Perhaps you’ve had a stress test done to check the condition and performance of your heart. I’m having one this morning. Precautionary, mind you. Given a family history of heart issues, it is important to keep track of how everything is working.
It’s not the purpose of the stress test that makes me stop and think. It’s the name. Stress test.
As if life itself doesn’t provide enough stress. I recall the first heart palpitations that ever came along when I was not exercising. It was during the process of buying a house back in 1996. We were selling our little brick bungalow in Geneva and buying a For Sale By Owner home in Batavia.The seller was the executor of the estate for the family. He had an absolute deadline by which he had to close the deal because his stepmother was apparently being a complete bitch about the money.
But he liked that we liked the house that his parents had built in the late 1960s, so we proceeded, believe it or not, pretty much on a handshake. “If you’re going to buy this place,” he told me. “Then I’ll trust that you’ll get this done.” And we shook hands on it.
Talk about pressure. That handshake held far more sway in my head than any legal document could have done. Here was an earnest human being putting trust in me. I did not want to let him down.
But the transaction took a lot of steps, and it was stressful. Stuff kept cropping up. The pressure built inside my chest. Then one day while sitting in my chair at work, I felt my heart racing from the stress. That was a strange sensation.
It surprised me because I’d stressed my heart in plenty of other ways by that stage in life. Pushing it up toward 200 beats a minute, maybe more, during hard training and races.
But stress works like yin and yang. You can be resting perfectly still while stress on the other side of your consciousness drives your metabolism into full gear. Stress is exhausting. Frightening. Nerve-wracking.
One of the most stressful situations I ever faced came a few years later when my father had a stroke during a vacation in Upstate New York. A few weeks later, I was called into action to escort my father back from the Syracuse hospital to a recovery center back in Illinois.
I’d arranged plane flights for my father as well as my brother who accompanied me, and my mother too. Then I flew out to get things set up for the trip back home. My father would be confined to a wheelchair, fixed with a catheter and unable to speak due to the effects of the stroke.
Midway through the morning as we waited in his hospital room, a doctor waltzed in accompanied by five or six medical residents and cheerily said, “Well, if things go well maybe your father can go home in a few days.”
“A few days?” I stammered. Suddenly I felt faint. I’d never felt that precise effect before. But I knew from years of athletics that the best thing to do at that moment was to make a movement of some sort. So I leaned forward, and while doing so my brain started to fade. But I kept my feet under me and walked right through the wall of residents. They parted like a crowd on the Red Carpet at the Oscars as I tromped like a celebrity zombie out into the hallway.
Fortunately, the panic did not overtake me completely. I took a deep breath and went walking toward the window at the end of the hall where light filled my brain and I could regain my full senses. I’d had a stress reaction.
Stress. It can almost knock you dead. But I gathered my thoughts and worked through the morning to arrange my dad’s trip back home and we made it.
That night a tremendous sense of relief and exhaustion took over. I sat in the Adirondack chair behind our house as twilight came. A bat flew over our back yard catching bugs. But the world felt fake. Only the stress from the activities of the morning felt real. I didn’t own my brain in those moments. Stress did.
Every creature on earth faces stress of some sort. Stress is what the entire system of evolution is based upon. The manner in which living things respond to stress is the determining factor in survival. And we human beings are not immune to those biological responses. We do not exist outside the sphere of genetic history that we share with all living things. We’re all wired the same. We have fight or flight instincts just like the flies on a flower or the birds in the trees. We either deal with stress or it knocks us to our knees.
So the stress test today will involve, I suppose, being strapped to some electrodes while they have me run on a treadmill. Earlier this week I did some mile intervals and felt absolutely smooth. I hope to show them my heart is working well. But you never know until you try.
I found three different definitions of the word stress:
pressure or tension exerted on a material object
a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances
particular emphasis or importance
It’s strange, but all three apply when you’re under pressure of some sort. Physical stress applies to the first definition. Psychological stress applies to the second. And creative stress comes from the last definition.
The trick is learning how to balance and use stresses such as these to generate motivation, not fear. And that is the greatest stress test of all.
Ironic, isn’t it?