Canadian Men’s Health Week is in early June. This year it felt like the related messages were directed at me. The Canadian Men’s Health Foundation released a report this year entitled Men: Working themselves into an early grave. The study reveals that 81% of men find their day-to-day work stressful. 60% of men say that work affects their ability to get a good night’s sleep.
I suspect this scenario is not a new one. All the media/social media coverage of this report is timed perfectly with my own growing awareness of the stress that I’ve been carrying around with me.
Like all parents, Dads experience burn out too and I think I have been on that track for a while. It has just taken me a while to figure that out.
I have generally not been particularly affected by stress. Most of the time, I feel pretty calm and while I experience down days or parts of days, I am usually back on top of things the next day or even after I listen to some hard-driving music.
I have had a persistent and somewhat concerning health issue crop up in the past six-seven months. I now think it may be stress-related. Several years ago I was experiencing episodes of arrhythmia – that is an irregular heart beat. I saw my doctor about it, we tried to catch instances of it happening with a monitor. Of course while I was wearing the device I had no episodes.
The episodes of arrhythmia stopped as mysteriously as they started. For the most part I didn’t have any more for several years.
My Beating Heart
Fast forward to six or seven months ago. I started having episodes almost daily. Always after leaving work, walking down the same hill, starting and stopping at roughly the same points on the hill. They would last for 3-4 minutes. I could get my heart to settle down and get back into its regular beat by stopping for 30 seconds or slowing down. I wasn’t especially concerned about it since it had happened to me in the past. I was kind of waiting for the episodes to go away like they did before.
You might wonder what arrhythmia feels like for me. It feels like my heart has suddenly realized that I have started moving and it is rushing to catch up with me. My chest is tight, breathing is more difficult and often I have tingling in my arms. Similar symptoms to a heart attack. Some days it is minor tightness and other days the symptoms are more noticeable.
Call the Doctor
Once I realized it was happening on an almost daily basis and not going away I started thinking about calling my doctor. Maybe I could get another monitor put on me and we could figure out what was going on. Since the arrhythmia was happening at the start of my 45 walk/bus home I generally forgot about it by the time I got home. It took me quite a few months to get around to calling for an appointment.
Am I Having a Heart Attack?
I hadn’t had the appointment yet when I had a more severe episode of arrhythmia a couple of weeks ago. One that included burning in my chest which was a new sensation and much more restricted breathing. That episode made me head to the hospital in case it was a sign of things to come.
I spent the day in the emergency department getting various tests and waiting for results. The verdict? Nothing. No indications of heart attack or any damage to my heart. No discernible causes for what I had experienced and no diagnosis. While relieved that my heart was working fine, I was frustrated that I didn’t get any answers to whatever was plaguing me.
The whole thing was a wake up call though and I’ll go into that later.
Arrhythmia and Stress
According to the Ottawa Heart Institute there are several potential causes of arrhythmia. One of which is stress. As I mentioned before I generally don’t feel stressed. At least that is what I said when my partner, my brother and my doctor each asked if it could be stress-related.
Whether this particular health issue is stress-related remains to be determined with plenty of test results on their way to hopefully point to an answer.
Maybe Not Stress-Free
That said, I realized that I am carrying quite a bit of stress that has been building for the past 2-3 years. Most of my life I genuinely have not really had issues with stress impacting my life. I focus on what I can control and what is important and don’t generally get caught up in workplace drama. When I have deadlines I put my head down and complete my tasks to a ‘good enough’ state and move on to the next thing.
I think over past 2-3 years I’ve just been pushing through. I’ve been ignoring the stuff piling up and layering on top of each other or running as a constant current through my brain. I started experiencing this current bout of arrhythmia 6-7 months ago. Also six-seven months ago? I started a new job.
In the past three years:
- My dad died
- I started a new job that was a poor fit for me
- I got fired from that job
- I was unemployed / in unstable work for 10 months
- I started a new job managing a team of 13, with a steep learning curve that I am still climbing
- My partner went through a period of illness and medication changes that was challenging for both of us as some of those medications involved managing withdrawal symptoms.
- I gained weight and stopped feeling comfortable in my own skin
- We decided it was time to find a bigger house so the girls could each have their own rooms – so we are actively house hunting.
I also have one child with significant emotional regulation issues who we are trying to help through counselling and support. The volcanic eruptions of anger are exhausting, draining and very stressful because of the impact on everyone in the house. We have two other kids who need attention and support for themselves and to feel safe when their sister is erupting.
I’ve also realized that while I didn’t feel particularly bad about getting fired from a job that I didn’t enjoy, I am experiencing some lingering effects in my current role. I really enjoy my current job. I still have a lot to learn and I think I have some underlying fear that they’ll figure out I still don’t know how to do everything and fire me. There is no indication that is what will happen. My colleagues and boss have been very supportive and keep reminding me that it will take time to learn everything. It is just a lingering effect from getting fired from a previous role.
Meditative Wood Sanding
For the past fours years I had a small woodworking business that became more successful than I expected. It grew to be too successful for my capacity to deliver. I decided to close the business at the end of last year to make more time for family.
This was absolutely the right decision. I also realize that creating things with my hands and opportunities for quiet contemplation while sanding was therapeutic for me.
Now I feel guilty if I spend time in my workshop. I think I need the time sanding wood to help manage my daily stress.
Managing my stress and improving my health
My arrhythmia episode last week has turned out to be a powerful motivator to make some changes in my life.
- I have increased my daily physical activity. I sit a lot at work. While I bike or walk to work, I started walking or doing yoga in the morning.
- I am taking a break at lunch to go for a walk.
- I am tracking calories to reduce my weight. I am returning to what I know for reducing my weight. I know that just by tracking my calorie intake I can drop 1-2 lbs. a week. I am already seeing change.
- I am acknowledging what is going on in my head
- I am organizing a plan at work to identify what I still need to learn and how I am going to build that knowledge. This helps me feel more in control of managing my knowledge and skill gaps.
- I talked with my partner about the mental health benefits of me spending some time in the shop on weekends. I have started doing that without guilt. In the process I refinished our dining room table and am now working on the chairs.
I actually have no idea what comes next. I am awaiting results from the tests I have done so far and those I have yet to do. I am paying attention to how I feel and the thoughts running through my brain.
I am feeling better and more in control of my physical and mental health. Whether that resolves the issues I am having with my heart remains to be seen.
Take care of yourselves.