Worried about Your Heart? Blame Your Parents

September 20, 2010

Research shows that adults with congenital heart disease suffer heart-focused anxiety if their parents were overprotective during their childhood.

Researchers have found that adults with congenital heart disease are “more likely to suffer heart-focused anxiety if their parents were overprotective during their childhood and adolescence.” According to Lephuong Ong, PhD, Orion Health Services, Vancouver, Canada, and colleagues from University Health Network and York University in Toronto, Canada, healthcare professionals who treat patients with congenital heart disease should “encourage greater independence for adolescents and adults with congenital heart disease to improve their psychosocial adjustment.”

According to a news release announcing publication of this study, children who are born with a congenital heart defect and survive to adulthood (which more than 90% do, thanks to advances in treatment), often face a variety of mental health issues, including “anxiety, neurocognitive deficits, body image concerns, and difficulties with relationships.” Research suggests that “levels of parental protection are likely to be higher in children with congenital heart disease compared with healthy children.”

Ong and colleagues “investigated the relationship between patient recollections of parental overprotection… and heart-focused anxiety in adults with congenital heart disease.” For this study, parental overprotection was defined as “intrusion, excessive contact, infantilization and prevention of independent behavior.”

After assessing subjects for severity of heart defect, degree of heart-focused anxiety, and level of perceived parental overprotection during childhood, they found that “levels of heart-focused anxiety rose as levels of parental overprotection increased.” The researchers also found that disease severity was linked to higher anxiety levels; however, the level of parental overprotection did not vary with disease severity.

According the study authors, “Adults with congenital heart disease, who report their parents as being overprotective, might have learned to form negative interpretations of their symptoms and use maladaptive coping behaviors, like avoidance and fearful responding, when experiencing cardiac symptoms or when faced with situations that trigger cardiac-related sensations. Clinicians could consider providing recommended activity guidelines for parents and their children to reduce limitations on activities that are deemed medically appropriate, to encourage independence among adolescents and young adults with congenital heart defects.”

The study, “Parental Overprotection and Heart-Focused Anxiety in Adults with Congenital Heart Disease,” was published online at the website of the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.