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The stress factor

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Parents of children with congenital heart disease should seek professional help to safeguard the child’s psychological health, says Dr Vihan Sanyal

More than 1.5 lakh infants are born in India annually with congenital heart disease and approximately 78,000 infants die of this in the country every year.

What is congenital heart disease?

Congenital Heart Disease (CHD) is when a child is born with an abnormality in his/her heart. It could be abnormal in the way it’s structured (have parts of the organ missing, have functional problems and/or holes in the chambers). Doctors are often able to diagnose CHD while the child is still in the womb. CHD is considered to be a life-threatening illness and hence can cause emotional turmoil in the parents, which in turn affects the psychological development of the unborn child.

Additional alterations immediately after birth for a child can prove to be traumatic, and cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)-like symptoms later in life. For example, a child is often separated from the mother and placed in intensive care immediately after birth, and then subjected to invasive medical procedures and tests. An infant with CHD goes through a traumatic event which is often reflected in feeding problems, nightmares and overall behaviour of the infant.

Parents of children with CHD can seek the help of a skilled psychotherapist for their children’s psychological health while they are children. This will help the therapist address the issue early on and improve the quality of life of the child well into adulthood.

A child’s early stressful experiences can alter brain development, affect the immune system (the child tends to fall sick more often) and disturb the way a child reacts to stressful events in future. Studies have proven that children who have been exposed to highly stressful environments early in childhood often have issues with cognition and in processing of emotions.

Neonatal care, pediatric care, the adolescent years and adulthood of a person diagnosed with CHD are often complex and challenging. The psychological impact this creates is profound.

Studies have indicated that more than 30% of parents with children who have been diagnosed with CHD show signs of PTSD. Fifty per cent of them have shown to have anxiety and depression. More than 80% of these parents have tested positive for psychological stress-related disorders.

Mindfulness Neuro Linguisatic Programming (MNLP) and other modalities of psychotherapy can help parents of those who have recently been diagnosed with CHD. MNLP can help in building resilience in the parents and equip them to face the challenges which lay ahead without disintegrating emotionally. Hypnotherapy can be used to promote relaxation and to address issues of trauma in the subconscious.

Contributory factors while pregnant

  • Smoking
  • Consuming alcohol
  • Exposure to poor air quality (pollution)
  • Exposure to toxic chemicals (even common household chemicals like toilet cleaners and detergents)
  • Exposure to pesticides and insecticides
  • Medicines not meant to be consumed during pregnancy
  • Obesity.

In addition to the above list, symptoms of anxiety and depression in pregnant women often go undetected and hence, remain untreated. It is also important to mention that a range of symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression, marital harmony and quality of relationship the parents share with each other all have an effect on the fetus’s psychological health.

Many pregnant women are unaware of some of the precautions they need to take during pregnancy. More importantly, they are unaware of the harmful effects the unborn child could face due to their habits and behaviour. Many psychological disorders and mental illnesses can be prevented by pregnant women choosing to lead a balanced and a relatively stress-free life during their pregnancy.

Doctor Vihan Sanyal is a psychotherapist and a public speaker

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