Holiday Heartache?

By Chanda Murphy

When working with current leaders and teaching future ones, I emphasize the importance of authenticity and vulnerability. At the recent Wisdom 2.0 Mindfulness in America conference that Anna and I attended in NYC, we saw some of the most amazing leaders in our country - Arianna Huffington, Tim Ryan, Anderson Cooper and Jon Kabat-Zinn, just to name a few - and every single one of them spoke with authenticity and vulnerability. They each told a personal story of a time in their life that was a turning point (whether from health-related issues, absolute burnout or psychological distress), which led to the conclusion of an immediate need for self-care and compassion through which they discovered the importance of mindfulness.

My journey towards mindfulness was a similar one, and this time of year is always challenging for me. As for many, the holidays are a reminder of happier times but also of devastating loss. We are coming up on the 4-year anniversary of my mom’s losing battle with an autoimmune disease, but my mindfulness journey did not start with her death. Thankfully, it started just three months prior when I ended up in the ER with a heart rate of more than 200 bpm. I’ve lived with anxiety for most of my life and didn’t think too much about the panic attack that I’d felt coming on that afternoon. However, after four hours of trying to calm my heart rate on my own, I finally had a friend take me to the ER.

The scene in the ER was something out of a tv show, with a nurse holding defibrillator paddles over my chest and the doctor telling me they were going to put an IV in my arm to temporarily stop my heart. My only job, per the doctor, was to keep breathing. Long story short, I had an episode of supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT. The doctors and nurses had to actually stop my heart, twice, to get it to reset in a regular rhythm.

After following up with my primary care physician, we decided that in order for me not to be on heart medication for the rest of my life, I had to promise to change my lifestyle. My episode of SVT was brought on by stress from my type A personality and lifestyle. I had always been this way, and slowing down was not an option ... until I had to choose between that and being permanently medicated from age 33 onwards. Thankfully, Anna took me to a yoga class, and the rest is pretty much history. I fell in love with the practice, the breathing, the meditation … all of it. It was then that I realized we are living in a society that loves to brag about being busy and seems to be in constant competition for how many more things we can pile on our plates. As a culture, we prioritize work over family and friends, and it’s time to take a step back and realize work will always be there, family and friends may not.

So what got me through watching my mom die and what gets me through these tough months when the memory of that loss is the most vivid? Mindfulness: being present, self-care, being aware of my emotions, being comfortable with pain and heartache, and most importantly taking time to be with my friends and my family. As you spend time with friends and family, especially if that can be difficult, try being authentic and vulnerable. Talk about how you really feel. Really listen to what others are saying about how they feel. Be aware of when you need to take care of yourself and take the time to do so.

That little heart problem I had? Well, I haven’t had an episode since. And while the pain in my heart from the loss of my mother will never go away, by slowing down and being mindful of how I’m feeling and how I need to care for myself, I can actually appreciate the holidays in a way that would make her proud.

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