Many of the articles I read about heart conditions indicate that stress is not good for your heart. When I first learned I had heart failure, I was beginning to wind down from a very active and often stressful career. But despite a heart condition, I still had my doubts that stress was really that bad.
The challenges I faced that made me advance in my career were stressful, but I often credited the stress for making my adrenaline surge. I thought this had given me energy and inspiration to react quickly and find solutions. How could it be a bad thing if adrenaline enabled me to (1) solve a problem and (2) move into even more challenging positions because I had shown that I was resourceful and able to perform well under pressure?
In fact, I found an article on the Cleveland Clinic website entitled Stress and Disease that has some support for my theory. The article says: “Stress is not always a bad thing. In fact, the right amount of stress motivates you to be alert, full of energy and focused on your world.” The key words here would be “the right amount”. The article goes on to say that too much stress can be harmful to your health.
Over the last six years I learned the hard way that stress is, like everything a else, a matter of balance and degree. The only observation I would add to the article is that I think it’s not just the amount of stress but the type of stress. By this I mean, are we reacting to the stress created by circumstances, or are we creating our own stress through obsessing about irrelevant matters?
This post only addresses the aspect of stress on the job. But you are saying Melanie – get a grip! Don’t we have stress in other areas of our life? And the answer is ABSOLUTELY! With all our technological advances designed to make our lives easier, we probably have even more stress in all areas than ever before. But if you’re a Type A adrenaline junkie, you probably spend many of your waking hours at work and have the potential to create a stress level that is out of control.
Of course, control would be one factor that increased my stress level – and probably the stress level of many people who are wired like me. Why? Because you can never have complete control unless you are the King or Queen of your world – which is not likely to ever occur.
For example, there is the always frustrating challenge of lacking the funding to be able to do your job the way you think it should be done. I worked for the Federal government and we all are aware of the appropriations process, which for a number of years has resulted in anything but the funding of agency operations on a timely basis. So if you are in an agency that has not been appropriated you may be forced to work without pay, or you may be forced to stay home even though you have things sitting on your desk that you would rather be doing. Once the drama is over, you must rely on the kindness of strangers (that would be your members of Congress) to do take action and pay everybody, even those who were willing but not allowed to work. The situation is totally out of your control. I also assume that private sector employees face funding issues that are out of their control and equally stressful.
If you are in a managerial or a supervisory role, not only are you responsible for yourself, you now have people who report to you. Having been in those roles, I can tell you that they can be very rewarding and were some of the best times of my career. But looking back, there were a number of times where conflict was brewing and I had to manage in conflict. I learned the hard way that you cannot control how even the best of employees react to assignments, to constructive criticism, to other staff members or even to you. You can only control how you choose to manage or supervise them. Additionally, it can be a very cumbersome, document heavy, stressful process if unfortunately you ever have to take an action against one of your subordinates.
Regardless of whether you are a line employee or in management or supervision, it always seems that a crisis is looming. When that happens the adrenaline might kick in to get you through the crisis. Again, it was the adrenaline I think that fueled my ability to tackle challenges and rise in my career. But adrenaline is something that is a double edged sword. Yes, it did provide me the energy to perform what I now view as miracles. But the other side of the coin is that when the adrenaline surges, it initiates what is often referred to as the fight or flight reaction. What this essentially means is that the situation often is similar to the jungle and the people in your workplace can often seem like predators because your perception may become skewed.
In my case, I found out the hard way about the harmful impact that adrenaline could have on my heart. Adrenaline was one of the things that damaged my heart so much that I needed to start taking the drug known as a beta blocker. While that drug now blocks the adrenaline from surging, I am not sure what, if anything, can be done to repair the damage that was inflicted on my heart.
Merriam Webster defines adrenaline as follows: NOTE: Adrenaline is used in both technical and nontechnical contexts. It is commonly used in describing the physiological symptoms (such as increased heart rate and respiration) that occur as part of the body's fight-or-flight response to stress, as when someone is in a dangerous, frightening, or highly competitive situation, as well as the feelings of heightened energy, excitement, strength, and alertness associated with those symptoms.
I believe that being constantly in fight or flight mode can be harmful to your health. In fact, the Health.Harvard.edu website's healthbeat page has an article entitled Women, work, stress and heart disease: 5 ways to protect yourself. It describes the adverse effect of constant stress:
When I reflect back on my time in the office, I realize that maybe another stress factor came from my feeling frustrated over the lack of control. In my frustration, the matter rose to crisis level, and as a result a routine adrenaline rush became adrenaline overload. Was there a way I could have handled each crisis differently so that the stress didn’t become so overwhelming to me and my heart?
The Cleveland Clinic included one tip to help gain control that resonated with me: Accept the fact that you may not be able to change certain situations. I add this to the tip: You cannot change the personalities and styles of your co-workers, subordinates and bosses. With those thoughts in mind, here are some of the tips that I learned from the school of hard knocks.
It really will not kill you to find balance in your life. I speak from personal experience when I say that stress and lack of balance really can cause havoc with your heart and its ability to recover. While stress did not cause a cardiac arrest, the electrical system in my heart was so damaged that I’m still at risk for this and other heart issues. I may never be able to restore the damage from letting the balance skew.
So in closing, I must stress that stress at work when it is not tempered with life balance can cause a stress from which there is no return. Do yourself a favor and do not let yourself reach that point of no return!
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.