February is Heart Health Month, and this February, I got to experience first-hand the roles that acute and chronic stress play in undermining heart health!
Ever since the calendar turned to 2015, I’ve been on a “whirlwind tour” of stress. First, and chronically present, all day every day, until the afternoon of Feb. 21st, was the self-induced pressure to create, practice, and deliver a clear and impactful, PowerPoint-illustrated talk about Lifestyle Medicine to a large group of doctors at a recent medical conference (Mission Accomplished!). Piled alongside has been the adjacent emotional stress of watching my brother, who has early-onset Parkinson’s disease, struggle with his inevitable decline (he fell and broke his neck 2 months ago; has had a long and fairly agonizing rehab). Then there were the anxiety, the phone calls, the trouble-shooting, the caregiver conferences, the dealing-with-a-difficult-sibling issues, all related to helping the rest of our family sort out how we each could help him best. Last but not least: since I’m a doctor and have easy access to a blood pressure cuff and various prescription blood pressure medications, I’ve juggled the stress of watching my own blood pressures rise and fall, but mostly rise over these past several weeks, worrying about “dealing with” all of this stuff at once.
The bad news was: It was hard! I felt far less expert in controlling my responses to all this stress than I had hoped. And my results were mixed, culminating in the highest blood pressure reading of all, on the morning of my talk (this phenomenon is otherwise known as Performance Anxiety; I feel better knowing that even the best concert pianists, speakers, and others called upon to perform in front of others “suffer” from this as well).
The good news is: I do have tools that support stress resilience; and I used them all:
Breathing: Remembering to breathe; taking “time outs” to stop and breathe; breathing deeply when I felt most stressed; focusing on breathing at the beginning and the end of each day; all these helped. And the speaker just before me on my “big day” gave his talk on breathing for stress reduction! …complete with breathing exercises we did on the spot: a perfect lead-in to, and “breather” before, my own “performance.”
Nutrition: Thank goodness for the wise and total support of my husband, who made sure to have healthy foods around and on the table often. It felt more important than usual to “eat fresh,” to be sure that berries and salads and soymilk and beans and healthy whole grains were what I leaned on to nourish me. I drank caffeine only until noon, and not very much; then filled my big mug with steaming “Tension Tamer” and other herbal teas to help me power through my afternoons.
Exercise: It had never been more apparent how important exercise outdoors is to maintaining my sanity, quelling my anxiety, keeping my blood pressures at bay, and clearing my thoughts. I made sure to go out and backcountry ski at least every 3 or 4 days during my most intense talk-preparation weeks, and it really paid off. Some of my most creative moments, constructing my story lines and practicing my talk verbiage, happening during these outdoor experiences. I carried a pencil and note paper in the pocket of my ski pants to be sure I remembered all those great thoughts I’d had while in the throes of the endorphins that get produced when one is exercising, especially out in nature.
Sleep: This was my Achilles heel. No matter how hard I “tried,” going to bed super early, or later after my work day was farther along, or meditating, or reading my current bedtime novel….I still managed to toss and turn, think and stress. Getting enough quality sleep was the one thing I wish I could’ve mastered better. I even resorted to small doses of a sleeping pill when I got really desperate; but my brain would be foggy next day, so that was not a solution either. Back and foot massages were one thing that did help; plus a notepad near the bed for those occasional insightful thoughts that popped out of my head in between all the other mental gymnastics that were going on.
Resolution: The blissful difference between chronic, subacute, and acute stress is this: Now that my 45-minute talk is over, the acute stress that took place just before and during it, is gone. The sub-acute stress of nearly two months’ of mental work and focus to create the talk, is gone. So even the more chronic stress of knowing that my brother’s condition is only going to get worse, and that my own life will continue to unfold in sloppy and unpredictable ways, no longer really feels like stress. I now have enough space in life—physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and the time I have for relationships—that harmony and balance have returned. And I know that, the next time I face a short or an extended period of stress, I’ll just lean more on those wellness tools that I use anyway in my life; and keep my heart, and the rest of me, supported in health.