Deal With Stress Now… Not Later
“When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” This was a television commercial back in the 1970’s and 1980’s. E.F. Hutton was a stock brokerage firm and with their slogan it was implied that with their experience, you should trust them.
I will probably never get to do a television commercial myself, but I have an experience to tell you about. And I want you to trust me. What I am going to show you, is going to be shocking.
This is what my death looked like, or could have. You can see in the upper left corners of the two images, my name is spelled out. You can find out the details of this photo in the “Paul’s Heart” archives, under the post “Stress Kills.” The blockage which is quite visible is referred to in layman’s terms as a “widowmaker,” medically diagnosed as a blockage of the main artery going to the heart. Plainly put, you die from this, or at least, most do from a fatal heart attack. But this post is not about my death that almost was. This post is about what was going on before this picture was taken.
It was not until after the emergency bypass surgery was done that I did some retrospective thinking. I had physical symptoms for nearly four months. Any exertion of strength from me would lead to a tightness across my chest, quite uncomfortable actually, but not painful. So I was not concerned about a heart attack as I was aware of the extreme pain associated with the cardiac event. Mowing the lawn, walking up a ramp in a parking garage, exercising, any physical exertion brought this symptom on.
But do you know what another term for physical exertion could be? STRESS! Exertion is a physical stress on the body. Recognizing that, I became super aware, that perhaps emotional stress could also have an impact. Since my diagnosis with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, which I will swear forever was triggered by stress in the workplace, and I will explain shortly, I promised myself and my family that I would do better controlling my stress.
But as I mentioned, I was looking back in time, clearly for my LAD artery to be blocked 90%, it did not just occur over the four months that I felt something physical. Now to be fair, my cardiac condition is not the average overweight/out of shape blockage. Mine was due to over exposure of ionized radiation to my chest for my Hodgkin’s treatment. But that is also explained elsewhere in “Paul’s Heart”. But no matter the cause, stress has the potential to have long reaching effects, and perhaps fatal results. Looking back, I want to believe that I had my stress under control, and I want to believe that after my surgery I have my stress under control. The fact is, that I do not.
Believe it or not, a little stress can actually be good for you. Minor stress can cause you to “step up your game” perhaps on a work project, or even just make you a little more aware of how fragile life can be. It is when stress becomes overwhelming, uncontrollable, that it becomes bad. And your body is not afraid to let you know if stress has grown to the level that medical intervention is necessary.
Stress produces a physical response within your body. I will give you an example. I was having a discussion with a co-worker when another “grumpy” co-worker came into the locker room in the building I was working in at the time. I call him “grumpy” because he really did not get along with anyone, and no one really had any interest in him. He made the decision to interrupt a private conversation to call me out about an issue he had with my wife (at the time). One side note, this was before I had my breast bone cut in half, so I was not worried about a physical fight. After his comment, I simply told him, “you don’t know what you are talking about.” And that is honestly what I said to him. He got off the bench he was sitting on, walked over to me, and stood approximately four inches away from my face, and he growled at me about his personal opinion of her with his finger poking me just shy of my chest. I turned from the waist, put my lunch bag down on the locker room bench, and stood straight back up and turned back to my original position. I was prepared to fight. Fortunately the co-worker I had been talking to had a cool enough head to realize that both of us combatants risked our jobs if we came to settle this with fists. We stood in a stalemate position for about two minutes before we were finally separated.
Honestly, he would have killed me. He was much more stronger than I was. But I was not going to back down. The end result was staggering. I had never had such a surge of adrenaline before go through my veins. But I stood in that spot, telling my co-worker I could not move. I was caught in what is referred to as a “fight or flight” situation, and though clearly the result was “flight”, I could not stop what my body was doing. My blood pressure was rising, I could feel it. My breathing had also increased and was harder. And my fists were clinched ready to go. Perhaps it would have been better to fight. Paramedics were called to my building, and I was informed that I should get to the hospital immediately. My blood pressure had skyrocketed to 240/184. The risk for a massive stroke could not have been any higher. Of course I fought against the medics saying I only needed to settle myself down, that I was fine. Of course I was being compelled to explain what happened, and being in a union environment, I was discouraged from discussing it.
Stress can help you concentrate, try harder, but it can also kill you. And the problem is most of us have no idea how to control it, or how to manage it. And there is a price we all risk if we do not become more aware of how stress affects us, both in the short term, and the long term.
Stress affects our entire world, relationships, work, school, every aspect. And here is how that happens. I will start with what others will see first, because you are most likely unaware of what you are displaying. The most obvious is the mood swings, temperament changes. Some may approach you and even ask you what is wrong, that you seem sad. Which of course will not only make you aware of your stress, but probably increase the level as well.
That is when your thoughts become affected. It takes no time to be someone who constantly thinks in a positive light to turn negative if the situations are overwhelming. And this has nothing to do with relying on “faith” to get you through a dark time. When events become too numerous, and support is not available, despair, inability to concentrate, remember, and making erroneous decisions become the norm. And soon your actions begin to reflect even more in your behaviors, eating and sleeping, turning to vices such as cigarettes and alcohol, taking care of yourself (hygiene and health). And once you reach this level, your body takes over from there with pains, stomach issues, headaches, and loss of intimacy.
Once at this point, here is where the biggest effect takes place, on your body.
A study conducted by Wake Forest University showed that stress can actually help cancer cells survive. A simple smell of a predator introduce to mice produced enough adrenaline to make chemo less effective against cancer cells. Certain areas of the brain are affected by stress that could lead to other psychological issues. And how about all those gray hairs (I have plenty of gray in my beard when it is grown)? There is proof that stress can actually cause our body’s cells to age faster. And issues created by stress can actually be inherited.
Take a look around you and see people that are frequently sick or dealing with severe health issues. I had a coworker who was always so miserable and negative, and always sick. In fact, it was so overwhelming for him, that he had a desk drawer full of all kinds of medications from cold remedies to aspirin.
Of course, it is common sense to think that living a stressed out life could lead to cardiac events such as a heart attack or stroke. But stress can also have an impact on how your body survives these events.
I am going to make a very bold statement. While there is no defined cause for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, the cancer that I faced, I will definitely lay the blame on stress for triggering it. Stress lowers the immune system, and if your immune system is not strong enough, you get sick. Okay, maybe not always cancer, but think about it. Think back to times when you got a cold, or the flu. Were you under a lot of stress prior to that time period? I know I definitely was. My work environment was quite hostile. I was engaged to get married and there were those stressors. Had it been just an isolated incident, I probably would not push this argument.
But in 2012 into 2013, I had 3 emergency room visits that resulted in two life-saving responses. All three incidents were preceded by the stress of a hostile work environment, financial struggles, over-worked schedule, and relationship issues. Stress on top of an already compromised immune system (having had Hodgkin’s and having no spleen) could have been fatal.
How you deal with stress, is dependent on the support of loved ones and friends, your attitude, how well you can control your emotions, and also, how well you can process the issues and rationally come up with solutions. I personally have a tendency to have the approach that as long as I “prepare for the worst, hope for the best” (not to be confused with being negative), I am generally never caught off guard and can more calmly make decisions even in the most stressful of situations because I have already thought about the what-ifs and will be better prepared to deal with anything negative. And to me, it does not matter how difficult or easy the situation is, I prepare myself this way every time.
Recognize the triggers of the stress and you are half way to dealing with stress in a safer manner. Work, relationships, health, financial, schedule, life changes, all of these are bad enough individually let alone dealing with two or more. Personally, I am currently dealing with all six of these things on a very extreme level. And yes, in my mind, I have already plotted out all the worst case scenarios so that I am prepared for the worst if I have to deal with them, but I am also hoping for the best results which should in theory mean I will not subject my body to all the stressors that I am facing. After all, I have a proven track record, even in a picture of what stress can do. I showed you the picture at the beginning of what could have been a real bad ending. Now take a look at this picture. This is the one that saved my life.
These are actual photos of my heart, and the restriction of blood to my heart caused by the photo at the beginning. These were pictures taken during a “stress” test. First pictures were taken at rest, then you had pictures taken after a timed period on a treadmill that increased in speed and incline. My test did not last long as something showed up on the EKG after a minute and a half. Something was clearly wrong. And the picture showed, blood was not getting through my heart.
This was done on a treadmill. As I said, the feelings that I had came whether I was mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, at work, or even during a heated discussion. A sneezing fit could have caused enough physical stress at that point. As my cardiologist pointed out how lucky I was, “it wasn’t a matter of if I was going to have a fatal heart attack, but when.”
And so, along with my preparations I make to deal with stress, that does not mean that I am always in control.
I use many techniques to at least help me mentally keep calm and relaxed. I go for a lot of walks. I listen to a lot of music, and it can be any genre and any form of entertainment whether it by my Ipod, VH1, or catching a local band. I also spend a lot of time meditating. I have been known to “fall asleep” while in the shower calming myself. I often use what Norman Vincent Peale calls “positive imaging” meaning that I can actually imagine myself post-stress from the situation that is causing it.
Have you ever heard the “Serenity Prayer”? “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Words to live by. If you cannot escape the stress, if you cannot change the stress, then accept it is as something beyond your control and learn how to manage the stressor.
And just for the record, so that I do not get accused of not practicing what I preach, I am not always successful in keeping my stress to a minimum. And that is where my support network makes the difference reminding me and encouraging me.