Being Stressed Out and Over Worked Caused my Heart Attack at 21
I am currently 28 years old. I work out every day, I play lacrosse, I eat clean and I lead an overall healthy life. I make time to enjoy myself, I make sure to enforce my professional boundaries to give myself time to not only reflect but decompress. (Not an easy task but I list my tricks down below)
When I was younger I took my health even more serious. I was in the best shape of my life, eating right, working out twice a day and while this is all great on paper, mentally and physically I was not giving my body the care it needed. I was a head coach for a high school girls lacrosse program, a full time college student taking 16 units worth of night classes for my paralegal program and working part time as a legal secretary for an amazing law firm.
So when I found out what I had endured was a heart attack at the age of 21, I was in complete shock. I was the epitome of health (in my opinion) and to realize I was so young to suffer from something that kills millions of people a year was terrifying. What I didn’t know was that stress was a leading cause of heart attacks in women of any age and the exact cause of my own.I usually went to bed around 10pm, on game nights it was more like midnight, then I would get up at 5am to start my day all over again.
No one understood how I could work so hard, take on so much responsibility and still function every single day. I smiled and always made some joke along the lines of "I strive off being challenged," and allowed the praise to rain down on me.
But in reality I was exhausted. I was working myself to death and on top of my hectic schedule my father began having seizures, the last leading to a brain aneurysm which ruptured a vein in his brain and he needed emergency brain surgery. He never told me until he was on his way into the operating room. He died three times on the table but thankfully pulled through.
Like father like daughter, we choose to suffer in silence until the last second when we can no longer survive. I was completely shocked. I was heart broken scared and horrified that I could be losing my best friend.
This brain injury left him unable to drive or work for almost a year. He had no income and his medical bills were piling up due to shoddy insurance. I began giving him whatever money I could spare.
It wasn't enough. I was renting a 10x10 bedroom from an elderly woman, working two jobs and paying my own way through school and it wasn't enough.
Luckily my semester ended and I had a decent break. I took a third job at a fancy gym/fitness club hoping to bring in extra cash to supplement some of his bills. The extra time working left me 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night if I was lucky. I didn't have time to eat more than a power bar at times and I couldn't afford to buy food. I dropped a dangerous amount of weight and I still had to train my girls and be a leader.
The strain of being unable to afford my life in the Silicon Valley let alone support my father was becoming unbearable. I would give my life to keep my father healthy, I just didn't know that that is what it would actually come to.
It was a normal 5am day running on 4 hours of sleep. I worked my half day at the firm and got ready for one of our biggest Varsity/JV games of the season against our rivals. I was so used to feeling exhausted and terrible, so overall this day really was no different.
We got to the field, warmed up and got about 10 minutes into the game when it started. I don’t remember much of the game itself but what I do remember is the fading in and out, the instant dizziness, the struggle to get even the smallest amount of oxygen in my lungs. Most of all I remember the overwhelming chest pressure and excruciating pain, like someone put my lungs in a vice and kept twisting.
I was terrified. I tried so desperately to speak but nothing came out. I could feel myself fading.
My assistant coach was a trained EMT and firewoman and I couldn't even find the words to ask for help. I needed to sit down, I walked off to the side of the field, so worried the girls would see me. Even in the middle of a heart attack at 21, all I could think about was staying strong for my girls. I eventually came to and stumbled drunkenly through the rest of my evening. To this day I have no idea how I got home or even in bed... but I did know I had work in the morning and that I couldn't afford to take a day off.
Over the next two days I continued to coach and work my other jobs, not realizing I had four more mini heart attacks. It wasn't until my third day of dizziness, fatigue, pain and chest tightness that I decided to get checked.
The doctor was in shock I was still standing let alone suffered one major heart attack and continued to work for two more days while having four others. I was immediately put through every single test in the books and was ultimately put through medication and heart monitor packs for the next several months.I never had another one after my appointment but I knew I had to make a massive life change or I would not survive another month. I put myself in such danger by trying to hold the weight of the world on my shoulders that it literally almost cost me my life.
I chose to quit my job at the gym, finished out my season as a coach with a lot of limitations, and began to see my therapist on a weekly basis to handle my stress. Therapy was absolutely amazing, it gave me a chance to open my Pandora’s Box of emotion and gave me new safe ways to handle my stress.
Over the years I have developed of my own tricks and hacks to deal with stress. Some are traditional and some not so traditional, the key is finding what works best for you. Some of my greatest stress hacks involve a lot of imagination, breathing, mediation and down right HBIC attitude, all allowing you to take your power back:
Breathing/Meditation: As soon as you catch yourself spiraling with the overwhelming stress stop immediately. Drop everything and breathe, very deep, in and out, pushing every single thought from your mind. Release your shoulders, unclench your jaw, noodle your body and continue breathing until you feel better. It gives you a clearer mindset and a fresh start to address whatever it may be. • Mentally Wash the Stress Away: A really unusual trick for me is to shut my eyes and imagine my thoughts melting out of sight. I picture whatever I am concerned over and watch it disintegrate right in front of me until all I see is white bright light. I mentally wash it away taking away its power to affect my being giving me a clear mind and new starting point to healthily address my stress. • HBIC Attitude: This one is my absolute favorite. I find this trick empowering, raw, emotionally satisfying and pretty fun. I start off by getting a little angry and insulted by my stress, not at myself for being stressed but the actual stressful situation itself. It goes a little something like this: "How dare you try to cloud my mind! How dare you try to steal my peace! I am better than you I am better than all of this and this is no longer worth my attention. I will handle you on my terms in my own way when I am ready!" I then stop my work and take a mental and physical break. I walk away completely from the area and not allow it to cloud my mind for a length of time until I breathe normally, unclench my jaw, un-furrow my brow, and let my shoulders drop.
Set Your Professional and Personal Boundaries: I have struggled the past few years with enforcing my personal and professional boundaries but with my new business and new found happiness it has become my highest priority. I always make sure that if I have time blocked for me I do not sacrifice it or move it for any reason. If I don’t respect my time or mental health needs no one else will do it for me. By being honest about what you need with bosses, co-workers, family or friends you can take the time you need without feeling guilty. Anyone unwilling to respect these boundaries is not a person you need in your life. Ex) Telling my clients or bosses that I will not answer calls, emails or texts past 6:30pm unless it is a dire emergency or we have discussed it in advance. I do not give them a reason why, I simply state my boundaries and make sure to stick to them. This allows me to take back my power and take time to focus on me and my happiness.
These tricks allow me to look at my stress as a singular and controllable moment not an all encompassing overpowering situation that is spiraling out of my control. It seems ridiculous but there is some merit to the phrase "fake it until you make it," especially in stress control. The mind is a powerful tool and when you use it correctly you have the power to protect yourself from yourself. This took me years of practice and a lot of therapy but especially now as a business owner these tricks allow me to have mental power over any situation I am thrown into.
The Silicon Valley is a pressure cooker of stress and unhealthy lifestyles, making it a pretty rough place to live. Even after being born and raised here I struggled to get it right. We tend to see asking for help as weakness here especially as women; we are expected to have it all together no matter the circumstances and it is literally killing us even as kids.
At 21, I succumbed to the stress of trying to find myself, create a life, be a provider and thrive in a place where success is the “norm” not a goal yet you have to make a minimum salary of 250k per year to live comfortably. Not once did it occur to me to ask for help or confide in someone about mine and my Father's dire situation.
No one ever thinks to look out for the young kids. We all assume that there is no way it could happen to us, we're young, we're "healthy" and the world is our oyster. I was showing all the signs of someone in desperate need of help but no one asked. At one point I was asked by an older gentleman (roughly mid 50s) about why I didn't smile more and I replied, "I’m just under a lot of stress lately." He laughed right in my face scoffing at what someone "my age" would have to be stressed about. He chortled his way out the door and I was left in tears wishing someone would save me.
Stress and anxiety does not discriminate. It does not care if you are young, old, purple, blue, skinny, tall, healthy or sick, it will take you down just like the rest of us.
To this day I think about how lucky I am to have survived. It serves as a constant reminder that even though I like to pretend that I am Superwoman, I am human. I have to remind myself every single day to not handle my burdens alone, that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness like I was made to believe.
There are hundreds of free programs (see my list below) out here designed to help out anyone suffering from stress, anxiety and other mental illness and with so many celebrities and influential people coming forward about their fight with stress, anxiety and mental illness the access we have today is unparalleled. It is no longer a taboo to discuss our mental health and I hope that one day we can have open honest discussion because we actually care and not because its the politically correct thing to do.
Please don't be afraid to ask for help. Whether you live in the Silicon Valley or anywhere else on earth your life is more important than any burden you may think you would impose.
Stress kills. Being overworked kills. This is not a goal to strive for.
Free Mental Health Hotlines:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357) National Alliance on Mental Illness
Call the NAMI Helpline at 800-950-NAMI Or in a crisis, text "NAMI" to 741741
Mental Health America Call the MHA Helplins at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center, or text MHA to 74174
CalHOPE CalHOPE Warm Line: (833) 317-HOPE (4673)