Stress Can Kill

Dr. Rangan Chatterjee authored a new book, “The Stress Solution” offering advice on countering the damaging effects of chronic stress. In it he details patients who, despite following intense diet and exercise programs, struggle with serious health issues like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Dr. Chatterjee counseled one 53-year-old businessman patient to focus on the root cause of his problem: chronic stress. The patient was putting in long hours and skipping sleep. Dr. Chattterjee told him that constant stress can wreak havoc on blood sugar levels, urged him to practice meditation and yoga, and to shut off his screens 90 minutes before bed each night. Six months later, the businessman’s blood sugar levels improved almost to normal.

I could have been a poster boy for Dr. Chatterjee. Regular readers of this column know that I recently had to undergo open heart triple bypass surgery despite my healthy diet and passion for exercise. My doctors told me that stress and genetics played a huge role in my condition.

A typical day for me began at 6:00am and often stretched to 11:00pm. Even when I ate dinner with my family, I’d retire to my home study to log into my work system to finish projects, answer emails and delegate work to my team.

I enjoy my work, and everyone’s career has some element of stress. What I didn’t realize is that I was pushing my body beyond its limits. I’m back at the office now, having made internal changes to better deal with day to day life.

“A lot of people are oblivious to the effects of stress,” Dr. Chatterjee said in one of his Feel Better, Live More podcasts which tops the iTunes rankings.

When one of my law school classmates, Mark Stein, now a Miami intellectual property attorney, learned of my surgery, he called with well-wishes. During our conversation he asked if I meditated. I told him this was something that I had planned to do but never got around to.

The next day I received a package from Amazon with a book entitled Practicing Mindfulness – 75 Essential Meditations to Reduce Stress, Improve Health, and Find Peace in Everyday by Matthew Sockolov. Mark later explained to me this is an excellent book for beginners, as he’s used the techniques for more than 25 years.

I’ve seen clients who suffer from stress, even retired ones. One of my retired law partners, John Sheppard, once told me, “I’m busier and more stressed in retirement than I ever was in my law practice!”

One of the things that stresses out clients is not having a plan in place in case they get sick or die. Thinking about one’s own mortality can be stressful by itself, so people put it off. Rather than relieving anxiety, it appears that hiding from it only makes it worse.

Other clients appear to believe that once they’ve signed their estate planning documents, they’ve somehow set in motion a sequence leading to their own demise! I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve sent drafts out to clients, but they hesitate for months or even years before reviewing those documents with me and actually signing them to put them into effect.

Given Dr. Chatterjee’s findings, it isn’t a wild assumption to believe that the buildup of stress in not planning for the inevitable would somehow make the inevitable more imminent, rather than the other way around.  Our clients almost always feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and calm after signing their documents, as they know they now have peace of mind over their affairs.

In any event, you have a sympathetic ear when discussing these issues with me now. While I don’t wish open heart surgery on anyone, the experience has broadened my understanding of what many of my clients have been through, and opened my eyes to the fears and stresses associated with taking care of your loved ones, planning for a future that you may not be a part of.

Hopefully, of course, all of us live a long and healthy life. My doctors have assured me that I’m expected to live a normal life, and that my new pathways to my heart will likely improve my vitality for many years going forward.

If you’re under a lot of stress, check out the books and other resources I suggest here. Others can’t remove the stress from your life, but you can certainly take steps to become more resilient and take action to increase the pleasure in your life going forward.

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

Your Family’s Story

Howard Gardner, professor of education and psychology at Harvard University, writes many books on leadership and creativity. One book, Leading Minds, demonstrates how a leader can develop a mindset to pass on values to loved ones.

Gardner argues that what makes a leader is the ability to tell a kind of story — one that explains ourselves to ourselves and gives power and resonance to a collective vision. Churchill told the story of Britain’s indomitable courage in the fight for freedom. Kennedy inspired America’s innovative culture in its quest to send a man to the moon. Gandhi spoke about Indian dignity and non-violent protest. And Martin Luther King Jr. told of how a great nation is racially equal.

Stories give a group a shared identity and sense of purpose.

Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre also emphasized the importance of narrative to the moral life. “Man,” he writes, “is, in his actions and practice as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal.” It is through narratives that we learn who we are and how we are called to behave. Take the Bible, for instance.

In Deuteronomy, Moses, when instructing the Israelites of their duties and responsibilities before entering the Promised Land, warns the people no less than fourteen times not to forget. If they forget the past, they will lose their identity and sense of direction and disaster will follow. Not only are the people commanded to remember, but they are also commanded to hand that memory on to their children.

You may find it interesting to note that there is no biblical Hebrew word for history. The closest equivalent is divrei hayamim, “chronicles”. Deuteronomy uses the root zachor, meaning memory.

History refers to others who acted before us. Memory invokes our own involvement in the story. Biblical Hebrew, therefore, asserts that believers collectively participated in the story. Jewish families who read the Passover Haggadah are familiar with this concept through one of the passages. In the passage, a wicked son does not consider himself part of the story and is admonished accordingly. “God brought us forth from Egypt,” he is told.

The greatest of leaders therefore create a collective memory so that the entire group feels like a part of the historical narrative. You can still see the power of this biblical idea today. If you visit the Washington DC Presidential memorials, you will see that each one carries an inscription taken from their words: Jefferson’s “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Lincoln’s Gettysburg address “With malice toward none; with charity for all…” Each memorial tells a story.

In contrast, many London monuments have no narrative, no inscription, simply a name — like Churchill. England does not have the same kind of sweeping national narrative because it is largely based not on a covenant but on hierarchy and tradition.

So how do we apply these lessons to your family and loved ones? What made you into the you you are now? What are your family’s covenants, the principals and attributes that you believe most important? How can we fashion a system to pass these values down to future generations?

So many of my clients, when discussing their estate plans, voice a common concern: “I don’t want my wealth to somehow weaken my children’s drive and ambition.”

This concern has merit. The old saying, “shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in three generations” is found in many different cultures. In Japan, the expression goes, “rice paddies to rice paddies in three generations.” The Scottish say, “The father buys, the son builds, the grandchild sells, and his son begs.”

Family wealth can only survive through a family narrative, passed down from generation to generation. Each generation needs to feel like a part of the original narrative and have an obligation to continue its journey. I believe that we can amend our estate plans to tell our stories and build our narrative for all our loved ones.

Here, I intentionally broaden the definition of wealth. One need not be monetarily wealthy to have those things most important in life, including dignity, respect, honesty, friendship and loyalty.

Why not include, on the opening pages of a will or trust then, how your family’s wealth was acquired? Describe the trials and tribulations it took to accumulate and distribute this inheritance, and what you hope subsequent generations will not only understand but build upon. Enunciate your family’s core covenants. Build your legacy.

It’s always best to discuss these important topics with your loved ones during life. Memorializing your family legacy, however, can certainly be accomplished in your estate planning documents. I’m working on a way to systemize this process in the coming months as part of our unique process, The Family Estate & Legacy Program®.

In the meantime, my suggestion for those of you who this speaks to, is to take the time to write down your thoughts. You probably recall important lessons that your parents and grandparents taught you, probably using a story. Don’t let those valuable insights die with you!

A true leader tells the family story to pass on a shared sense of value and purpose. The families that prosper tend to be the ones that, from generation to generation, become part of a shared narrative. How are you going to create that narrative for your family?

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.

How to Show Support

I’m back at work after undergoing a surprise triple bypass open heart surgery at the beginning of September, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in this column. When you suffer from a serious illness or undergo a life-changing, intimidating surgery as I have, you learn how scary and life changing going through such a procedure can be.

You also learn a lot about your friends and relatives. Who you can count on and who you can’t. For me, some of the answers were surprising.

Unless you’ve had or someone close to you has had a similar experience, it’s difficult to understand the emotional journey the patient must travel. You otherwise have no frame of reference.

Top that off with busy lives, and a general uncomfortableness with what to do or say while in the presence of (or far away from) someone going through a difficult time, and you have a recipe for crushed expectations and hurt feelings.

So what should you do when a friend or family member falls ill? In my tradition, visiting the sick (bikur cholim) is known as a mitzvah, a good deed. What should you say? How should you act? Here are a few guidelines to go by:

  • There is no limit to the amount of times that one can fulfill this good deed or to the level of its fulfillment, provided that one does not become too bothersome for the sick person. Most of the time, a short visit is preferable.
  • If there are two sick patients, one who has many visitors and the other a few or none, one should preferably visit the latter person.
  • Not all patients are in a position to receive visitors. Under such circumstances, one should inquire of the relatives whether it is okay to visit; and even then, try to keep the visit short. It is also necessary to have a sixth sense and realize when one is overstaying. In a situation where a patient is not ready for visitors, visiting can still be accomplished by staying in the foyer or hallway and helping out family members.
  • Although most aspects of visiting the sick can be fulfilled only with a personal visit, if one is not able to do a personal visit, he can fulfill the good deed with a phone call.
  • Enter the room of the sick person in a positive mood. Do not display any moods of sadness or melancholy, as this could affect the welfare of the patient.
  • Rather than ask if there’s generally anything you can do, or say “let me know if there’s something I can do for you,” offer to do something specific. “May I bring you a lunch tomorrow? How about I pick up your children from school next week.”

Thankfully, I was overwhelmed with the love and support from my many friends who visited me in the hospital both before and after the surgery. I had such a constant stream of visitors that my wife and my nurses politely asked some to give me time to rest.

Those from my workplace showered me with concern and attention as well. I’ve always been proud of the family atmosphere within my firm, and that was clearly evident from the time that I entered the hospital. When my doctors instructed that I was not to work for a period of thirty days following the surgery to avoid stress, my team cut off my access to the firm’s emails and server, kept files moving, and answered clients’ questions in my absence.

I was both surprised and touched by the many clients who sent emails and cards. Most didn’t know of the surgery, but those that discovered my situation couldn’t have been more loving and supportive. The same could be said of my professional colleagues, from fellow attorneys to CPAs, trust officers, financial planners, and others.

My sister and my brother-in-law drove across Alligator Alley twice to provide comfort and just be there for me – which, frankly, is what I needed most.

Of course, my wife was a bedrock through the entire ordeal. The chief caregiver usually goes through more than the patient himself. Patti slept in my hospital room with me, except for the night I was in ICU, when she tried to sleep in the brightly lit waiting room. I begged her to go home, but she wouldn’t.

Our three daughters were all there for me too. They were terrified but did their best to hide their fears, giving me lots of hugs and kisses. They also cooked dinners at home and brought them to the hospital for me and Patti.

I received so many flower bouquets, Harry & David fruit packages, and edible arrangements that I didn’t know where to put everything. The gifts and baskets were extremely thoughtful and much appreciated. They also lead me to an important point.

What a hospital patient needs the most is your time and your attention. For me at least, it was uplifting to be with others who cared.

Depression is also a common byproduct of my particular surgery, and I was no exception. My condition and the need for surgery came as a total shock to me. Those who know me well knew that just before I had completed my normal weekly exercise regimen that includes 100 miles on my bicycle, twice weekly triathlon swim sessions of 3000 yards, and thrice weekly circuit training sessions my trainer puts my wife and I through.

I thought I was the poster boy for middle-age physical health! Upon discovering my advanced heart disease while groggily awakening from my heart catheterization, I had a rather difficult time wrapping my mind around the fact that I would soon undergo a triple bypass surgery at age 55.

It meant a great deal to be able to talk through my concerns and feelings with anyone who would listen.

You don’t have to offer advice, although I received many great suggestions.  One of my law school classmates called and patiently listened to my concerns about anxiety and depression.  The next day an Amazon package arrived at my door, including a meditation book for beginners! It’s something I thought about taking up, and now I have his go-to resource.

The great news is that modern medicine is wonderful, I’m on the road to complete recovery. My surgeon, Dr. Randall Buss, and cardiologist, Dr. Ken Towe, tell me not only should I return to the activities I enjoyed prior to the discovery of my illness, with increased blood-flow, my performance should improve!

It’s inevitable that all of us will have a loved one experience a significant medical issue. My best advice is to be there, in the present, (whether in person or on the telephone) for your friend or family member. It is the greatest gift you can give.

© 2019 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.