Will Stress Kill Me?
by Steve Aho
I have been living under extreme stress for as long as I can remember. What began as short-term stress induced by the pressures of graduate school, frequent performances, solo competitions, and freelance work led to a lifestyle of stress. The situation grew even worse after finishing my master's and starting my first “real” playing gig, an ongoing tour with an artist who proved to be not only difficult, but also an alcoholic. Following the tour, I moved to L.A. and began working in the studios as a session musician, and later as an arranger, orchestrator and conductor. Stress levels continued to rise and I soon began noticing physical symptoms. I found myself unable to even look at my computer screen without feeling dizzy, and even grew fearful of even driving because the L.A. traffic was giving me anxiety about being late. Moving to Graz, Austria, a year ago has helped curb my general anxiety, but I had become so accustomed to living with stress that I found ways to get stressed out again -- all despite living in one of the most beautiful and relaxed places on earth. This may have gone on forever had a recent and startling diagnosis not caused me to re-evaluate my relationship to my work and make some immediate changes.
A startling diagnosis
The healthcare system where we live has a program in place to incentivize those practicing preventative care. By going to the doctor for a check-up and testing various basic health parameters, one receives a discounted health insurance premium after six months as long as one’s numbers either improve or stay the same if they are good to begin with. Since I happen to love a good discount, I scheduled a doctor's visit. To my astonishment, in the course of this preventative check-up, I was informed that my blood pressure was very, very high. Though not immediately life-threatening, this news rattled me to my core. Was this really me we were talking about? I thought I was doing everything right: eating healthy (okay… minus the occasional Schnitzel and beer), exercising regularly with long bike rides in the Styrian countryside, not smoking, and generally trying to avoid being (too) stressed out as this was a main factor in our relocation to Europe. Unfortunately, it seemed that my “healthy lifestyle” was not quite enough. Since my blood pressure numbers were well on their way towards a diagnosis of hypertension, which can lead to sudden heart attacks or strokes (hence the name "silent killer") I set out to do something about it.
My doctor had referred me to a cardiologist for some further tests to determine if anything more serious was going on. After conducting some blood work and ultrasound exams, he concluded that the cause was not due to any organ dysfunction. However, my blood pressure was measuring in at around 155/99 -- far too high for a person of my age and activity level. His short-term advice: cut down on stress, salt, and come back in 6 months to determine if medication would be needed.
What to do?
Immediately determined to bring my numbers down to a healthy level, I bought a blood pressure monitor on Amazon and began checking my blood pressure each morning and evening. I began discussing the topic with my wife and researching ways to remedy my condition without medication. Many blood pressure medications have unpleasant side-effects and I dislike the idea of simply taking a medication when a change in lifestyle might have the same (or better) result. The basic conclusion of my exploration yielded that 1) transitioning to a (mostly) plant-based diet and 2) reducing stress through meditation could be the two easiest and most effective fixes. So I tried it, and the results of making these two relatively simple changes were both dramatic and highly encouraging. After four days of eating only plant-based foods and doing simple meditation (for 10 minutes each morning and evening with an app on my phone) my blood pressure came down consistently to around 113/69, a very healthy level.
Many factors contribute to blood pressure, especially genetics, and it may be that I have been dealt an unlucky hand with a genetic disposition for high blood pressure. However, the solution came remarkably quickly and effortlessly. Why aren't more people trying this?
Plant-based diet + meditation
Switching to a plant-based diet is hard for many. And committing to a few minutes to something like meditation might seem hard to make time for. But going plant-based doesn’t have to mean that one’s enjoyment of food must come to an end; on the contrary, eating a plant-based diet has opened up a whole new world of culinary possibilities for me and I am excited about continuing this journey. Interestingly, since switching to this diet, I have never felt stronger on my bike or sounder in my mind.
And the meditation? While I am (admittedly) in the beginning stages of this journey, I have found that carving out time for a 10 minute meditation first thing in the morning helps to shape my mindset for the rest of the day. Rather than showing up with a "I have so much to do" attitude, I have found myself arriving to work in a more calm and collected state. Following this meditation, I usually prepare a fruit and vegetable smoothie to get my day started off with a healthy dose of plant-based goodness. Then, in the evening and to conclude the day, a before-bed meditation has helped me fall asleep much more quickly and then have more restful sleep throughout the night. Regardless of your personal reasons, I would highly recommend giving these two ideas a try to see how they might improve your life as well.
(Note: I have been using the app Headspace for meditation - highly recommended!)
Neither unique nor uncommon
My stress level is neither unique nor uncommon. Most professional musicians I personally know live with abnormally high and unhealthy stress due to various factors including deadlines, cut-throat competition, late nights, early mornings, perfectionism, touring and the inevitable tension it causes "at home," limited time and energy to focus on healthy eating and lifestyle, uncertain financial state, and lack of sleep (to name a few). These factors directly lead to depression, anxiety, hypertension, and myriad other sicknesses, both mental and physical. It's worth noting that our stress absolutely affects those who love and support us the most, be it our family, friends, children and even pets (once Leika, our husky, refused to accompany me to the studio when I was in the midst of a particularly rigorous project, lying in the street and refusing to move until I took her home).
A recent study completed by University of Westminster, "...investigated 2,211 musicians, 71.1% of whom said they had suffered from panic attacks or anxiety, with 68.5% saying they had struggled with depression.” These staggering numbers support my (anecdotal) claim that the majority of professional musicians suffer from anxiety and depression. According to the study, a" third of musicians suffer from eating disorders due to stress, concerts and perfectionism." Perhaps this has us wondering, did we pick the wrong career?
We didn't choose music, it chose us. I’m sure every professional musician has heard a version of this phrase, and for most of us it’s probably true. At some point, our path toward music was made clear to us and we went for it regardless of the uphill battle we knew we’d face. But why? Because something about our career, whether it’s composing, performing, recording, touring, teaching, or a combination of these pursuits, drew us in and didn't let us go. Most musician friends say that despite it all they wouldn’t have it any other way. So if we’re destined for this type of work, how can we simultaneously promote a healthy, balanced lifestyle? I definitely don't have all the answers, but this is an important conversation we’ve all got to having.
I hope my story encourages anyone else struggling with stress-related health issues to seek the help they may need or simply make some minor lifestyle changes including diet, exercise, or shifting priorities. These measures just may give us (a few more) years down the road to keep doing what we love.
Finally, feel free to comment below or email me directly at email@example.com with any follow-up comments or questions.
Yours in good health,
Thanks for LEARNING WITH us!