I Got Sent to the ER for High Blood Pressure — Here’s How I Handled It
Last fall, I caught some sniffles from my four-year-old daughter, Julia. Catching a cold from a preschooler is basically an annual tradition for parents, but in the era of coronavirus, I knew it was a good idea to get a test just to be safe. So I packed Julia into the car and we stopped by our local urgent care so I could take a rapid test.
The COVID test came back negative, but the nurses quickly asked me if I typically had such high blood pressure. “No,” I replied, alarmed. Apparently, my blood pressure was concerningly high. Even though I typically suffer from “white coat syndrome” — a playful term for the jittery, anxious feeling that some of us get when we have to go to the doctor — my blood pressure was a lot higher than normal.
Of course, hearing that my blood pressure was high only increased my anxiety, which elevated my blood pressure even further. The nurses then wanted to know if I had any other symptoms. I told them that I’d woken up in the middle of the night feeling a little short of breath, adding that I’d attributed it to whatever little cold or virus I had. The vein on the upper left side of my forehead was also a little bulging and tender, I added.
The nurses exchanged a knowing look, as though they knew something they didn’t want me to hear.
A trip to the emergency room became my wake-up call.
Then they glanced at Julia before gently telling me, “We would feel better if you would go to the ER.” Without any hesitation — except wondering whether I would be able to actually drive across town to the ER — I hopped in my car, explaining to Julia that we were going to the hospital just like Curious George did. “Hopefully, we won’t have to stay as long as he did, though,” I told her.
Fortunately, we were only there for about an hour. An EKG revealed that my heart was fine. The attending physician said my bulging vein was due to my sinuses, not my heart. “What’s going on?” he’d asked me. “It must be stress,” I said, realizing the truth of what I’d just spoken aloud. Even just saying it, acknowledging it, let me relax a little, and my blood pressure began to normalize.
If being sent to the ER with high blood pressure was a huge scare — and to be honest, it was pretty terrifying — it was also something of a relief. I had finally acknowledged that I was beyond stressed out. I was working on my Ph.D., traveling for a semester with my toddler in tow, and trying to figure out my difficult relationship with my daughter’s father. I’d kept these stressors bottled up inside, and my body wasn’t going to let me get away with that anymore.
But I was still worried. Even though the cause of my high blood pressure was “just” stress, I knew that stress is actually a lot more dangerous than most people think.
Emotional stress is a primary cause of heart attacks in women.
At 45, I felt both young enough and old enough to be at risk, and I knew that my blood pressure was probably a concerning factor I should pay attention to. Carl Pepine, M.D., a cardiologist who specializes in hypertension in women at the University of Florida, confirmed my suspicion.
“High blood pressure is the most prevalent, attributable risk factor for mortality in women in the U.S.,” he told me.
This is partly because physiologically, women generally have smaller hearts and blood vessels than men, so their bodies are more inclined to succumb to greater pressure. Also known as the “silent killer,” hypertension tends to sneak up on women because they often overlook their own risk factors.
“All forms of cardiovascular disease in women are under-treated,” Dr. Pepine said. “Part of the problem is that women don’t bring themselves in. They come in for their husbands, not themselves.”
The semester finally ended, but alas, my stress did not. So when I returned home from my travel semester, I made an appointment with my doctor, Dr. Angeli Akey, who practices both Eastern and Western medicine. She advocated taking a combined treatment approach and prescribed me a very low dose of Atenolol, a beta blocker that slows the heart rate. She also recommended several holistic treatments, including acupuncture, qi gong, and regular aerobic exercise. She also suggested I try beet supplements and hibiscus tea — both of which are traditionally used for vascular health.
I was very grateful for this approach. I didn’t want to just pop pills, especially since my emotional state was a major source of my high blood pressure. I knew that there were no real physiological reasons for me to have high blood pressure: it doesn’t run in my family, I’m not overweight, and I eat a fairly healthy, mostly vegetarian diet.
I knew I had to lower my stress levels to protect my body.
One anti-anxiety method that I’ve used since that night in the ER is meditation, and I’ve found that it helps relieve me of my personal anxieties. I also started using a Peloton four times a week and drinking beet juice and hibiscus tea throughout the day — and also in the evening in lieu of wine. Although I’ve always found that wine can certainly help with relaxation, it’s ultimately not advisable for those of us who have high blood pressure.
I’m also sticking to a low-sodium diet, have cut my coffee intake to half of what it was previously, and continually monitor my blood pressure per Dr. Pepine’s recommendation. I consistently check my blood pressure in the afternoon when it’s at its peak.
Most importantly, I’ve started listening to my heart — literally and figuratively.
Ever since my partner and I entered into a healthy, amicable separation, I’ve felt the tension in my body relax. My acupuncturist tells me that in Chinese medicine, the heart is the most important organ, and when I wondered aloud to her why my anxiety couldn’t have manifested in some other way — like migraine headaches or acid reflux — she told me, “your body was commanding your full attention for something important.”
After months of learning how to better manage my anxiety, I finally had a normal blood pressure reading on my recent birthday. I felt enormously grateful and knew that I had put in the effort to give myself the best present of all, for both myself and my daughter: good health, and hopefully, a longer, much more relaxed life.