An estimated 30 to 50 percent of teens with congenital heart conditions will experience anxiety and/or depression disorders, but researchers at Children’s National Health System have found that mindfulness techniques such as yoga, meditation and peer support can reduce stress that is often associated with these debilitating conditions.
Published in the journal Pediatric Cardiology, the first-of-its-kind, randomized, two-group study documented the effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and online video support groups in lowering illness-related stress for youth with heart conditions. Beyond stress reduction, the study also found that greater use of coping skills predicted lower levels of depression for participants following the interventions. Additionally, patients with higher levels of anxiety and depression pre-intervention recorded the biggest improvements post-study.
“Being a teenager is hard enough, but being the only person you know with a potentially life-threating heart condition can be devastating,” says Vicki Freedenberg, RN, Ph.D., electrophysiology nurse within the Children’s National Heart Institute and the principal investigator for the study. “These results indicate that teaching patients coping skills and connecting them with their peers can not only reduce their stress levels now, but these tools could also dramatically improve their responses to stressors for the rest of their lives.”
MBSR employs psycho-educational tools, including yoga, meditation, group support and other mindful approaches to dealing with stressors – which, for teens with heart conditions, could translate to better coping techniques when anxiety and heart palpitations strike.
Participants were randomly assigned to the MBSR group or the video online support group for the six-week study. The study included 46 adolescents, ages 12 to 18, with congenital heart disease, cardiac arrhythmias, cardiac devices or postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome. Before and after the study period, patients self-reported illness-related stress and coping using the Responses to Stress Questionnaire, as well as anxiety and depression levels using the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale.
Participants in the MBSR group met in person for 90 minutes once a week. During the sessions, the study’s lead author led the teens through mindfulness exercises and facilitated group discussions, focusing on fears and stressors related to body image, as well as heart conditions and associated devices.
The online support group used Skype to connect with peers for one hour each week. During the first half of each session, Freedenberg moderated group discussions about cardiac-related health topics requested by the participants, and the last 30 minutes were spent in open discussion on any topic – often ranging from issues at school to sports and entertainment.
“We are encouraged by our initial findings, and they indicate that we need to further study and understand the impact of behavioral and psychosocial interventions in adolescents with cardiac diagnoses,” says Freedenberg. “Adult studies have shown similar interventions can reduce risk for mortality and stroke among cardiac patients, and we are hopeful that further research will show equally positive findings for teens.”