Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Mindfulness helps ease heart failure

Heart Beat

Mindfulness helps ease heart failure

On the surface, heart failure seems to be a purely physical problem. The heart muscle is too weak, or too stiff, to pump enough blood to meet the body's demands. This causes trouble throughout the body. But it's an emotional and psychological problem, too, that can lead to depression, anxiety, and grief. These not only cast a pall on daily life, but they can make heart failure worse as well.

A program based on the practice of mindfulness helps ease depression and improve symptoms of heart failure. In the Support, Education, and Research in Chronic Heart Failure (SEARCH) study, volunteers enrolled in a program to develop mindfulness. This is the ability to pay attention to what you're experiencing at the moment, a skill that can be developed through a simple form of meditation. The volunteers also learned about heart failure and attended support groups. Over the eight-week program, volunteers reported being less anxious or depressed. Equally important, they felt better, as indicated by better scores on the Kansas City Cardiomyopathy Questionnaire, an indicator of heart failure symptoms and quality of life. By comparison, none of these beneficial changes were seen in a control group that didn't follow the mindfulness program (American Heart Journal, January 2009).

A program like this might work for many reasons. It could give people with heart failure skills that help them cope with their condition. Mindfulness could help a person deal with shortness of breath by promoting relaxation, reducing anxiety, and encouraging optimistic thinking. Increased social support from nurses, doctors, and group participants could also play a role.

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