Heart attack

Initial emotions about having a heart attack

A heart attack is often a sudden and dramatic event. It can be frightening when you are taken into hospital suddenly and are surrounded by monitors and hi-tech equipment that are supporting your heart. You may think that you are going to die or, if you survive, that life will never be the same again.

Here, the people we interviewed talk about their feelings when they had their heart attack. For more about what people felt and how they coped after their heart attack (see 'Coping with emotions after a heart attack').

Reactions differ from person to person but many experienced fear, disbelief, denial and shock because they didn't think they were at risk of a heart attack, or they had not had any previous symptoms. 

One man found it difficult to accept that he had, had a heart attack three months after he retired.

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Another man in his forties talked about the mixture of emotions he felt during his first 24 hours in hospital.

One man with a family history of heart disease said that he was expecting to have a heart attack, but it was still a shock when it actually happened. Some were scared that they were going to die. Others were frightened or apprehensive that they might have another heart attack in the next few hours.

One man was too frightened to go to sleep that night in case he didn't wake up. Another said that although he realised he could die, he felt calm and reassured by the nursing staff, the technology and because he had been treated promptly.

Some people who had a heart attack at a young age had at first felt depressed, frustrated and angry. One man, who had a heart attack when he was 46, thought that a heart attack was something that happened to older people and shouldn't be happening to him.

Those who had no pain or only minor symptoms could not believe that their symptoms were a heart attack because they felt well. One man explained that he felt a fraud because he did not have severe chest pain and felt well once the painkillers and other drugs began to work.

A few felt calm accepted it and were not worried. One woman recalled feeling as though she was on 'auto-pilot' so that it wasn't until later when she got home that she felt the impact of what had happened to her.

After the initial shock, some people began to worry that they might be disabled and dependent on their families, or that the life they knew had ended. The man who had his heart attack three months after he retired felt that his retirement had been snatched away from him.

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A small proportion of people can have a heart attack without experiencing any obvious symptoms. One woman who had been feeling breathless for some time was devastated to be told that tests showed she had, had a heart attack one month earlier.

One man described his surprise at being told by doctors that he had already had one heart attack several years previously, which he had been unaware of.

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Last reviewed June 2017.

Last updated August 2010.


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