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Pacemaker Anxiety

Jun 12

Posted by: ACHA
6/12/2013 1:45 PM  RssIcon

By Melissa Nelson

Technology is a part of my daily life—between the three computers I use, my iPod and my phone, I really can’t get away from it. And even if I wanted to get away and I went out to the woods where I had no signal and no internet connection, I would still rely on technology.

My pacemaker is my most expensive technological device that I own and the one I rely on at all times. Although it can’t be a Wi-Fi hotspot or gold plated or even do anything cool that people can see with their eyes, it has the best operating system of any device I have ever seen.

It wasn’t always like this. Before my heart surgery, I would go into flutter and my pacemaker could do nothing to help me out. I would end up in the ER, where they used meds and eventually had to shock me back into rhythm. Then in the summer of 2005, a summer I’ll never forget—yet some events are so blurry—I was given a new pacemaker that was able to take me out of flutter.

After working out some glitches, by January I was able to take full advantage of this technology. Instead of going into the ER, when I went into flutter I would sit patiently annoyed for five minutes for my pacemaker to put me back into a regular rhythm. Now although I had this amazing gift that kept me out of the hospital and functioning the way I wanted, there was still a glitch.

Not in the pacemaker’s operating system, but in my own.

Instead of going into fight-or-flight mode with flutter I would have similar fear-driven anxious moments that would take time to pass. I specifically remember the first time I noticed that this wasn’t normal. My favorite professor had given us a project—the wheels in my mind starting turning and thoughts came into my consciousness about when I was going to have time, how I would do the project, and who I was going to work with.

I started unconsciously shaking my leg, biting at the inside of my cheek and I could feel my breathing get faster. Then I looked around the classroom to see how everyone else was reacting to this news. They all looked as calm as they had moments before the announcement. That’s when I knew that fight-or-flight was not going to work for me anymore. My situation had changed and I needed to change with it.

It was at this point that I decided exercising was not enough to help my nervous system to stop reacting to everything with fight-or-flight mode. I sought outside help. I learned to breathe. I mean really breathe—and deeply. I learned to be quiet, to listen to myself, to mediate, to be in the moment when possible. I learned skills to help me function more “normally.”

Over time it worked. I remember being told about another assignment in the same class a couple of weeks later; I remember sitting there aware of what my body was not doing. My leg wasn’t shaking, I wasn’t chewing on my cheek and my breathing was normal. My nervous system was now operating differently! It was such an amazingly freeing moment, like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders that I didn’t even know was there until it was gone.

Over the years I have tried many things to help with my anxiety. And depending on what’s going on in my life, I go back to my own operating system of fight-or-flight, but then I take time to sit. To breathe. To say a comforting phrase. To remind myself that everything is OK, that I don’t need to be afraid.

I don’t do this perfectly and I certainly don’t do it well most of the time, but little by little it’s becoming more a part of who I am—a part of my daily life. I don’t think I will ever be “normal.” I think I will always have this struggle, but knowing that I have skills I can use is very helpful, it helps break the cycle. It helps me to live a little freer and breathe a little easier.

Melissa Nelson is a spunky elementary school teacher born with tricuspid atresia who has a pacemaker. She enjoys spending time with family and friends and being as active as half a heart allows her by swimming, running, biking, golfing and trying out tai chi.

Copyright ©2013 ACHA

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