The upside of quiet downtimes
Shortly after my operation some 20 years ago, I learned that 30 to 40 percent of heart patients suffer some form of anxiety after bypass surgery. In 1997 I became one of those statistics.
With no forewarning, I would inexplicably become anxious. The doctors had told me I was medically sound. That perhaps I should see a psychologist. This surprised me for I had always felt I was Tefloncoated, especially against any mental shortcoming. I was wrong. There are instances we’re less selfaware than we believe ourselves to be.
My sudden feeling of being overwhelmed continued. And so false-alarm dashes from my home to the Norwalk Hospital emergency room became the norm. So many trips that I began boasting I knew my whereabouts at each turn in the road by spotting familiar treetops through the windows of the ambulances.
On one hospital visit the on-duty physician diagnosed my distress as “dietary indiscretion.” Who could have blamed me for overindulging during threeplus hours of enduring another Sunday of the New York Jets’ fake version of football?
As much as I disliked the idea of speaking with a psychologist, I gave in. I ended up in a therapy group with eight or nine other individuals. But it seemed their issues were different from mine. Because of my background in human resources, I could not hold back from offering advice. I even had a gentleman from our group phone me at home asking for my guidance about his personal issue.
Finally, the psychologist’s aide politely suggested I look for another venue. Still, I was grateful for the doctor’s advice. He had me create a positive mental image I was to conjure up anytime I began feeling out of sorts.
That imagery was to be my fallback mode, my “quiet downtime” as the psychologist called it. He added, “Think of something that’s important to you.” So, I would close my eyes and imagine wrapping my arms around my wife and two daughters anytime I felt an odd feeling coming on.
To further help quiet me down he also recommended that I listen to stress reduction recordings. I bought many. Some relaxation audio cassettes suggested that I will my body into complete rest and think of nothing. Other recordings called for my concentrating on one thought and nothing else.
It all melded into peaceful and productive downtimes. But as time went by I stopped listening to the recordings. Moreover, I no longer took those quiet downtime breaks once so helpful. But I have shared with heart patients and colleagues what had worked for me in overcoming my moments of anxiety.
In 2017 I saved a column from the New York Times about The Shultz Quiet hour. That column added an important perspective to my medical challenges and my past quiet downtimes. Recently I found my favorite relaxation audio cassette. A Weston school teacher had compiled it for me. It reminded me of the Shultz Quiet Hour column, which I reread.
The column is not about heart patients overcoming anxiety. It’s about George Shultz, a former US Secretary of State, while in office taking 60 minutes off each week, to think and reflect. He felt it made him more productive. He would not allow any interruptions from his staff during that quiet hour. Unless it was a call from his wife or the President.
As I recall after my quadruple bypass, time-out exercises became a daily routine. They seemed similar to George Shultz’s weekly quiet hour retreats. I began wondering what others did to ease the strain of their daily lives. As expected, the internet was filled with options.
For being more productive there were many. They ranged from unburdening oneself of distractions by going into temporary seclusion as George Shultz did, to banning smart phones for fear of peeking at them if they were in eyesight.
And still others were about learning to cope better with everyday life by carving out moments for pure thinking. The possibilities were endless.
In retrospect, I must thank David Leonhardt, the New York Times writer, for that column titled “You’re too busy. You need a Shultz hour.” That column has proven to be an important reminder for me. Without it this article would never have been written.
Mark Twain said it best. “We cannot remember everything. We’re not that smart. We have to be reminded.”
I have resumed my “quiet downtimes.”