That Time Work Stress Sent Me To The ER

September 6, 2018  |  


Friday is universally considered the time to turn up. People power through their week at the office, only to break across that beautiful finish line into happy hour. But one fateful Friday night, my happy hour was a trip to the Emergency Room (ER).

People land in the ER for a host of shocking reasons. While I sat in the waiting room that evening, I learned someone had a mishap in bed while attempting some acrobatic move their body was never meant to do. Another person had an asthma attack because of an air freshener. And some poor, unfortunate soul developed an allergy to meat after getting bitten by a mosquito. Me? I wound up going there because I was so stressed out over my job.

On the long list of lame reasons to rush to the hospital, stress is easily number 7, somewhere between pulling a muscle while putting on your bra and getting a concussion while sneezing. That’s probably why I never considered the possibility that stress may have been behind some rather worrying symptoms I developed one particular summer. For weeks, I had experienced shortness of breath on a near-daily basis. I just knew it was a lasting symptom of the pulmonary embolism I had more than a year prior because respiratory issues are something that patients experience from time to time after an incident. Vigorous exercise is suggested to eliminate the issue and since I hadn’t been able to get to the gym as often as I would have liked that week, I assumed that’s why I was suddenly having trouble breathing.

I had a long weekend away, but when I returned I made it a point to hit the gym every single day. Nothing got better. I could power through increasingly brutal circuits at the gym and after the workout, I would feel better and breathe easier. But sure enough, the next day I would feel my heart thumping away inside my chest at work, and there were moments where it felt like I wasn’t getting enough air. That cycle continued for a while: I felt great at night and awful during the day.

At the same time, I was becoming wearier and withdrawn at work. I would come in and do the work, but there was a constant sense of dread while I was in the office because I kept butting heads with my manager. One week, my respiratory problems were so persistent that no amount of exercise was making them any better. I couldn’t do enough burpees, sit-ups, or lunges to get things back in order. If physical activity wasn’t helping that much then I needed to see a doctor. I clocked out, I went to Urgent Care; doctors there sent me to the ER for a deeper look at my lungs as a precaution because their tests showed nothing.

A long night of more intensive tests at the hospital also turned up nothing. My oxygen levels were great. My lungs were clear and healthy. There wasn’t actually anything physically wrong with me, but the doctor I saw did bring up a possibility that had not occurred to me: I was stressed out. Knowing that stress and anxiety was the cause of my ailment was helpful to know, but it didn’t really provide an immediate prescription for treatment. The best thing I could do for myself was calm down when I felt myself getting short of breath.

The real kicker was that I couldn’t pinpoint the source of my stress until a couple of weeks after I went to the hospital. I had another weekend trip to visit family and time at the beach proved to be the perfect remedy for my stress. I was solidly on the mend. Sunday night I felt ready to take on the world — and my work — when I got back to the office. However, I noticed that peace quickly dissolved the night before I was supposed to return to work: I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t get comfortable enough. I was filled with worry and anxiety about what my manager was going to throw at me. My chest started getting tight. I couldn’t breathe comfortably. That’s when it became apparent to me that work was the source of the stress that was so powerful it had impacted my health–something that had never happened before.

As soon as I could identify what was stressing me out, the stress became easier to manage. First and foremost, I determined that I would no longer bottle up my concerns for fear of rocking the boat. If there were big issues that came up at work, my manager’s manager knew about it. There was no more sticking around past the end of my day to finish up one more task or tie up one more loose end. Those tasks got saved for the next day. And there was no more working through lunch. Most of all, I wouldn’t allow myself to doubt my abilities at work. Those are things I would never have determined to do unless my body sent me the loudest wake-up call it could.

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