Your Heart Deserves More

My father is a loud man.

A Pakistani immigrant born in the 50’s; he’s an old school kind of man. The one who will fight because he won’t soften his opinions for anybody. He was larger than life. When I was young I’d squeal with laughter as he stormed up the stairs at lightning speed, as he always did. But this time he tripped and tumbled. ‘I’m fine,’ he grumbled, continuing to stamp up the stairs. He was like Road Runner, always in a hurry.

Family car trips were funny. My dad would swerve around corners like a maniac, reversing with both hands sliding around the wheel like we were being chased by the police. ‘I feel sick!’ my sister would yelp. I’d be grinning away with excitement, head recklessly half-hanging out of the window. As a child I felt like he lived life at 100mph, 24/7. 

He always made it clear that if anyone crossed me, he’d kill them. I didn’t doubt it at all. He may have been larger than life, but he is also one of the softest, sentimental people that I know. My mother, as beautiful and witty and wonderful as she is, is cold of sorts; we don’t share the same affection and it’s safe to say we never will. My dad, on the other hand, has cried for me. He’s shouted for me when I didn’t have the strength to shout for myself. He taught me the meaning of unconditional love, something I was curious about, but nobody in my family could offer, through no fault of their own - they just didn’t know how. My parents divorced when I was fairly young but when things got bad, really bad, whether it was at school or at home I’d go and sob to him, and would spend the rest of the day feeling 10 pounds lighter.

So, I suppose it was a shock when he had a heart attack and was admitted to hospital for a triple bypass.

I didn’t know what a triple bypass was. I didn’t know what a bypass was. It was a shock when he couldn’t drive a car, hoover his own flat, or barely cook his own food. When you feel like your parents are superheroes and they’re suddenly vulnerable, it’s a shock. It’s selfish, but there’s a moment of panic as you realise you are the strong one now. Who has your back? You have to toughen up. That’s something I struggled with.   

He powered through, asking for no sympathy, no pity, just continuing on with an eagerness to live his best life, a mentality that seemed to get more enthusiastic with time. A while later, he had another bypass, he had some stents, and the doctors tried to muddle through with solutions the best they could with what appeared to be a super complex condition.

This year, his birthday will see him fall closer to 70 years old, and I can't believe it. After he came round from his second bypass even the doctor said, somewhat surprised, ‘you’re resilient, Mr Khan.’ We shouldn’t have been, really. My dad’s father was a prisoner of war for over a year during the Pakistan/India partition. He ensured he got his family across to the newly founded Pakistan in a convoy, as he was a man in the navy. My father was a teenager when the fight to form Bangladesh began. He’d casually describe hanging out in trenches and riding around on motorbikes as bombs flew in the distance. Life was different for him. He lived life fast, seemingly taking it all in his stride. But years of living fast will leave you with a price to pay, and his price was probably his heart health. Which begs the question - do we think about our heart health enough?

Whether it’s emotional stress from relationship trauma, or rushing to work everyday, or coming home late and exhausted every night, it’s time we think not only what it’s doing to our mental health, but to our physical being.

Stress is a proven cause of heart disease.

Stress causes your body to produce cortisol, the stress hormone. Stress changes the way the blood clots, which can increase your risk of heart attack. So how can we stop stress taking over our day to day lives? There are various quick fixes. One is obviously diet, which is particularly important for us South Asians - but what else can we do when life becomes too much? There are things that you can do that take mere seconds.

When you’re feeling stressed, the power of taking 10 deep, slow breaths is extremely underrated. The power of meditation and yoga is necessary: it’s a lifesaver, and some people will only realise it when they suddenly crash and burn. If your mind is a battlefield, breathing is your sword.

There’s another thing you can do to balance out your cortisol levels - power posing. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy said “there are a lot of differences between powerful and powerless people. Physiologically, there also are differences on two key hormones: testosterone, which is the dominance hormone, and cortisol, which is the stress hormone.”

Power posing can decrease your cortisol levels and increase your testosterone, leaving you less anxious and more confident. I tried it, and it works.

So, next time your to-do list is off the chart, you’re broke, or your other half, your mum or your boss is driving you mad, please remember to take a minute to take a breath and take some time to be kind to yourself. You deserve it, and believe me, your heart will thank you for it.

I am currently fundraising for the British Heart Foundation this month, by taking part in their #DeChox challenge - that’s right, no chocolate for a month! If you’d like to donate to help the British Heart Foundation carry out lifesaving research, please click here.