Heart disease patients learn the art of stress reduction

December 10, 2013

The future for patients suffering from heart disease is uncertain.

They must cope with changes in lifestyle and limitations. One question on the minds of many of these patients is, “How long do I have to live?”

“Heart disease patients often experience up and down times and this plays on their emotions,” said Joann Smith, a nurse practitioner with the Heart Failure Clinic, WellSpan Gettysburg Hospital.

“They often experience depression, anxiety, fatigue and pain.”

Recognizing this, the WellSpan Center for Mind/Body Health collaborated with the Heart Failure Clinic, part of WellSpan Heart and Vascular, to develop a stress reduction class for cardiac outpatients. The class was open to anyone in the community with a cardiac diagnosis, along with their family member or caregiver.

Julie Falk, a nurse and yoga instructor who trained at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is teaching the eight-week class to 18 patients.

She teaches meditation and gentle yoga as tools for relaxation and to identify conscious thought patterns that foster stress.

“Once people mindfully evaluate the way they think and behave, they are able to reduce their sources of stress,” offered Falk. She said many patients with heart disease have difficulty keeping their mind in the present.

“They are constantly projecting into the future,” said Falk. “We work with them to learn to live in the present moment, which is the only time we can ever influence anything. Learning to use their breath to calm and re-orient themselves gives them some control.”

Smith and Falk agree that patients have responded well to the stress reduction class.
“Most patients realize that stress has had a big impact on their lives,” said Smith. “It can affect their sleep, their mood and their outlook on life.

“Patients tell me that the class is helping them,” added Smith. “I can see a difference in their attitudes.”

Smith, Falk and nurse Laura James are using a grant from the Beryl Institute to conduct a research project with the group.

In preparing the research proposal, a lot of literature supporting this type of program for cancer patients was found. There were, however, only a few published studies showing the benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction training and its effect on cardiac patients.

As part of the study, class participants had their depression, anxiety, fatigue and pain measured pre-class. Those factors will be measured post-class.

“We’re giving patients the tools to help them reduce stress,” said Smith. “This is not just another pill.”

Smith and Falk are optimistic that the study will show positive results.

Plans are underway to offer the class again and to perhaps extend it to patients with other chronic diseases in the future.