The Heart of the Matter

I don’t normally listen to the TED Talk Radio Hour on NPR. It’s a good show, I’m just not overly crazy about most of the topics or the format (though it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as Radio Lab, which has terrific subject matters but is delivered like a pre-school program, with the hosts and guests sharing sentences and laughing, like adolescent smartasses with a mic—okay, I’ better now). So I tune in to TED when I’m driving on Mondays at 1pm and can’t find good music. Today I listened and I’m sorry I did—not because of the format, but the topic hit too close to home.

It turns out the American Heart Association only very recently recognized the relationship between psychological stress and its physical effects on the heart. For quite some time medical researchers have studied the cause and effect of stress on the vessels, blood pressure, and heart attack, but a recent study shows not only is the relationship much closer than they thought but is much more dangerous than they had considered. Right now, the doctor said, people under moderate stress have so adjusted mentally to accommodating that stress that they don’t recognize that they’re more tired than usual, more lethargic, a bit foggier and more forgetful. They write it off to overwork or “stressed lately syndrome.” But the physical feeling of having narrowed veins as the result of stress (a physical reaction where the brain increases the blood pressure which pushes the blood faster through veins which are already strained, causing them to contract even more than they had allowed for in an emergency), and one or more arteries just closing shop is nearly undetectable, so that death comes quickly. “How did he die?” someone will ask, only to be told heart attack or stroke, which is true, but the true cause, according to one of the most involved studies in years, is most likely some stress—money, death, loss of a job, a bad relationship, a combination, or, for some, all of the above. “Heartache,” the doctor said, “is almost always thought of as a metaphor, when in fact it is not only real but most likely one of the leading causes of death. Followed closely, of course, by high stress and anxiety from indeterminant causes” (see above).

When I was young, we lived through the woods and diagonally from a family who lived on the road behind us. We knew them pretty well: my father worked with the father, my mother became good friends with the mother, my brother knew the two sons, and the daughter and I went to school together, riding the bus and talking. Long before this, the family lost a child in infancy. Then, tragically one rainy, rainy day, the father and the daughter were killed in a car accident. I remember the mother and the sons talking to my parents about what to do. That’s incomprehensibly tragic, but a couple of years later, the younger son heard his mother’s alarm clock not being shut off, and when he went to check on her, she had died. If I remember correctly, she was in her early forties. Everyone called it “unbearable heartache.” The TED Talk doctor called this type of situation incredibly real and unbelievably common. And from what I gathered, she might have gone to bed completely fine, her mind at ease for whatever reason. In other words, she didn’t have to go to bed crying and upset about her losses to have died of heartache; at some point the arteries took over the pain and carried on with the tragedy.

Driveway moment: you know what I mean—they talk about it during NPR fundraisers. I pulled into my driveway and listened to the rest of the show. After all, I have some vested interested in the subject. I have been, at more than a few times, under insane levels of stress, and while my world has been free from desperate heartache—as much as I miss my father terribly, his passing came at the end of a long and beautiful and loving life; I should be so lucky—the other boxes on my stress and anxiety list have all been checked off.

Here’s the problem, he said: instead of working on lowering stress, we have mastered the art of lowering blood pressure, so we are left with the impression that we are fine, that we’ve “improved,” and that we managed to escape the “silent demise” that is stroke and heart attack. Yeah, not so much. The stress isn’t gone, just the strain on vessels enough to keep our bp in check and our ankles not so swollen. That doesn’t mean for a second, he emphasized, that one or more of them at the least recognition of stress, won’t snap. Gone.

“How did he die?” Heart attack. Stroke (not “excessive debt” or “can’t find a job” or “a bad relationship” or “his partner/parent/best friend died. No.)

Solution: According to this articulate and phenomenal (albeit disturbing) doctor: “Perhaps a walk in nature.”

Sigh. Okay, now we’re in my territory. I still sat in my car, surrounded by trees and birds, just a few hundred yards from the river which empties into the bay, where the waters flow like blood through wide-open veins bringing peace to my very being, and some sort of acceptance of the way things are. I wanted to call the show, which you can’t do, but I wanted to. I wanted to ask, “But just how much is enough? I mean, I spend ALL of my time in nature and what if it isn’t enough? Am I going to have to live like Grizzly Fucking Adams to stay healthy??!”

My BP was rising listening to how to keep my BP from rising, all caused by stress which listening to was stressing me out. I really think I was close to coming off the chain.

Then I got out of the car.

I texted a friend about plans for next June. I read a few emails for acceptances of some longer chapters for a book I’m working on which, when I’m working on it, almost eliminates stress. And I watched some hummingbirds—which I thought had long ago left for Mexico—hover at some red flowers on the porch. A soft, cool breeze came in from the west, and I could hear geese somewhere out over the field.

The objective, I suppose, is finding that balance between what we need to know and should know to live our lives reasonably, and letting go. The hope, I suppose, is we surround ourselves with people and situations which bring us peace and separate ourselves from those same that bring us stress and anxiety.

And as for the great losses in life which bring us unbearable heartache? Well, I hope we remember there are others we love and who love us who need us to laugh with them, celebrate birthdays and graduations with them, and let that help release the depth of despair I hope I never have to face.

I have spent the better part of my life in nature, and now I can justifiably pronounce that it probably literally saved my life.

I’m going for a walk.

Hell, maybe I’ll just go back to Spain.

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