What to do when stress breaks you – Part 1

Part 1: A relaxing evening turns into an unexpected trip

It was 9:45 pm on January 23, 2020, and my wife and I were relaxing with some TV at the end of a busy day.  She left the room to do some things and I suddenly started to feel tired, so I got up to brush my teeth and change into pajamas for the rest of the night.

Strange feelings came over me shortly after I entered the bathroom.  There was an irregular pounding heartbeat in my upper chest, feeling like it was up close to my neck.  A different kind of shorter and shallower breathing involuntarily swept over me.  Adding to these uncomfortable feelings was a sudden wave of anxiety, which was strange because I’m not prone to those types of feelings at all. I suppose it might be akin to a panic attack, but I’ve never had one so I can’t be sure.  

I quickly finished brushing my teeth (because you can’t not finish, right???), left the bathroom to sit down, and figured out what was happening.  I used my Apple Watch’s ECG function to confirm what I suspected, and I was correct. The 30-second test on the watch detected an abnormal heart rhythm called atrial fibrillation (AFib)

When your heart beats properly, you’re not even aware that it’s there because it pulses along steadily and quietly doing its job in the background of your life.  But you clearly feel it when it’s not working right, and it’s alarming. The realization causes your anxiety level to immediately skyrocket precisely because…it’s a heart incident!  This is your ticker, and if something goes wrong with it then you’re often in big trouble if you can’t get help fast enough.  The sudden and involuntary auto-anxiety that washes over you causes your body’s systems to flood your bloodstream with adrenaline and stress hormones like cortisol. Additionally your blood vessels constrict, heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your breathing rate accelerates.  The regulatory systems in your body feed off each other in a red-alert escalation.  

My Apple Watch indicated that my heart rate was up at 145, while doing nothing except sitting on the bed. Normally in that situation my heart rate would be around 60. I used the ECG function again to see how my heart rhythm looked, and when I reviewed the result on my iPhone it was ugly. It was an erratic irregular pattern with odd peaks and valleys, again indicating AFib. So at least I knew what I was dealing with, and I knew it was dangerous, so this clearly got my attention.

My normal (sinus) heart rhythm, as recorded by my Apple Watch. Perfect peaks, spacing, and valleys.
My abnormal heart rhythm of January 23 showing the temporary atrial fibrillation (AFib), as recorded by my Apple Watch. Notice the irregular spacing between peaks and the different profiles in the valleys.

I sat for a few minutes hoping for it to clear up, but it didn’t.  Things seemed to be getting worse and then came some shortness of breath when I stood up, so at that point I suggested to my wife that we should go to the hospital emergency room. My anxiety at that point was becoming uncontrollable, yet I was somehow strangely calm overall. The two are opposing feelings, yet somehow they were co-existing in that moment. I’ve never felt anything like it.

My wife drove to the hospital since it’s only twenty minutes from our house. Despite the situation, I didn’t see the necessity of calling an ambulance and waiting for transportation. It was probably a lot faster to just leave immediately and get there ourselves.

The hospital and emergency room were luckily quiet at that time of night, and I breezed right into one of the ER side rooms.  This was occurring shortly before COVID surfaced, so there was no commotion at all. They hooked me up to an EKG, blood oxygen meter, gave me aspirin and Diltiazem to settle my heart, drew blood for at least three dozen types of blood work, and took chest x-rays. Then I waited, and the stress level grew.

After several hours of monitoring and check-ins with the doctors where they explained each step of what they were doing and looking for, the decision was eventually made to release me. I left the hospital still experiencing minor AFib, but I was told to get some rest with the hope that things would settle down by morning under the medication.  With AFib still occurring at that point, my thought was “Should I really be going home already?” but the doctors said it was safe.  Appointments were made to follow up with my primary care physician and a cardiologist the following day.  

The three hours in the hospital ER were billed to me at almost $10,000, but luckily because of good insurance I “only” had to pay slightly over $1,000.  The entire experience gave me much to think about, and it started me down a year-long “reset” where I gave a lot of thought to some of the things happening in my life and how I approached them, and how I viewed and responded to sometimes difficult aspects of the world around me.  I’ll explain my reset process in a series of articles, of which this is the first.

How did I get to this point?

The year 2019 was not a good one in our house and my stress levels were through the roof the entire year, especially from November wrapping into January 2020. The years prior were a little rough too, but were less intense overall.

My Mom died in 2014 after a long, difficult, and sometimes odd health decline. In the years that followed, the family (Dad, sisters, me) went through the sad and difficult process of moving Dad out of the two-story ranch house in New York where we all grew up, and in which he was hoping to spend the rest of his life. The house was rapidly outstripping his mobility and it simply wasn’t safe anymore. He knew this as well as we did, so we eventually made the decision for him to move into a very nice senior living community with the hope that he would engage in the community there and with people his own age to find some commonality to support him. My sister lived just fifteen minutes away and was able to help and visit frequently, but sadly the scenario of him getting involved in the community never worked out and he was never truly happy there.

By 2019, Dad was experiencing rapidly declining health after a series of physical setbacks and surgeries.  There were household problems in my own home, our kids had many challenging things happening (some good, some bad), and then Dad passed away at 94 years old in August 2019.  I spent the latter half of that year working with the kids to resolve their topics and prepare them for college while also dealing with my grieving process and working with lawyers, bankers, insurance, and tax people to handle my Dad’s estate.  One of his final wishes was for me to ensure that everything was handled correctly for me and my sisters, and it was a ton of confusing work that will continue into 2021 when all is said and done.  This was all occurring while maintaining my full time job. It was a lot, for sure, and the breaking point under the stress of it all was approaching fast.

Stress + more stress = breaking point

I’m a pragmatic, logical, and persistent person.  Give me a problem and some facts, and I’ll doggedly figure it out and get it resolved.  The issue with 2019 was that life was overwhelming me from all directions at once with nothing but problems, worry, stress, and sadness.  We all have those types of years, and 2019 was mine.  It piled up on me, and I kept a lot of it inside just trying to “get the job done” so I could get to easier and better times ahead after I had solved all of the problems.

When you get that stressed out, other aspects of your life suffer greatly.  In my particular case, one example of how it hit me is that all of my creative energy went out the window because I just didn’t feel like pursuing my hobbies and there was little time to do so anyway.  The energy was sucked right out of me by everything else going on.  That only happened one other time in my life back in 2012, and I briefly mentioned it here.  It’s a completely draining, negative, cyclical experience that I vowed not to let happen again, but circumstances in 2019 conspired against me and I found myself back in the same scenario as in 2012.  There were other impacts on me as well, but that’s one of the easiest to explain here.

The thing I didn’t realize is how the stress from all of this was mounting up over several years, not just 2019. It was taking hold over a large span of time, and I just kept going forward no matter what to “get things done”, in a way hearkening back to the old British adage during World War II of “Keep Calm and Carry On”. That approach doesn’t address the root cause of the stress though, it just perpetuates it cyclically and endlessly.  

The thing to realize about stress is that it’s like rust eating away at a piece of metal. It takes hold a little bit at a time, spot by spot, until it overruns the metal and causes its surface to erode and become weak. If left unattended, the rust will engulf the metal and eventually cause it to fail.

Stress does the exact same thing to your mind and body as rust does to metal. It eats away at you on every surface, negatively affecting so many different aspects of your health that I’ve found it incredible to learn about it over the past year. Some of the impacts are to your body’s internal systems like your heart, organs, bones, etc. Other impacts are easily visible on the outside like poorer looking hair, eyes that look dim and sullen, skin problems, poor posture, etc. For some insight of what uncontrolled stress can do to you, reference this article from Healthline or this one from WebMD. There are many articles just like those that spell it out, just search on your favorite trusted/reputable source for medical information and you’ll find plenty of eye opening research.

As my understanding grew, I felt compelled to share my experience here with the hope that readers can relate to this story and take action in their own lives to “stop the stress-rust”. I had a specific set of circumstances generating my stress, and yours are certainly different. The stress might be coming from ten sources, or it might only be coming from one. Regardless, stress is stress, and it should be addressed.

Recognize and respond

Once you become overwhelmingly aware that there’s a problem in your life or with your health, as I did through my emergency room experience, how do you get past it?  How do you begin to “reset”?

The first step is the same as what you’ve heard about other personal challenges that might occur in your life: You must understand and admit that you have a problem.

So that’s where I began. The morning after the hospital incident, I was sitting alone in a quiet room thinking about the experience and about the ramifications for my life and my family’s life if things didn’t go well for me that night. I thought about the complexities of the past few years, the passing of my parents, my wife and kids and our future, and then the epiphany hit me like a bat to the head. I said to myself “I can’t go on like this. I have to fix this.” And thus my journey to reset myself began right in that moment…

That’s the beginning of this story. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll focus on the specific steps that I took to get started with my de-stressing process. I’ll explain how I calmed my mind and daily life, and how I proceeded through 2020 resolving and/or modifying one thing at a time until I was feeling better. It’s a mindful and iterative process of soul-searching and adjusting in which you must be brutally honest with yourself about…everything. For sure though, it’s something that you can definitely do for yourself if you consistently focus energy on it over a sustained period of time.

Stay tuned for more, and if you think this series of articles might help someone you know, please forward this link to them so they can follow along too. Thanks!

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