Coping With Atrial Fibrillation

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For the large majority of people with atrial fibrillation, the hard part comes in the weeks or months after the diagnosis, while you are in the midst of making the tough decisions on the right treatment approach, and then while your treatment is being instituted. Eventually, however—and very often after a surprisingly brief period of time—for most people with atrial fibrillation everything stabilizes. Successful treatment is found that both gets rid of symptoms and is well tolerated.

Emotional

It can be a shock to discover you or your loved one has atrial fibrillation. The condition can develop suddenly or it might only be discovered on a routine health exam. It is natural to feel fear, anger, confusion, and sadness. If you have other conditions, this can be one more blow that may not be easy to absorb.

Stress and anxiety can increase your symptoms of atrial fibrillation. If you are often worried or angry, look into stress management tactics. These include quick stress relievers like going for a brisk walk or using breathing techniques, as well as those that reduce stress over time, such as meditation, yoga, exercise, and healthy eating.

Denial and avoidance are also natural reactions to unpleasant news. The danger is that this can lead to not complying with the recommended treatment for the condition. Stick with the therapy program you and your doctor have arrived upon to reduce your risk of stroke. Taking your medications as prescribed—especially your anticoagulant medicine—is critical.

If you or your loved one are having problems with the anticoagulant medication, talk to your doctor about it right away. Don’t wait. While controlling your symptoms is very important, what’s especially important is preventing a stroke. So your anticoagulation medication is something you have to get right. And that’s something you have to do together with your doctor.

Twenty percent of people with permanent atrial fibrillation have high levels of depression, according to one study. If you find that you are sad most of the time or have stopped doing activities you once enjoyed, talk to your doctor. There are good options for treatment with talk therapy or medication.

Physical

The fact that atrial fibrillation has occurred may suggest that it is important for you or your loved one to make some serious lifestyle changes. Not smoking, eating a healthy diet, losing weight, and getting plenty of exercise (in addition to taking any necessary medications to control diabetes, hypertension or cholesterol) may be critical not only for reducing atrial fibrillation, but also to help prevent other, more dangerous cardiovascular diseases.

Researchers have learned that in many more instances than previously thought, atrial fibrillation is a lifestyle disease, a disorder that is produced by being sedentary and becoming overweight. Most doctors have not absorbed this information yet, but the evidence looks pretty strong.

If “sedentary and overweight” describes you or your loved one, it gives you an important option not only for making your atrial fibrillation less of a problem, but also for improving your overall health and reducing your risk of further cardiovascular problems. Changing your diet, losing weight, and beginning an exercise program may be the best thing you will ever do for yourself, not only in terms of your atrial fibrillation, but more importantly, in terms of living a longer life without disability.

This kind of lifestyle advice, of course, is nothing new. You’ve known about it all along. But perhaps the fact that you now have atrial fibrillation will wake you up to the reality that poor lifestyle choices are not merely a theoretical risk, but may have already taken a real, tangible, toll on your heart.

With any illness, the best recoveries are made—both physical and psychological recoveries—by the people who take ownership of their own health to the fullest possible extent. Taking control of your health is empowering, and has real, measurable benefits, physically and mentally.

Because it’s not too late to do something about it, now may be a good time to take stock and reevaluate your priorities and your lifestyle choices, and to make the changes that will lead to better health. There is no better time to take control than right now.

Social

Lifestyle changes are extremely difficult for individuals to do by themselves. If making lifestyle changes becomes a household endeavor, the chances of success will be much, much higher—and everyone becomes a lot healthier. If you are living solo or your loved ones are resistant to join with you, reach out to friends or join in a program at a local medical center, fitness center, or weight management program so you get the social support you need to make lifestyle changes.

Talk to your friends and family about what atrial fibrillation means and the changes it will make in your life. Ask for their support.

The American Heart Association provides a MyAFibExperience.org site with an online community forum and patient education resources. These include helpful tools for managing your condition and setting goals. The Atrial Fibrillation Association has a 24-hour helpline and other resources.

Practical

Now that your treatment is settled upon, this is a good time for you to take stock. You have a cardiac arrhythmia that is itself a problem—but that problem has been addressed. Now you should ask yourself what information do I have about myself that I didn’t have before the atrial fibrillation?

You probably know a lot more about the state of your heart and your cardiovascular system than you did before. Evaluating such things is routine in patients who are diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Use that information.

It may be that your atrial fibrillation has some now-identified underlying cause. Whether that underlying cause is reversible or is a chronic condition, you will need to make sure you and your doctor have fully addressed it, that your medications (if any) have been optimized, and that you have adjusted your lifestyle and habits to minimize the risk of future problems.

Stroke is a complication of atrial fibrillation. Be alert to possible signs of a stroke, and if you become even slightly suspicious that a stroke may be happening, get your loved one to a medical facility immediately. If it is a stroke, time is critical, and minutes can make a huge difference in the odds of recovering with minimal disability. Remember FAST—if you see face drooping, arm weakness, or speech difficulty, it’s time to call 911.

If a Loved One Has Atrial Fibrillation

If a loved one has been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, your support can make all the difference. Here are some things you can do to make your support particularly effective.

Learn everything you can about atrial fibrillation and the treatment options available. Having a person with a little knowledge to talk to can be of immense help to someone with atrial fibrillation, especially when they are in the initial, decision-making phase.

Go to doctor appointments with your loved one. Help him or her to prepare the list of questions that the doctor needs to address, listen attentively to the discussion with the doctor, and help your loved one digest the information obtained during the visit.

Make sure you understand the medications your loved one is taking, the reasons for taking them, and how they are to be taken. Help them to remember to take prescriptions as they are intended, and if there is any confusion about it make sure the confusion is cleared up with the doctor.

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