I was in my favorite high intensity interval class, having just completed a set of jumping jacks, when I felt it, a strange tightness in my chest. I breathed deeply, trying to work through it, but it only sharpened the pain. Instinctively, I was more annoyed than concerned. I needed this discomfort to go away. There were only 10 seconds until burpees.
We’ve all heard those stories about the person who didn’t know they were pregnant until they were about to deliver — and we’ve reacted with the same, “Please! How didn’t she know?” disbelief. But that day in my gym class, ignoring an obvious red flag, I understood how you can completely disregard things you are feeling in an attempt to deny their existence.
To be fair, I didn’t blatantly ignore it. I was aware that my body was telling me something, but at the same time my brain justified it. It was gas, it said. There’s no need to worry. You’re in your 40s and fit, you’re overreacting. I believed my excuses because I wanted to and proceeded with the burpees.
But what if it was a heart attack, my reasonable side countered. With a tendency toward Jewish martyrdom, I didn’t want to be the idiot who ignored the signs. I also didn’t want to be the idiot making something out of nothing, and messing up my designated hour to exercise. I compromised and dropped my intensity level down a couple of notches, stepping on to the board instead of jumping, doing only one burpee in the time I would have completed two. But I wouldn’t leave the class. It was nothing. I was almost sure of it.
As I planked, I battled with myself, reasoning that my chest was above my heart. Of course I knew I should stop, but instead I managed to talk myself through each exercise. During squats, I wondered what it would take for me to believe something was actually wrong, since these chest pains were far from typical. While I made some adjustments—taking short, slow breaths and decreasing my intensity—I stubbornly refused to concede to the cues my body was sending out.
Chest pain is a glaring signal. As the most common symptom for a heart attack, it screams stop and pay attention. Some of the other symptoms to look for include pain in your arm, back, neck, or jaw, stomach pain, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, sweating, and fatigue. I was certainly sweating and fatigued, maybe even a little lightheaded, but it was barely 9 a.m. and I was working out.
Class was almost over, I reasoned. I might as well finish. It became obvious that I would only believe something was wrong if I passed out.
It reminded me of the day a year or so before when there had been a string of robberies in my neighborhood. My neighbor and I were discussing it on my front lawn as we watched two men carting a television out of a house across the street. We didn’t know the men and joked, “Maybe that’s a robbery right now*.”
If you were watching us in a movie, you’d be rolling your eyes as we laughed and carried on chatting. To us, it was the middle of a sunny day. How could something like that happen right before our eyes? It seems we are conditioned to think nothing bad is really happening, even as it happens.
Finally, when the class went down onto the mat for sit-ups and core work, I did get up and leave. Somehow the pressure seemed worse when I was lying flat on my back. I wish I could say that I had smartened up, but in the back of my mind I knew that the “real” exercise I needed to get in was done, and that’s why I felt comfortable leaving.
By the time I reached home, my chest felt better and I was breathing easier. A little shaken, I headed straight to the computer to look up information on heart attacks. I learned that acting in the first minutes you are having a heart attack could mean the difference between life and death, but also that the symptoms, especially for a woman, vary greatly. More often than not, a cardiac episode presents far more subtly (i.e. nausea, jaw pain) than the dramatic clutching of the chest you see on television.
Many people don’t take themselves or their symptoms seriously, or feel silly going to the doctor for what possibly could be a false alarm. But since heart attacks are the number one killer of women overall, affecting over 35,000 women each year under the age of 55, it’s critical not to dismiss any signs.
Thankfully I wasn’t having a heart attack, but my non-reactive reaction scared me. I hope that if there is ever a time in the future when I am feeling questionable again, I’ll be smart enough not to listen to my brain, but to my heart. And I hope you do as well.
*Whew! It wasn’t a robbery, just an old TV being passed on.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.