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Coping with Heart Failure

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, “cope” means to deal with and attempt to overcome problems and difficulties. For some, coping can be a struggle. For others, it can just be something unexpected they have to deal with. Receiving a diagnosis of heart failure (HF) can be a shock. It is common to experience a range of emotions when you learn that you or someone you care about has a chronic, potentially life-threatening diagnosis.1-3

What are you feeling?

Distress is a common feeling. The range of emotions can include anger, denial, fear, grief, and sadness. Others feel guilt or shame wondering if they caused their illness or let their family down.1,3 Some of the feelings may subside as you learn more about the condition and gain an understanding of HF.4

Actively face your illness.2 Uncertainty is understandable. Recognizing these feelings and finding ways to take positive steps can lead to better control of your condition and a more positive attitude.3 Learn to recognize feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger.3 This can help you develop strategies to manage your feelings or to identify when things are out of control and you might benefit from professional support.3 Engage in your own health and understand that emotions are real and important to manage because they can affect disease progression and recovery.3

Understand your diagnosis

Understanding heart failure can change your life. Your healthcare team should educate you about your condition, your symptoms, and the emotions you may experience.1,3-4 It is important to note that you can and should ask any questions you may have about issues that cause you concern. Accurate information can be a powerful tool in helping you take care of yourself. Being informed can help you take an active role in treatment decision-making and help you to feel more in control.1,3

Keep a running list or a journal of your questions and feelings. This can help you keep track of information you want, feelings you experience, and how you are adjusting to your diagnosis.1,4 Recognize that your diagnosis impacts more than just you. Your family and friends may share similar feelings of fear and concern. Help them to understand your diagnosis, what it means to experience changes in your daily life such as medication requirements, physical limitations, and other lifestyle modifications like diet, exercise, and rest.2

Managing stress

Stress is a natural reaction to unplanned change. Communication and support will help you cope with your diagnosis and the change process required to take control of and manage your heart failure.4 Tell the people around you what you need. This includes your healthcare team and your caregivers. Set attainable goals for change. They can be small and gradual steps because each action can make a difference. Just like risk factors for health disease are cumulative, so are beneficial lifestyle changes.1,4 In fact, improving diet and exercise can be beneficial to the whole family. A heart-healthy lifestyle is a good way for everyone to live.

Seek support

Support can come in many forms. Friends and family members can be a source of strength and for providing care.3 Some find that seeking support from others who have faced similar diagnoses can be a source of emotional support and practical approaches to everyday challenges.1,3 To find a support group near you, check with your local healthcare team, the American Heart Association chapter, or CardioSmart, the patient education site of the American College of Cardiology. Other resources include Women Heart and Mended Hearts.2

What’s next?

The coping mechanisms you learn now, upon receiving a HF diagnosis, will also help once you get your condition under control. Coming through a significant health crisis and finding your life disrupted can still evoke a broad array of emotions.2 Be patient with yourself and those who care about you.2 They too are adjusting to a life-altering change. Take an active role in managing your condition. Staying focused and committed, working each day to care for yourself and your heart, you’re likely to discover what millions of others have learned. Many can live a full, rewarding life with heart failure.2 Concentrate on the activities you can do.3 Don’t let this diagnosis stop you from doing the things you love. Plan to meet new challenges and learn to live with heart failure.2

Written by: Linda Minton | Last reviewed: November 2019
  1. Coping with a diagnosis of chronic illness. American Psychological Association. Available at: https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/chronic-illness. Accessed 10/24/19.
  2. Your Guide to Living Well with Heart Disease. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/files/docs/public/heart/living_well.pdf. Accessed 10/24/19.
  3. Module 6: Managing Feelings about Heart Failure. Heart Failure Society of America. Available at: https://www.hfsa.org/patient/patient-tools/educational-modules/module-6/. Accessed 10/23/19.
  4. Coping with Feelings. American Heart Association. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/cardiac-rehab/taking-care-of-yourself/coping-with-feelings. Accessed 10/23/19.