A few months ago, my daughter and I were getting ready to attend a Christmas party at my in-law’s church. It’s an annual tradition, and ever since my wife’s death, it’s a way for us to continue to connect with my in-laws. My daughter enjoys it quite a bit. My father-in-law, Jim, is the pastor of the church, and the pastor’s family (including us) always gets spotlighted in some way at the party. Unfortunately.
It is a catered affair, and there are a variety of games and a program of singing carols. Attendees generally get volunteered to be a “contestant” for some of these games, and getting embarrassed is all part of the fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. I almost always get volunteered to do something, and I’m not fond of it. I get covered in glitter, or wrapped in wrapping paper, or I have to eat a mincemeat pie without my hands, or sing solo a verse from the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” and everyone laughs, and I get thoroughly stressed out. So I was just a bit anxious about the whole evening.
I was getting dressed, and thinking about the evening ahead, when the room started to spin. I felt dizzy and immediately sat down on my bed. My heart rate accelerated rapidly, and I started to sweat. I laid back on the bed and tried some deep breathing, something I had learned a few years ago as a method for reducing stress. Having battled significant stress for much of the past several years, I knew some of the signs to look for. I felt awful, and my heart felt like it was racing right out of my chest. Something was definitely not right.
I yelled for my daughter and told her what was going on as she entered the room. Staying calm (though 16, she is mature way beyond her years), she suggested we call an ambulance right away. Still in denial that anything was seriously wrong, I said no, that I didn’t want the whole neighborhood to watch me get placed in an ambulance. Then she suggested that we call my father, since that’s what you do when you need help: you call Dad! So she called him up. Dad, ever the voice of reason, told me to call an ambulance right away. I resisted. He insisted. I was being stubborn and stupid, but I figured I could get myself to the hospital without an ambulance interrupting the whole neighborhood.
My heart continued its incessant rapid beating, and my stress over my predicament grew. We decided to drive to the hospital. My daughter recently got her learner’s permit to drive, but she had not yet driven our Jeep with a manual transmission (which is something I will address very soon). So I drove. Given the seriousness of the situation, I was foolish to think I could drive myself to the hospital, and, in hindsight, I would not have done it. We should’ve called an ambulance. But we rushed to Howard County General. I believe I hit 85 mph on Route 32. It was a hectic drive, but we made it to the hospital without incident.
Fortunately, we found a parking space near the door to the Emergency Room, and rushed inside. I was in some distress at this point, and felt like I might pass out. The nurse at the front desk recognized that I needed immediate assistance, and as she checked my heart rate (it was at 190 bpm!), she called an orderly and they rushed me into the ER in a wheel chair. At this point I was in a bit of a panic. And scared.
I was wheeled into a room with a bed, ordered to remove my shirt, and there were nurses and doctors everywhere. I think there were ten people in the small room. They began to ask all kinds of questions, while attaching wires and sensors to me, connected to a vast array of beeping equipment. Everyone knew their job and did it. The whole situation was overwhelming to me, but I’m really glad they worked so hard to get my heart rate and blood pressure under control. After a few minutes, my heart rate was near normal and, several hours later, after a chest X-ray and full examination, and with test results showing no blockages, meaning everything was fine, I was released with instructions to follow up with my doctor. The consensus was that I had suffered a panic attack. It wasn’t my first, but it certainly was my worst. We missed the party, and my mother-in-law was angry with me for allowing the party to stress me out, which stressed me out.
So consider this a Public Service Announcement: Stress is not good for you. It is the body and mind’s reaction to uncomfortable situations. Stress is recognized by many as the number one proxy killer disease, and is the basic cause of more than 60 percent of all human illness and disease. Chronic stress can cause or exacerbate many serious health problems, including mental issues such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders, and cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, and stroke.
How can you better deal with stress? Here are a few tips, courtesy of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH):
· Be observant. Recognize the signs of your body’s response to stress, such as difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol and other substance use, being easily angered, feeling depressed, and having low energy.
· Talk to your health care provider or a health professional. Don’t wait for your health care provider to ask about your stress. Start the conversation and get proper health care for existing or new health problems. Effective treatments can help if your stress is affecting your relationships or ability to work.
· Get regular exercise. Just 30 minutes per day of walking can help boost your mood and improve your health.
· Try a relaxing activity. Explore relaxation or wellness programs, which may incorporate meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises. Schedule regular times for these and other healthy and relaxing activities.
· Set goals and priorities. Decide what must get done now and what can wait. Learn to say “no” to new tasks if you start to feel like you’re taking on too much. Try to be mindful of what you have accomplished at the end of the day, not what you have been unable to do.
· Stay connected. You are not alone. Keep in touch with people who can provide emotional support and practical help. To reduce stress, ask for help from friends, family, and community or religious organizations.
· Consider a clinical trial. Researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and other research facilities across the country are studying the causes and effects of psychological stress as well as stress management techniques.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Anyone can become overwhelmed. If you or a loved one is having thoughts of suicide, call the confidential toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Lifeline chat is a service available to everyone.
Thanks for reading.