After a heart attack, it’s human nature to seek an explanation for why such a terrible thing happened to you. A new study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology suggests that blaming your cardiac woes on stress could hasten your recovery.
The study included 168 cardiac rehabilitation patients who were recovering from heart attacks, stent procedures, and/or bypass surgery. Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program that helps heart patients return to an active life and reduce their risk for future heart problems. Exercise training and education about healthy living are major components.
At the beginning of the study, patients were asked what they thought was the main cause of their heart problems. Nearly one-quarter blamed stress, distress, or worry. During the final month of the three-month rehab program, this group made more health-enhancing behavior changes than patients who attributed their heart problems to other lifestyle factors or genetics. By the end of rehab, this manifested as greater improvements in exercise capacity.
Recently, I chatted with the study’s lead author, Kymberley Bennett, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Here’s what she told me about the surprising benefits of blaming stress for causing a heart attack.
Why do people have a strong need to find an explanation for having a heart attack?
Kymberley Bennett, PhD: When people experience a traumatic event, such as a heart attack, it shakes up their world view. To restore a sense of balance, they devote cognitive energy to understanding why the event happened. This helps them go back to feeling as if they can predict—and therefore control—what’s going to happen to them in the future. There’s a large literature showing that making causal attributions is very adaptive for adjustment to trauma.
Why was it particularly beneficial for people in your study to blame their heart problems on stress?
Dr Bennett: Normally, when you hear the word “stress,” you think, uh-oh, this is going to be negative. At first, it might seem counterintuitive that people who attributed their heart problems to stress were able to expend more energy on exercise by the end of rehab. However, I think this reflects the fact that people recognized there were things they could do to change their stress levels. In the context of cardiac rehab, they were relieving stress through exercise, and that led them to become physically stronger.
What’s the takeaway message for someone who is recovering from a heart attack?
Dr. Bennett: When you’re trying to figure out why this happened to you and what you can do to reduce your risk of a recurrence, focus on things you can change. In the case of stress, it’s important to distinguish between stressors you can control and those you can’t. If your boss isn’t the nicest person, you probably aren’t going to be able to change that, so it’s a stressor you may have to live with. But you can still change how you respond to your boss’s behavior (for example, by taking some deep breaths and reminding yourself that it’s nothing personal).
On the other hand, if you’re always running late in the morning, that’s something you can control. I have a daughter who is almost three, and I don’t like being rushed with her in the morning. It’s stressful! So I wake up a little earlier and remove that stress.
Most people today are savvy consumers of psychological science. They understand that stress doesn’t just happen to them. Instead, they’re active agents who can take steps to relieve stress once it starts or prevent stress when they see it coming. And knowing that may help them bounce back from a heart attack.