I had a heart attack when I was 33 years old.
I was relaxing at home, getting ready for bed. Suddenly an invisible giant was squeezing my shoulders and crushing me into the floor.
I’d never been the fittest person, struggling throughout my young life with yo-yoing weight and bad eating habits. But the same could be said of many men my age. In addition, there was no strong genetic predisposition for heart disease on either side of my family.
So why me, and why so young? What tipped me over the edge of the myocardial infarction cliff? There were two other factors at work in my life that predisposed me to a heart attack. First was the fact that I was bipolar. Mania and depression, the deadly twins of that mental illness, are associated with bad life choices and the inflammation we know contributes to clogged arteries.
The other factor was chronic stress brought on by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Abuse of any kind suffered during childhood is heavily correlated with cardiovascular disease later in life. As it turns out, my later was more on the sooner side.
The Path to C-PTSD
I grew up as a sensitive kid in a household where I experienced emotional and physical abuse. I know that other kids, especially those who grew up in poverty and crime-stricken areas, have had it a lot worse than me. But nevertheless, I still lived in a place where I was very often in fear of what bad thing might happen next.
Research has shown how such environmental conditions keep your fight/flight response chronically switched on. The body was not meant to be constantly hopped up on stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Chronic stress can lead to a condition called Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Kids from bad environments and soldiers share this malady.
Unlike the PTSD we hear about on the news, C-PTSD is a double-whammy: an affliction brought on by the “short sharp shock” of brief but powerful traumatic events, combined with the effects of being continuously on edge over time.
When a human being is under constant stress, things become narrow. For the mind, this means a narrowing of perspective and perception, and reduced ability to access higher-level brain function. This is why kids in bad home situations have a harder time focusing on schoolwork, and why veterans have a hard time readjusting to civilian life. Their C-PTSD can limit their ability to access positive emotions as well as social connection. Physically, stress narrows arteries through a combination of inflammation and atherosclerosis.
Good Versus Bad Stress
Occasional stress serves a good evolutionary purpose: it helps us survive. Whether in a physical altercation with someone who wants to hurt us, or in a board room negotiating a multi-million-dollar deal, stress gives us a burst of focus and awareness that makes us perform better.
But stressful moments are not meant to last. When stress becomes a chronic habit, it harms our minds and bodies. This is why it’s vital to have ways to consciously deal with stress. However, like many men, I wasn’t given any tools to deal with my stress. As a matter of fact, the worldview I was taught actually taught me to see life as a war, so I was actively stressing myself out on a daily basis. Combined with an undiagnosed mental illness (because real men don’t go to therapy), my heart was a ticking time bomb.
How to Dodge the Infarction Bullet
I’m 43 now. In the ten years since my heart attack, I’ve been to my cardiologist’s office quite a few times. At first, I would look around and realize I was a few decades younger than most of the other patients there. But as the years went on, I did notice there were a few more people who, like me, weren’t collecting Social Security checks yet.
This makes me wonder: if chronic stress and the associated negative mental and physical impacts are so prevalent in our society, why aren’t we talking more about the young broken hearts? Why are we suffering in silence?
This is why I decided it’s time to speak up. The #BareYourMind movement is all about ending the suppression of mental illnesses and Adverse Childhood Experiences. Personally, I’m hoping to encourage as many men as possible to seek out help for such negative influences on their well-being. This can help reduce some serious risk factors for young heart attacks.
So, if you’re struggling to achieve better mental health, do your ticker a favor and talk to someone. Find a release valve for your stress, before you literally break your own heart.
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