Walking into the white and blue lobby and up to the big front desk where my cardiologist’s secretary sat with a sympathetic look in her eyes, I was full of confidence. This was my fourth appointment in nine months, and it was just a follow-up. My symptoms hadn’t miraculously vanished, but they’d lessened, and the previous tests had failed to show anything more than the occasional spike or drop in heart rate – nothing too out of the ordinary for a woman with a new job and planning a wedding. I was only 22 when the symptoms started, and other than the occasional dizzy spell, spontaneous fatigue, and heart palpitations, I felt healthy enough.
Besides, the cardiovascular clinic had called me two days before my wedding in October and told me my echocardiogram hadn’t shown anything. My heart was strong. The point of this April visit was to just check in, say hi, and inquire whether or not my heart doctor would recommend going to a different, less scary-sounding specialist, like a gastroenterologist. I had prepared myself for the journey of finding a brand new doctor, going through a brand new set of tests, and being told I needed to take this and that out of my diet to end the spells for good.
After a two-hour wait, my doctor finally came in to see me, and I was excited to tell him I guess this is farewell. Then he shook my hand, looked at his clipboard, and said,
“So you were informed of the results of your echo?”
“So you know you have a chronic condition called mitral valve prolapse.”
For lack of a better phrase, my heart stopped.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t know.”
In the conversation that followed, only three things are worth pointing out here:
- The disease, chipperly referred to as MVP and often exacerbated by things such as burnout and overwhelm, isn’t going to kill me. In fact, according to my doctor, only 5% of MVP patients ever end up needing valve replacement surgery. The symptoms are inconvenient, frustrating, and sometimes painful, but as long as I regularly get my heart checked out to make sure nothing worsens, take my medicine when I need relief from symptoms, and take care of my overall health, I’m going to be A-OK.
- I needed to cut back on caffeine and limit myself to no more than one such beverage a day. This adds nothing of import to this article, but as a coffee addict and someone who was now struggling with fatigue spells, this heartbreaking part of the conversation will always be worth pointing out.
- The odds that I was born with this disease are high, and the majority of MVPs, as I like to call us, don’t even know they have the condition because symptoms tend to be so mild or nonexistent. So why did it take me 22 years to figure out I had a heart problem, and why did the symptoms suddenly hit me so hard and so all at once?
The answer was one word that we hear all too often in the context of work: stress.
Too Blessed To Be Stressed?
I have a shirt that has this rhyme on it, sans question mark. Sometimes I feel like a fraud when I wear it because, while I’m undoubtedly blessed, I’m ridiculously stressed. Overthinking has always been a problem of mine, especially when it comes to my work, and I’m not alone: 75% of people between 25 and 35 have this tendency. While I can’t quite count myself in that demographic, I can relate. Naturally, my overthinking had led to overstressing at jobs many times in the past — something one-third of Americans deal with.
Needless to say, when I was hired into a great new company around the same time I was planning a wedding and a move, all these wonderful blessings raised my levels of stress. It’s not that I wasn’t happy with these changes. It’s just that they were big changes. And I wanted everything to go perfectly.
You’ve likely guessed by now that around this time is when I had my first spell. When those symptoms hit, they hit hard — and I hit the floor as a consequence. Yep, a full-on fainting spell. And the dizziness that led to my unconscious state kept coming back. As if I needed more to overthink about, now I was terrified of what could be wrong with my health.
Skip forward to my appointment in April, and my doctor was telling me something I’d known in the back of my oversaturated mind all along: Stress was hurting my body, and if I didn’t take better care to reduce it, things were only going to get worse.
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Let Me Hit You With Some Facts
Within the 33% of Americans who suffer from stress, 77% experience it so badly that it affects their physical health. Some of the health problems linked to stress include heart disease, high blood pressure, lung disease, and cancer, to name a very few. Long-term stress has been found to greatly contribute to the leading causes of death in the U.S.
And where does the majority of this stress come from?
Out of the 10 stressors listed in the APA’s 2010 Stress in America survey, half of them are related to work and money. About 80% of workers feel stressed on the job. Another 63% are on the verge of quitting their jobs due to stress. And the numbers are only rising.
Perhaps the worst part is that stress leads to a decrease in productivity, zapping your energy and reducing your focus and creativity. This means stressing about not being productive enough in the workplace makes us less productive in the workplace, which brings us more stress. It’s a cycle that can seem hopeless to break. But it doesn’t have to be.
How Not To Be an MVP
These statistics and their consequences are, admittedly, stressful. I think my pre-diagnosis self just accepted the fact that stress is a part of life, especially if you want to lead a successful one. After all, it takes blood, sweat, tears, and a few dizzy spells to get to the top. Then I realized just how badly I had let my stress affect my health and, as a result, even my social life (try walking around the crowded Houston Rodeo when the booths start spinning and all you want to do is lay on the concrete and sleep, to hell with the consequences). While I don’t believe stress is something you can remove from your life completely forever, I do believe that a certain level is not normal. It’s not OK. And to anyone a part of the one-third of Americans out there who maybe thinks stress is just an inconvenience we have to deal with to find success, I ask that you take my story to heart. (It’s harder to avoid these saying than you think.) I’m not exaggerating when I say that your life could very well depend on you realizing when your stress levels are unhealthy and doing something about it.
Here are some rapid-fire solutions:
- Prioritize self-care.
- Take your sick and vacation days.
- Make yourself take breaks.
- Take up a hobby where you don’t have to think too hard about anything, like coloring or hiking.
- Don’t be afraid to share with others when you’re reaching your breaking point.
I know extremely well just how much easier those things are said than they are done. I’m still working on taking my own advice — a fact that won’t stop me from writing a follow-up article to this in which I expand on that advice and how we can go about tackling this issue. But for now, the first step is realizing when you need to make some changes and start making them a little bit at a time. It doesn’t have to reach the point of a diagnosis for you to begin better managing your stress. You can make the decision today to take action to lower your stress and protect your health.