Gloria* was haunted. Every morning as she ate her breakfast and every evening as she put away the dishes, a dark presence seemed to loom in the house – watching her, taunting her. To you or me, perhaps, it couldn’t have been more unremarkable – but for Gloria, it may as well have been a monster:
Her blood pressure monitor, zipped away in its carrying case at the end of the kitchen table.
After living for years with high blood pressure, Gloria had gotten a referral to myNurse from her doctor, who thought our remote health monitoring and coaching program would give her a leg up as she tried to manage her health.
She lived alone, and along with high blood pressure and Parkinson’s Disease, Gloria struggled with serious anxiety and depression. As you can imagine, this was a lot to bear, much less on her own.
So at first, Gloria loved the program.
No one really called anymore, so she looked forward to her weekly check-ins with Sharla, her myNurse Wellness Coach. They’d go over her blood pressure readings from the previous week, talk through some of the stumbling blocks she’d faced with her diet, and sometimes just chat about her day, how she was feeling. They even found a personal connection – Sharla’s mother was also facing Parkinson’s, so she’d seen first-hand how challenging things could be for someone living with that disease.
It felt good to have someone to talk to, to have someone watching over her health. Even Sharla’s corny jokes could grow on you.
That is until Gloria’s blood pressure readings started to jump out of range.
It happened slowly – just a high reading here or there – then all at once. She’d measure and get a reading of 156/86 one day and 134/78 the next – then just when she thought they’d calmed down, her numbers would shoot back up again.
This did nothing to help her anxiety. Indeed, the higher her readings got, the more anxious she felt – not only about her health, but also about taking the next reading.
It seemed that whenever she’d muster the courage to wrap the cuff around her arm, her worst fears would come true. Thinking about taking her blood pressure sent a wave of stress and worry through her body. Even the thought of touching the monitor made her tense.
So it went, a near-daily spiral of anxiety and defeat, every “bad” reading evidence of her disastrous health, a guarantee that it would be even worse the next time, a little message sent straight to Sharla: “Here I am – failing, again.”
Gloria’s blood pressure measurements became more and more rare. She told Sharla she’d forgotten, that she’d gotten busy and would soon get back on track. But soon she stopped checking her blood pressure altogether. Soon, she stopped answering Sharla’s calls.
But despite her efforts to push it out of her mind, the blood pressure monitor always sat there at the end of the table, menacing.
After a few days of calling with no luck, Sharla reached out with a text message, checking in to see how Gloria had been.
Gloria debated writing back. She didn’t want to talk about her blood pressure, about how she’d failed and, even worse, given up. Eventually, though, she gave in. She knew she should be measuring her blood pressure more often, she said, but she couldn’t seem to overcome the anxiety. She felt paralyzed – trapped by the fear.
Sharla told her that made sense, that she would probably feel the same way if she was in Gloria’s shoes. With a bit of gentle prodding, Sharla convinced Gloria to tell her more on their next call.
“You know, there’s something I used to do with patients at the office to help them relax and feel a little more comfortable before I took their blood pressure,” Sharla said when they spoke. “It’s a deep breathing exercise. Have you ever done one?”
Gloria hadn’t, but was willing to try. That’s was good enough for Sharla.
So Gloria tapped on the speakerphone, unzipped her blood pressure monitor, and listened. Sharla asked her to sit comfortably, with her feet flat on the floor and her arm supported by the table, following best practices for getting an accurate blood pressure measurement. She had Gloria set the monitor on the table before her and wrap the cuff around her arm.
“Now, close your eyes,” Sharla said.
She walked Gloria through a simple breathing exercise she could try before she took her blood pressure, or anytime she felt overwhelmed and anxious. All she needed to do was find a quiet, comfortable spot, sit still, close her eyes and relax, taking in a few slow, deep breaths. She could pay attention to her breath as it moved naturally, effortlessly, in and out of her lungs. If it helped, she could try to imagine herself at peace in a nice, safe place.
She told Gloria to hold her finger over the blood pressure monitor’s Start button and tell her when she felt ready. They sat there a long time, waiting.
“Okay,” Gloria said after a while. “I think I’m ready.”
“Remember, it’s just one reading,” Sharla said. She gave Gloria a few seconds. “Now,” she said. “Push Start.”
So she did. Sharla heard the soft buzz of the cuff inflating, the scratch of velcro as the cuff tightened against her arm. Then the beep and hiss as the measurement ended.
“How’d it go?” Sharla said.
Gloria said she felt calm, relaxed – and her readings showed it. Her blood pressure had dropped to much-healthier 129/82. She felt much better about those numbers.
Sharla explained that Gloria’s anxiety could play a role in her high readings. Indeed, some people experienced “white coat syndrome“, where their blood pressure shot up at the doctor’s office due to nerves. Gloria’s anxiety could be producing a similar effect at home; the more she worried about what her numbers would look like, the more likely it was they’d be elevated.
That said, even if Gloria’s high numbers had nothing to do with her anxiety, even if they were just due to a high-sodium meal or part of the ups and downs of living with high blood pressure – it was just one reading, just one snapshot in time. Better that Gloria acknowledged it and and then focused on doing what she could to improve her blood pressure long term.
Gloria let Sharla know how much she appreciated her calls and asked her to keep calling. She promised to pick up next time.
“I can do that,” Sharla said.
Since Sharla taught her this simple exercise, Gloria has been feeling much better about taking her blood pressure. Her high blood pressure, anxiety and other health challenges won’t disappear overnight. But with some practice, she’s learning that at least by paying attention to her health, she can take one small step in the right direction each day.
All she needs to do is take her time, take a breath and, when she’s ready, push start.
* Member stories are inspired by real interactions between our members and Wellness Coaches, but member names and some other details have been changed to protect privacy