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Kyle Eller: There's no high like blood pressure

I am under strict orders to excise the word "serious" from my vocabulary -- seriously. Well, at least that's one of the suggestions in Richard Carlson's "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff for Men," a book I picked up in my quest to reduce stress.

I am under strict orders to excise the word "serious" from my vocabulary -- seriously. Well, at least that's one of the suggestions in Richard Carlson's "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff for Men," a book I picked up in my quest to reduce stress.
Reducing stress can be stressful work. Other suggestions from Carlson -- have an affair (with life), see stress as unsexy, and -- egad! -- take your wife's advice, all in addition to the usual stuff about taking time for yourself and living mindfully.
Normally, my reading life is taken up with more meaty fare (Let's see how many synonyms I can come up with for "serious"?), but I have a problem -- high blood pressure.
I found out this summer. During repeat visits for what turned out to be an unrelated problem, my doctor and I started to notice a pattern of moderately high numbers that we'd passed off as "white-coat syndrome" at my last checkup.
Just so you know, I'm a 30-year-old guy, a vegan, moderately active. I'm not the prime candidate for high blood pressure.
My reaction to this medical problem has evolved. At first, ignorant, I blew it off.
Then, after listening to my wife's advice, to my mother's opinions from her nursing background, to my doctor and to my brother-in-law who is also a doctor, I was petrified. High blood pressure, I learned, causes organ damage and can dramatically shorten a person's life -- that's, um, important.
And that's when I got mad.
Granted, I spent 10 years of my life eating little but junk food and fast food, exercising when I felt like it. I smoked for several of them, too. And granted, I have always been what most people would call intense.
But I have changed. I quit smoking six years ago, and that started my activity level gradually improving. My eating habits started to improve about four years ago, and my decision to go vegan -- eschewing meat, dairy products, eggs and anything else that comes from a critter -- came more than two years ago.
Over the first year of being vegan, I dropped about 35 pounds, although since I've sort of plateaued 15 to 20 pounds short of my goal.
I've even mellowed out personally, taking up semi-regular meditation and taking things less ser... -- I mean personally.
Being plagued with high blood pressure seemed an unfair reward.
Fortunately, I recognized the need to move on. I researched the heck out of the problem and came up with a plan of action to address it, from music therapy to Lotensin.
Which brings me to not sweating small stuff.
Journalism is a stressful career, especially in today's climate of "do more with less." Deadlines hit constantly, and they, together with the constant demands of accuracy and fairness and competition, can pretty well hijack your brain at any moment of any day. A recent poll showed the only person less popular than your average journalist is Osama bin Laden.
I'm not complaining, mind you. Journalism can also be a lot of fun, and Budgeteer readers have been very good to me over the years. Other people have as much or more stress.
But I have worked hard to change my reactions, to put things in perspective, to let work go when I'm home, to find outlets for stress. And I try to remember to enjoy the good stuff.
But I'm keeping stress management in perspective, too. It's important, but getting massages and seeking nirvana on the beach are the pleasant parts of a larger plan.
If one is committed to addressing high blood pressure or any health problem with a significant lifestyle component, one must be willing to look at the "stupid me" problems as well as the "poor me" ones.
In my case, a little self-evaluation proved that my diet still needed to get better -- less dessert, less sodium, fewer convenience foods and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. And even more prominently, I needed to get, er, vigilant about exercise and fitness.
So I am taking these steps in addition to reducing my stress, and right now, with a small dose of medication, my blood pressure is under control. My doctor and I strongly agree that the primary goal, and sooner rather than later, is controlling it without medication, something probably approachable if I finish off the weighty business of those last 15 pounds.
I'm sharing this experience for a couple of reasons. The first is that high blood pressure is a hidden killer. Lots of people just as unlikely as me are walking around with high blood pressure, potentially damaging their interior organs, without even knowing it. Please watch yourself.
The second reason is that lifestyle counts. It's probably unholidayrific to say it, but we need to pay attention to what we're stuffing in our faces and how long we're parked in front of the tube. High blood pressure along with heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other problems are things we often give to ourselves by neglect or our desire to "live a little," which can become far more literal than we'd like.
That's not to say you should flog yourself if you stuffed yourself over Thanksgiving and spent the whole day watching football. In fact, don't. This moment is the important one, so commit to treating yourself right. When you wake up tomorrow, make the same commitment.
I'm breaking the rules to tell you this, but I'll say it anyway -- it's serious business. Life is short enough. We don't have to make it shorter.
Kyle Eller is news editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at kyle.eller@duluth.com .

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