Healing the Heart: Integrating Complementary Therapies and Healing Practices Into the Care of Cardiovascular Patients

Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, RN, Mariah Snyder, PhD, RN


Prog Cardiovasc Nurs. 2002;17(2) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Complementary therapies and healing practices have been found to reduce stress, anxiety, and lifestyle patterns known to contribute to cardiovascular disease. Promising therapies include imagery and hypnosis, meditation, yoga, tai chi, prayer, music, exercise, diet, and use of dietary supplements. Many of these complementary approaches to healing have been within the domain of nursing for centuries and can readily be integrated into the care of patients with cardiovascular disease. While individual complimentary modalities hold considerable merit, it is critical that the philosophy underlying these therapies -- caring, holism, and harmony -- also be understood and honored.

For many cardiovascular patients, stress and underlying lifestyle patterns are among the well documented risk factors known to contribute to both the development of cardiovascular disease and to recovery. These risk factors include anger,[1] hostility,[2] social isolation,[3] stress,[4] anxiety,[5,6] and depression.[7] In a review article on the influence of anxiety and depression on outcomes of patients with coronary artery disease, Januzzi et al.[7] conclude that anxiety is prevalent in patients with acute cardiac illness and triples the risk for mortality following a myocardial infarction, doubles the risk for reinfarction over 5 years, and increases the risk for sudden cardiac death by a factor of six. They further conclude that the incidence of major depression in patients with acute cardiac illness is approximately 25% and that major depression following a myocardial infarction has a devastating effect on both the quality of life and adherence to therapies, and quadruples the risk for mortality.

Dean Ornish, MD, published numerous papers throughout the 1980s and 1990s, demonstrating that lifestyle changes, including low-fat diet, exercise, yoga, and group support, can impact the course of, and in many cases even reverse, severe coronary artery disease.[8,9,10] In his recent book Love and Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy,[11] Ornish notes that scientists and practitioners have long believed that the benefits of his program are due to diet and exercise changes. They have often overlooked the evidence that stress management techniques are as strongly correlated with changes in coronary artery disease as is adherence to diet. He goes on to note that as important as changes are in cardiac positron emission tomographic scans and arteriograms, there are even more important outcomes that patients and their families experience that are more difficult to quantify. These include: rediscovering inner sources of peace, joy, and well-being; learning how to communicate in ways that enhance intimacy with loved ones; creating a healthy community of friends and family; developing more compassion and empathy for themselves and others; and directly experiencing the transcendent interconnectedness of life.

There is a growing body of empiric evidence that "healing the heart" requires care of the whole person -- the body, mind, and spirit. To effectively achieve this requires tapping into a broad array of healing options, including the best of high-technology biomedical care as well as complementary and alternative care options.