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How to keep calm in a heart attack

Imagine waking up at five o clock in the morning with a numb feeling of discomfort in your upper body — your chest, shoulders, and arms. What do you do? Almost four weeks ago, I was in such a situation. Here is what I did.

An early wake-up call

My first thought upon noticing the strange sensations in my body was: “Probably I have sore muscles. After all, I have just completed an intense working week. I ran a 5-day Business Creativity workshop at Hong Kong Baptist University, followed by a 1-day TIPS innovation training with Thinkergy in Bangkok. Little wonder that I feel tired.”

But then I listened to my inner self and thought: “My muscles shouldn’t feel sore. I didn’t do much sport in the previous days due to my events. Moreover, even if I did, why do I feel a numb, burning sensation in my armpits where I don’t think we even have muscles?” Intuitively, I felt that something else is going on and that it’s serious. 

Usually, I try to avoid visiting a doctor for any minor health issue. I prefer to wait until things revert to normal. This morning, however, I felt a strong urge to go to an emergency room of the nearest hospital straightaway. Both my partner and our baby girl were still fast asleep. So, I dressed and left our apartment without waking them up. I felt I needed to act quickly, and filling them into the situation would have taken up precious time.

At that early time, I couldn’t find a taxi. So, I hopped on a motorbike taxi that brought me straight to the nearby hospital. Five minutes after entering their emergency room (ER), an electrocardiogram (ECG) revealed what was going on with me. 

A shocking diagnosis

“You have a heart attack,” said the ER doctor. “You need to get a heart operation right away. If you’re okay with it, we call our heart specialist now, and he should arrive here in roughly 45 minutes.” 

Upon hearing the diagnosis, I was totally gobsmacked: “A heart attack? How come? I am fit. I do sport almost every day. I eat a healthy diet. I even do regular intermittent fasting. Okay, once in a while, I have a few drinks, but I’ve never smoked in my life. So how can I get a heart attack?”

Anyway, regardless of how much I complained about the absurdity of me having a heart attack, it was happening. I had to accept the severity of the situation and to deal with it effectively. Hospital staff put forms in front of me to sign. Fortunately, my credit card limits were good to cover the deposit required for the operation. After the paperwork, I had to wait for the heart doctor to arrive. While lying on an ER bed, waiting for my imminent heart operation, my mind was in a whirl. “So, is this it? Am I going to die here and now? What about my family? My baby girl?” 

I realized that to avoid panicking while waiting for the heart specialist to arrive, I needed to control my fearful thoughts in this life-threatening state. But how?

Enter Genius Journey

To quieten and control my anxious mind, I applied a range of Genius Exercises from Genius Journey, my own creative leadership development method that I created for Thinkergy:

  • I courageously let go and detached of the outcome. I accepted that at this moment, everything was in the hands of God (and of course, a heart surgeon). All I could do was control my mind and keep calm. 
  • I repeated a mantra that connects to the first stop of Genius Journey (Stop your doubts, worries, and fears. Start to be a courageous, action-oriented believer):

“Everything that happens to me is the best possible thing that happens to me.” 

  • I expressed gratitude for my life, even if I had died here and now. I am grateful for having lived a good, happy – if not especially long – life. I was born into a good family in a democratic, developed country at the right time at the right side of the iron curtain. I enjoyed an excellent education and even got the opportunity to earn a Ph.D. I was fortunate to land a scarce job at one of the world’s top banks that allowed me to fund my bachelor, master, and doctoral studies and to gain international experience. I lived in many countries I was lucky to experience two Eureka moments that changed my life to the better (one saved my doctoral studies, and the other gave me the idea and courage to start my own business). I have a lovely family. While feeling gratitude for an eventful life, I also expressed my wish to be able to spend more time with my family, friends, and my teammates. Still, I trusted that all would turn out right and good should God decide to call upon me soon.
  • As good as I could, I tried to entertain the prospects of having to move on to the next stage with curiosity and openness (Genius Journey Stop 3). I believe that while my body will one day die, my soul won’t, and it will move on to a new, better place. The ultimate journey. I don’t know if it will be heaven or an afterlife, and I want to approach this new stage with a curious, open beginner’s mind (albeit not too soon).
  • While waiting for the doctor, I also kept on looking at the bright side of life, and keep on thinking positive (Stop 4 of Genius Journey). One Genius Exercise that I applied is called “My Warm Fuzzies”. It’s a collection of things I can do or draw upon when the going gets tough, and that make me feel good and smile in an instant. So, I played Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”-song in my mind. I hummed the “Manamana” song from the Muppet show. And I imagined chasing my happily screaming one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, among other things.
  • As the pain in my chest started to intensify while waiting for the doctor, and later during the operational procedure on my heart, I focused on my breath and began a short meditation. I also did an imagination exercise (that relates to Stop 6 of Genius Journey): I imagined traveling to and spending time at my sanctuary, which is a sacred place that I’ve created in my imagination where I feel completely safe and at ease and where nothing can hurt or harm me. 

Roughly an hour and a half after arriving at the hospital, a voice brought me back to the here and now. The heart specialist told me that he had already completed the procedure successfully, and all is well and good for now. He informed me that he had removed a clot that was blocking one artery in my heart, and had placed a stent to open the artery and support the blood flow. A few minutes later, I was in a room at the coronary care unit and  —after I was able to get my partner on the phone— waited for my family to arrive so that I could hug them and tell them what had happened to me.

An unlucky event with a lucky ending

Later that afternoon, my doctor told me that I was unlucky and lucky at the same time. I was unlucky because according to my health and fitness status, I shouldn’t have suffered a heart attack in the first place. At the same time, I was lucky that I spotted and interpreted the symptoms so early and acted right away.  So, why did I get lucky? 

As an active sportsman, I know my body well. More importantly, however, as a creativity master who’s studied and internalized the creative mindsets of genius for more than one and a half decades, I possess a highly developed intuitive mind. My intuition alerted me that in my body, something’s fundamentally not right, and made me take action right away. 

Living by the mindsets of genius, and practicing the related exercises regularly, helped me to get lucky in another way. It enabled me to stay relaxed, focused, and positive while coming within the Grim Reaper’s grasp.

In short, I believe that my Genius Journey method helped me to avoid more serious damages from my heart attack and to stay alive.

So what?

Why do I share this story with you? One day, we all have an Appointment in Samarra, and probably when we least expect it. I don’t know if I can respond in a similarly cool way the next time around. But one thing I do know from my recent experience: Staying calm and positive, and keeping as much control over one’s thoughts as possible, is the most favorable response to a life-threatening situation. Worrying, lamenting, or even panicking will only worsen an already bad situation. 

Knowing and applying the creative success mindsets of geniuses and creative leaders helped me survive my recent heart attack. And maybe, some of the creative mindsets and exercises that I described above may also help you one day to keep your calm when confronted with a possibly life-threatening situation.

To find out more about our Genius Journey training courses, contact us to tell us more about how we may creatively inspire you and your colleagues. 

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2019