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Shedding Light on Pulmonary Hypertension and Depression—And What to Do About It

November 04, 2014

November is pulmonary hypertension awareness month. While you may not have heard of this relatively rare disorder, it is important to understand what it is and how it can affect those living with it.

Pulmonary hypertension is a rare disorder of the vessels leading to and from the lungs. It occurs when the arteries of the lung become constricted, forcing the heart to work harder to pump blood. It can also happen in association with disorders such as autoimmune disease, valvular heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), HIV or congenital heart defects.

The symptoms of pulmonary hypertension are non-specific and often seen in other disease states such as asthma, cardiac disease and anxiety. Often, the diagnosis is delayed as healthcare providers wade through tests to rule out other more common disorders. Because the symptoms can be debilitating, they can have an effect on the physical, emotional and social state of those living with pulmonary hypertension and their loved ones.

Living with PH and Feeling Depressed? You’re not Alone.

Pulmonary hypertension can be isolating and lead to feelings of depression. Although it is normal for all of us to experience occasional sadness and distress, prolonged feelings of depression can interfere with daily life and hurt you and your loved ones. As we know, depression is a common but serious illness. In fact, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, every year about 6.7% of adults in the United States have major depressive disorder.

According to a 2013 Respiratory Research study, those living with moderate to severe pulmonary hypertension symptoms frequently suffer from depression. Pulmonary hypertension is a progressive disease. Due to the risk of developing depression, it is important that you and your caregiver become familiar with the warning signs.

The warning signs of depression can include:

  • Feeling sad, numb or empty every day
  • Significantly decreased pleasure in almost all activities
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue nearly every day
  • Feeling of worthlessness or excessive guilt nearly every day
  • Cloudy thinking, diminished ability to think, concentrate or make decisions
  • Feeling of isolation
  • Inability to relax
  • Feelings of excessive guilt or worthlessness nearly every day
  • Thoughts of suicide
Just like pulmonary hypertension, depression is a treatable disorder and can successfully be managed with medication and social support. No matter how long you have been living with pulmonary hypertension, feeling sad, scared or anxious is normal.

How to Cope with Pulmonary Hypertension

It’s important to remember that when dealing with a disorder like pulmonary hypertension, you do not have to do it alone. Below, I have outlined some steps that you can take today to improve your day-to-day life:

  • Talk to your healthcare team about how you are feeling. If you're very depressed, your doctor may recommend medicines or other treatments that can improve your quality of life.
  • Talk to a professional counselor and rely on the support of your family and friends to help relieve stress and anxiety.
  • Let your loved ones know how you feel and what they can do to help you.
  • Join a patient support group to help you adjust to living with pulmonary hypertension so you can meet other people who have the same symptoms.
  • Set realistic goals for yourself to achieve small “wins” throughout the day.
  • Break up tasks into smaller, more manageable actions so they feel less daunting.
I tell all of my patients to focus on living with pulmonary hypertension rather than being stifled by the setbacks this disorder can present. So travel if you can, work if you can, spend time with your loved ones as much as you can. Focus on things that bring you joy, and when you can’t find it on your own—seek help. You will find support through friends, family, support groups and, of course, your dedicated health care team.