Can mindfulness be a good treatment strategy for those with congestive heart failure – or any chronic condition?
On my way home from the cardiac catheterization procedure, I was talking with the friend who had accompanied me to the hospital about various techniques I was using to advance my well-being. I talked about how I had some success using yoga and positive affirmations to help strengthen my spirit, to increase my ability to remain calm and focused, and to avoid letting stress aggravate my heart failure symptoms.
My friend asked me if I had ever used mindfulness to help me manage my heart failure condition. His daughter had been doing some research on mindfulness, and it seemed like a strategy to help people who were dealing with difficult challenges. I thought carefully about the question. I knew what the definition of the term mindful was: being aware of something or someone, devoting your attention to something or someone.
But I wasn’t sure what mindfulness was, although I had seen the term a number of times since I began writing this blog. So I looked it up. Psychology Today defines mindfulness as:
So far, this sounded like something I could embrace. For some time, I have realized that I am at my worst when the anxiety sets in and I relive what I did in the past, or how I could have done it different or how a bad result might have occurred. I often live in fear of what may go wrong in the future, just letting my imagination run wild on far-fetched things that could possibly happen once in a million years, but very very probably will never happen. When I say I live in fear, I mean that it is hard to leave the theater of my mind where the film clip of the awful thing happening plays 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I have also found that I do much better when I live life as it happens, rather than obsessing on the past or fearing the future. In fact, when a bad or scary thing actually does surface, I do so much better than one would expect. I think this is because the dreaded event is happening in real time and I am reacting to it with my persistence and determination without the time to obsess. So I thought mindfulness is something that I should delve into as a heart failure management strategy.
Almost immediately after I began to research the concept of mindfulness, I found the following vignette related by a renowned cardiologist named Bernard Lown. This vignette is in his book Full Catastrophe Living:
All I could think of when I initially read this story was “YIKES!”. First, maybe this is not fair but I was a bit frustrated at what appeared to be the doctor’s brusque manner as he gave a shorthand diagnosis of the woman and then disappeared into the ether not to be heard from the rest of the day. Should he have been more mindful of what the woman might conclude from his statement? Or had he used this shorthand term so many times during a patient consultation this patient knew the meaning?
Second, It amazed me that this woman’s condition could deteriorate to the point of death so rapidly. Having leapt to some incorrect thoughts before in my life, I don’t know if I can be critical. But I also worked in a job for years where people used acronyms and other code words that did not necessarily have common meanings. God knows that there are many medical code words I don’t understand. So this is a lesson to me not to assume I know what something means but to ask for clarification. Especially when it is something that is deadly critical to my health and well-being. The bottom line it is always a good rule to ask for clarification before leaping to a conclusion.
But what if I find out that the meaning of a term is not optimal to my health? Rather than become anxious, wouldn't the healthy thing be to find out what I can do to mitigate bad outcomes and not dream up the worst possible case scenarios. Because sometimes, what one worries about can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
An additional reinforcement of the importance of mindfulness to my heart failure treatment came from a September 2015 article on the Pharmacy Times website. The article discussed a team of researchers from the Ohio State University who had tested mindfulness training for congestive heart failure. The training was a holistic approach to aid patients in their efforts to improve their own health. It was meant to provide patient education on medications, diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, mindfulness, self-compassion, love, and kindness.
The mindfulness sessions taught by a multi-disciplinary team in the study were designed to reduce stress. The most promising outcomes were improvements in fatigue, depression, life satisfaction, resilience, and possibly mindfulness. This proof-of-concept study was limited by its small sample size of 10 patients. There were recommendations on what future mindfulness studies should look like and focus on.
It may have been a small sample size, but the results stated in the article reinforce what I have already been able to see based on my own experience. By taking an interest in the things I can control – what I eat, how active I am, getting rest, banning stress, exercising tolerance with myself and others, and knowing as much as I can about my condition – I am helping my medical team to make my outlook as optimistic as possible.
To me, this seems to be the value of the mindfulness strategy. I endorse this strategy, and will continue to research and develop mindfulness in my own life so that my quality of life remains as positive as possible. And the rest of the stuff - anxiety, negativity, and doubt - well I need to just have faith and let all that bad stuff go.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.