Stress is not a badge of honour

One evening in November 2004, I got a call from my Dad telling me my Grandmother, his mother, had had a heart attack and was in intensive care. He sounded worried and intimated that she might not make it. Living in London, I flew home to Dublin the next day and when I walked through arrivals my Dad was standing with all the other relatives waiting for their loved ones. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of months, but I was still surprised to see his hair had gone so grey. I even teased him about getting old. I think he called me a cheeky sod or something and as he took my case, he said it was the stress of the past few days that was probably to blame. He seemed distant and was clearly worried about his mother so we headed straight to the hospital from the airport to visit her. My Granny had just returned from surgery where she had had a heart bypass. The surgeons said that she was stable but still in grave danger. The room she was in was full of wires and machines and the seriousness of the situation was very clear to see and so, we spent the whole weekend worrying, and my Dad spent the whole time at the hospital.

By Sunday night my Granny was stable but still in intensive care and my Dad was still incredibly stressed. We had dinner as a family which was nice, staying up late talking. I remember my Dad being very sentimental and telling me how proud he was of me. I kissed him goodnight and went to bed. My Dad went to bed too but in good Irish style, my sister and mother sat chatting for a while as he slept next to them. A while later my sister came to my room really worried saying something was wrong and she thought my Dad wasn’t breathing. I remember being confused but I ran into the room and knew as soon as I saw him that he wasn’t ok. Over the years I’d done many first aid courses so my instincts took over and I quickly checked for a pulse. I remember being confused as I touched his skin because I couldn’t quite believe that I couldn’t feel a thing…nothing. His skin was soft and warm but I couldn’t find a pulse. So while my Mum called paramedics I started CPR. I worked on my Dad for what felt like a lifetime. Time kind of stood still and I didn’t really register what I was doing until my now husband came into the room to help. We worked together only stopping when the fire brigade burst into the room and took over. By the time I got dressed the paramedics had arrived and rushed my Dad off to hospital. I arrived with my sisters and brother not long after, but instead of being left in the waiting room we were taken straight into the relatives room. I knew this wasn’t good. As the door I opened I saw a female doctor, who put her hand on my shoulder and said something like “I’m sorry, there was nothing we could do”. The room began to spin, I felt so confused and like I was in the middle of a bad dream. But, it wasn’t a dream. My Dad was only 47 years old and without warning he experienced a fatal cardiac arrest. A heart attack that wasn’t predicted by numerous tests he’d had JUST seven months earlier. I struggled with this and wanted answers.

What I have come to believe is that whilst my Dad did have a family history of heart disease and a lifestyle that increased his risk further, it was the stress of the events he experienced that weekend that played a significant role in his death. The reason I believe this is because stress has been known to play a significant role on heart related deaths. For example, research has shown that the number of deaths during earthquakes is often surpassed by the number of people who die of heart attacks in the days following the earthquakes. There is also evidence that people with existing risk factors for a heart attack are most vulnerable in the days/weeks following the death of a loved one. Why is this? The main theory is that the body responds to stress by increasing blood pressure, causing inflammation and reducing plaque (cholesterol) stability. Stress also causes people to reach for maladaptive coping strategies such as smoking or alcohol. These are all things that can cause cholesterol lining the arteries to become unstable, break away and cause a blockage somewhere. In my Dad’s case, he experienced a blockage in his coronary artery causing a fatal cardiac arrest. So I firmly believe that acute STRESS in combination with elevated lifestyle related risk factors (caused by chronic stress) caused his death.

Unfortunately my experience with stress didn't end there...

For many years after my Dad’s death I struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There were specific things that would trigger memories of that night and at times my body would react so strongly to these triggers that I would feel nauseous, my heart would race and I would have an overwhelming desire to get away from the situation I was in as quickly as I could. Of course, this wasn’t an ideal thing to happen in social or professional situations. So I developed strategies to avoid anything that triggered my body’s fight or flight (stress) response. But what I didn’t realise was that because of PTSD, I had elevated underlying stress levels, meaning I had a low capacity for any additional stress life wanted to send my way. Avoidance wasn’t a realistic long term solution…I needed to proactively lower my body’s stress levels (namely cortisol). 

Of course as a personal trainer and lecturer in Health and Exercise I believed that I was fit and healthy. And compared to the general population I guess I was… I ate well and exercised often. BUT when your body is holding onto stress, trauma, PTSD, AND then you add two difficult childbirth experiences with the birth of my sons and a hefty dose of sleep deprivation, you get a perfect storm. My perfect storm resulted in exhaustion, brain fog, low mood, persistent sinusitis, insomnia, memory problems, anxiety and an eventual diagnosis of burnout. All of this resulted in me taking time off work to recover and rethink how I practiced ‘being healthy’. I was only 36, and yes I was ‘fit’ but I wasn’t necessarily ‘healthy’.

Several key lifestyle changes later, which included a better work life balance, a huge appreciation of sleep, rest and recovery, as well as key changes in my nutrition and the way I trained as a runner have meant I now achieve healthier ‘performances’ as a mother, business owner and recreational endurance runner. I am wary of stress and don’t take on anything that means my stress levels exceed my capacity to cope.

So I guess you could say, I have seen stress and trauma up close and personal witnessing the devastation it can have on our health. BUT I have come through the other side. And this is why I do what I do. As a health and exercise coach, I help others, so they don’t continue to suffer ill health due to stress and a limiting lifestyle. I have learnt (from personal and professional experience), that symptoms brought on by stress don’t need to become an illness/diagnosis that we must live with for the rest of our lives. Nor should we view being chronically stressed or exhausted as a badge of honor – it should be treated as a symptom of ill health. If we wish to push ourselves to our limits, we have to be willing to rest and recover so we can survive hard things again and again. THAT is the real badge of honor. Failing to do so will only limit our performance in all walks of life and prevent us from fulfilling our true potential.