Today is World Stroke Day, which is the perfect time to share my experience with a sudden interruption in the blood supply of the brain. Among my focuses as an executive coach is assisting clients in understanding the genesis and impact stress has in their lives. Few realize the amount of pressure they inflict upon themselves while consistently performing at their peak. Nor do they acknowledge the high costs of chronic stress in terms of their health and continued success. Adding to that equation is the pressures they inflict on their personal lives and those they love.

Wold Stroke Day Blog Post

The coaching I provide my clients is backed by personal experience. I was a member of that same “club,” wherein professionals subject themselves to chronic stress in order to gain ever-increasing levels of success. I paid the price, experienced a left cerebellum hemorrhage stroke, learned from my mistakes, and am now succeeding like I never dreamed possible — all the while maintaining a low-stress rhythm throughout all areas of my life. My hope is that by reading this story, those who suffer from chronic stress might learn from my experiences and seek help before tragedy strikes. I also want to inform readers how to recognize the symptoms of a stroke. Early intervention is the key to a positive outcome. By recognizing the symptoms of a stroke early on, you can significantly improve the outcome for yourself, a loved one, or even a complete stranger.

Here is my story.

The early years

From the time I was a child, I placed inordinate pressure on myself to become a top performer and a perfectionist. My parents did not push me, as is often assumed in families that produce over-achievers. In fact, I enjoyed a normal childhood with a great family, which naturally transformed into participating in life at a fairly low stress level. I grew up in a household that emphasized nutritious meals, exercise, and real-life experiences — no sitting around the house watching television. And,  of course, there were no other sedentary distractions such as YouTube and social media back then.

However, for whatever reason — perhaps just being the first born or believing that I had to perform well in order to earn love — I assumed the role of a Type A personality. I was the go-getter, the over-achiever, driving myself to excel at every “Shirley Temple” role I chose. My nickname at the time was “Princess,” a title that was well deserved, though I had not yet been crowned with my tiara. Not yet.

As an adolescent and young adult, I continued my quest for perfection, and performing became even more important. There was never enough time for self-care or social activities, because I was immersed in over-achieving in every area of my life. I landed that coveted valedictorian spot and won numerous free rides to colleges, singing classical opera in the pageant circle, including the Miss America program. That was an intense platform requiring me to live an extra healthy lifestyle, primarily to successfully compete in the swimsuit competition, which was a requirement of the pageant at the time. My nickname at this life stage was literally “Miss America.”

College days, grad school, and career

In early adulthood, I set an objective of graduating college in three years — which is exactly what I did. I then landed a career allowing me to travel the world, but I quickly became bored. I felt pressure to earn an MBA as soon as possible. I found the perfect fit and once again pushed and pushed to be at the top of my class.

When the time came to graduate with my MBA, members of the top percentage of the class would entertain offers from the best investment banking houses or one of the Big Eight (at the time) management consulting firms. I chose the latter. Little did those of us who accepted these offers realize, the career pressure cookers we were about to enter.

I moved to New York City and entered a world of working late nights and traveling the majority of every week. I would leave on Sunday nights and return Friday evening following nonstop meetings with clients throughout the country. I had no social life, and I was burning the candle at both ends.

Looking back on those years, I realize I didn’t have a clue that these life stressors and the pressure I had subjected myself to was creating an internal volcano that one day would dangerously erupt.

Marriage and family

When I married at the age of 28, new responsibilities, such as children, moving, and relational stress, were all instrumental in changing my life. In addition, our family lived a very public life and were often scrutinized by the press. Looking back on it, there was a family veneer that was stressful to maintain.

Despite all the hustle and bustle and accompanying glitz and glamour, I remained health conscious. I had a rigid exercise regimen, and I prepared healthy meals for myself and my family. I took up yoga and meditation, and I even purchased and operated an exercise boot camp for a time. Fitness and well-being were at the core of my existence, and they remain important elements of my life to this day. But, the relational stress in my life continued to escalate.

The stroke

Fast forward to 2016 when — at the age of 53 — it had all reached the boiling point. I remember becoming extremely upset one evening, with my blood pressure most likely rocketing to a dangerous level. The next afternoon, I collapsed in my garage. I remember everything spinning around, as I crawled back inside my house. Once inside, I began to vomit violently. I remember thinking that I was suffering vertigo, and the irrational plan I came up with was to lay motionless on the floor. Which I did for the next three hours.

Fortunately, I had two houseguests who checked in with my doctor intermittently for the next three hours or so as I suffered. Interestingly, despite the intensive Q&A over the phone, none of us — not my doctor, my friends, nor I — considered the possibility that I could be suffering a stroke. How could that be possible? I was beyond young and healthy.

Since my symptoms were not congruent with the American Heart Association’s warning signs of a stroke, the doctor suggested my friends drive me to a walk-in clinic for issues associated with dehydration. Doctors there saw something my own physician couldn’t see over the phone and immediately called an ambulance to transport me to the hospital. And that’s where I woke up the next day, hearing a doctor tell me I had experienced a left cerebellum hemorrhage stroke. Again, the denial: I was young. I was healthy. I was shocked.

A team of doctors from every discipline tried to find a cause, but nothing was uncovered, and no cause has ever surfaced. That said, I now know myself well enough to know with absolute certainty that stress was the cause.

Soaring in my present

Today, I wear a LINKSYS heart monitor, and for the past three years, I have had no issues whatsoever with my heart. There have been no ramifications from my stroke, which has given me a second chance at life and this opportunity to tell my story. And as a result of my experience, I now serve on the board of directors at the Orange County division of the American Heart Association, where I have the opportunity to serve alongside others working to raise awareness about the fight to recognize the warning signs of (and defeat) heart disease and stroke.

I now live mostly in the present — except, of course, for the planning and scheduling required to coordinate meetings, events, vacations, and so on. I monitor my blood pressure, exercise, and eat mindfully. I am keenly aware of stress levels and I maintain my boundaries with others and my endeavors. I have come to realize that I am the only person who can set my own boundaries, deciding for myself what and whom I allow into my life. I have found that this is a huge step for many of my clients.

In this new life, I am no less successful than I was in the life leading up to my stroke. In fact, I am far more productive and have achieved a much higher quality of life. I no longer waste time and energy on fruitless endeavors or relationships. I do what I love to do at a comfortable pace. I rely on continuing education to work smarter instead of harder. And I have unlimited opportunities to engage in fulfilling work — helping my clients live more rewarding, fulfilling, and happier lives.

Recognizing the early warning signs of a stroke

Stress kills, and even if it doesn’t result in a fatal heart attack or stroke, it negatively impacts your health and fitness. Awareness of this fact is increasing, as evidenced by the heightened interest in mind-body medicine — a discipline that focuses on the ways in which emotional, mental, social, and spiritual factors directly impact health.

If you suffer from stress, the first step is to realize that all stress is self-inflicted. Although people, events, and situations can trigger stress, they do not and cannot control your thoughts and emotions. You can minimize stress in three ways:

  1. Avoid the people, events, and situations that trigger stress as much as possible.
  2. Change your mental and emotional response to your stress triggers.
  3. Take a proactive approach in your emotional, mental, social, and spiritual development.

If stress builds to the point of causing a stroke in you or someone else, be aware of the following stroke symptoms and signs, summarized by the acronym FAST:

F:  Face drooping. Ask the person to smile and see if one side is drooping.

A:  Arm weakness. Ask the person to raise both arms.

S:  Speech difficulty. People having a stroke may slur their speech or have trouble speaking at all.

T:  Time to call 911!

Anyone can experience a stroke, regardless of age or how healthy and fit they feel. Hopefully, with the help of advocates such as the American Heart Association, we can spread the word, and thus prevent others from experiencing this terrifying health event or at least improve their outcome after experiencing a stroke.

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About the Author: Jan Moorad, a former Deloitte management consultant and Major League Baseball team partner, is a Newport Beach, Calif.-based executive coach who helps C-Suite executives and their spouses pursue and achieve personal and professional fulfillment.