else it will make you lie down for 10 minutes!!
- Mentally scan your body to get a sense of how stress
- Affects it each day.
- Lie on your back somewhere comfortable and warm.
- Start at your toes and work your way up to your scalp, noticing how your body feels.
- Simply be aware of places you feel tight or loose without trying to change anything. For 1 to 2 minutes, imagine each deep breath flowing to that body part.
- Repeat this process as you move your focus up your body, paying close attention to sensations you feel in each body part.
When I do this, I am usually snoring by the time I get to my elbows. I’ve never managed to get to my scalp yet!
- Place a warm heat wrap around your neck and shoulders for 10 minutes. You can buy these heat wraps from the high street, sometimes with lavender in them and they heat up quickly in the microwave.
- Close your eyes and relax your face, neck, upper chest, and back muscles. Remove the wrap and use a tennis ball or foam roller to massage away tension.
- Place the ball between your back and the wall. Lean into the ball and hold gentle pressure for up to 15 seconds. Then move the ball to another spot and apply pressure.
Laugh out loud
A good belly laugh doesn’t just lighten the load mentally. It lowers cortisol, your body’s stress hormone, while increasing brain chemicals called endorphins that boost your mood. Lighten up by tuning in to your favourite sitcom or DVD, reading the comics, or chatting with someone who makes you smile.
I always remember my dad saying, after my mum died, that if he put a smile on his face, eventually the rest of his body would catch up with him and smile too ☺
Crank up the tunes
Research shows that listening to soothing music can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. Create a playlist of songs or nature sounds (the ocean, a bubbling brook, birds chirping) and allow your mind to focus on the different melodies, instruments, or singers in the piece.
Having said that, someone bought me a relaxation tape with whale noises – that thing gave me nightmares – whales don’t seem the most content of animals to me!!
You can also blow off steam by rocking out to some more lively tunes, or my personal favourite, sing at the top of your lungs to your favourite song. It makes me feel better – not sure about the neighbours though!
Get moving, gently
Exercise or movement can be used as relaxation as well as cardiac exercise. Gentle forms of exercise can ease depression and anxiety by helping the brain release feel-good chemicals and by giving your body a chance to practice dealing with stress. You can go for a quick walk around the block, take the stairs up and down a few flights, or do some stretching exercises like head rolls and shoulder shrugs. Simple as that!
Keep a diary
As I’ve said earlier, part of relaxation is getting rid of stress. Having a heart attack is pretty stressful (did I really just write that…OK, massive understatement!) Having a heart attack is probably the most stressful thing you will ever experience and your journey to recovery will have lots of twists and turns that take your emotions high and low.
I strongly recommend that you keep a diary. I did this and at moments when I hit a particular low, believing that I wasn’t getting better and I wasn’t getting stronger, I would look back on my scribblings from previous weeks and realise that indeed I was getting better. It’s easy to forget the day to day progress that you make. To begin with I couldn’t leave the house because I was too tired to even walk to the gate. A few weeks later I was walking out for 10 minutes but getting frustrated because I wanted to walk for 20! Seeing the baby steps of progress I was making, kept me motivated to do more and write more. It really is a very helpful little tip. Please do try it.
Also use your journal to savour good experiences like a child’s smile, a sunshine-filled day, and good health. Don’t forget to celebrate accomplishments like mastering a new task at work or a new hobby. When you start feeling stressed, spend a few minutes looking through your notes to remind yourself what really matters. Basically, it is important to do whatever makes you feel happy. Some people get over a heart attack without too much trouble and seem to breeze through it, yet it is more usual to have moments of sadness, uncertainty and stress. I hope that some of the techniques shown in this chapter will help you, and you find other ways to relax. Let us know and we’ll share your story☺