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On January 13, 2022 at 7:30 am, I underwent cardiac bypass surgery. Dr. Fayyaz Hashmi replaced four arteries, two feeding blood into my heart and two out of it. For a 75-year-old, I was active, with a resting heart rate of 55 beats per second. Yet, a slight pressure in my chest when walking up a hill suggested a problem. Tests in mid-December showed extensive narrowing of major heart arteries.

Before my surgery, I learned the surgeon cuts your breastbone to access your heart. He or she may stop your heart and put you on a heart-lung machine. Then, you undergo a three to six-hour surgery. The surgeon bypasses your clogged arteries with new ones. After surgery, you may feel sad or depressed.

If you felt squeamish when reading that description, imagine what I felt. Will I wake up from surgery? Will I have a stroke? Have I prepared enough for my family if I die? Facing my mortality was difficult.

Resource Building

To cope with this, I developed a strategy to survive a “crisis of the heart” , which I will discuss in this article. I started by creating a mind map of Neuro-Semantics resource-building techniques. It gave me a sense of control. I added techniques to manage my states before, during, and after surgery. It turned out I needed as many resources as I could muster. I sent the mind map to friends, asking, did I miss anything in my mind map?

Healing Principles and Actions

Healing is an inside job. B.J. Palmer

To strengthen my mind-body connection, I applied the Mind-to-Muscle technique in Neuro-Semantics to translate healing principles into personal actions (Hall 2004). The technique begins by first stating the principle. Then, you describe it as a belief, decide to use it, and express your feeling on your decision. The last step is to state your next action.

Principle 1: Handling inner conflict can mitigate or cure illness.

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When we remember disturbing experiences, we may wonder if we deserve to be healthy. For me, these experiences were regrets, and I dealt with them before my surgery. For example, I regretted not attending my father’s second wedding. He had bypass surgery when he was 56 and died at 79 of a heart attack, alone in a store a few years after he wed. With each regret, I accepted I did the best I could, and gave myself permission to forgive myself.

 

Principle 2: We can manage our self-healing power to create optimal health.

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Patricia Dilts discusses such an approach when her son Robert helped her manage her cancer (Dilts et al. 2012). Our attitudes, beliefs and expectations have a powerful influence on how we heal, if we heal, and how fast we heal (Robson 2022). This approach alone is not a panacea for curing illnesses.

Coupling mental imagery with actions can increase its power and support healing. Many years ago, I had surgery on my left hand. Arthritis was threatening the loss of use of my thumb. The surgery worked. But this year, I started feeling a similar pain in my right hand. This time, instead of surgery, I use mental imagery and actions to manage the arthritis and pain. I noticed that stressing my right hand while lifting weights could inflame the pad at the base of my thumb. So, I started using a hand brace when weight-lifting. I use mental imagery to reduce any inflammation. Most of the time, I’m pain free.

Power Zone

Your power zone is the place where you own your powers of thinking, feeling, speaking, and acting. Neuro-Semantics has a technique, “Meta-Stating Ownership of Your Power Zone” that helps access your power zone. Femke Mortimore suggested applying this technique to your self-healing power. I do this by accepting, appreciating, and being in awe of the self-healing powers of my body.

 

Inner Resources

Photo by Pascal Gambardella

 

On December 22, 2021, I was groggy after waking up from anesthesia. Dr. Gregory Kumkumian had completed an angiogram of my heart arteries. He said the arteries were too clogged for stents and I needed bypass surgery. I drew on my inner resources to handle the fear I experienced when hearing this news.

Then Dr. Hashmi walked into the room. In a calm voice, he discussed the bypass surgery and gave me a well-written, 44-page pamphlet explaining open heart surgery. It covered the surgery and what to expect after it. He could not schedule it since there was a COVID moratorium for elective surgery. My job was not to get a heart attack before the surgery.

Being Calm

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows. It empties today of its strength. Corrie Ten Boom

My strategy for dealing with fear is to texture it with calm. I access calm by slowing my breath and thinking of holding a sleeping baby. While feeling calm, I imagine what I fear. “Calm fear” allows me to “step back” from the fear and think on my next steps.

A CALM STORY

Bringing a calm state to bear on your current state helps you perform a reasoned response. If you do this, you can modulate a state like fear with calm. Here is an example. My body tenses and my stomach aches when I am high above the ground looking over an edge. My wife Claire loves to go to the top of large cathedral towers and roam around and peer over the edge. I cling to the walls.

Several years ago, I was driving some colleagues on a narrow mountain road on the lane facing a steep cliff. Thoughts of tires blowing out and cars veering into my lane brought my mind into a tailspin. Breathe, I said to myself. Next, I imagined I was holding a sleeping baby and needed to be calm to not awaken him. Then, I brought calm to bear on my fear and was in a state of calm fear. I could finally drive along that mountain without tightness in my chest. Luckily, my passengers never knew about my inner turmoil. I use this process, called meta-stating, to help manage my states (see “My Odyssey in Reaching for Calm“).

Accepting

Yet, it was an effort to stay calm. So, I reached for Alan Fayter’s book, How to Chill Out: Earthquake Proof Strategies for Staying Calm in Any Crisis. The book covers Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) and Neuro-Semantics techniques for managing stress. If Alan could use it to “stay sane” through two earthquakes, then I could use it for my crisis. Alan suggests being mindful of the current crisis and accepting it. So, I surrendered to and accepted my crisis. I had a life-threatening “plumbing problem” and needed a path to action. That’s when I started mind-mapping resources.

Trusting

While feeling calm, I worked on trust. I had trust in the Johns Hopkins medical group’s reputation and in its doctors. My trust in the surgery itself increased after discussing it with a childhood friend. He had the surgery 19 years ago. This surgery is now routine and more refined. In addition, I had trust in what I learned in managing my well-being during my 40 years’ experience in NLP. Having trust reinforces feeling calm.

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Having a Compelling Future                                                                                                                   

I believed having a “compelling future”, free from the pull of past regrets, would help me survive surgery. While calm, I imagined a distant future where I felt grateful to the people who helped me regain my health. I experienced that future as if seeing it from my own eyes instead of looking at myself experiencing it. I could see myself playing with grandchildren and traveling with my wife.

From that future, I looked back to my healthy self at six-months after I survived cardiac surgery. I was sitting with my wife Claire, joking, talking about everything and nothing. We were relaxing after a day hiking in the mountains.

I practiced these “future” techniques until my surgery date approached.

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Expecting Success

In The Expectation Effect, David Robson discussed a study with bypass heart patients. The research team divided the patients into three groups. I will call them A, B and C (Rief et al. 2017),

 

Therapists asked patients in Group A to develop:

  • Realistic expectations on the benefits of the surgery.
  • A personal vision of their future after surgery, including a detailed six month personal recovery plan.
  • Ways to manage unpleasant symptoms after surgery.

Therapists asked patients in Group B to discuss their emotions and anxieties. Group C received only standard medical care instructions. After six months, Group A had the best overall outcome, followed by Group B.

I learned of this research after my surgery. Yet, my pre-surgery preparation included most Group A and Group B interventions. This shows how Neuro-Semantics can support surgery patients. Having followed my approach, I conclude it has had a profound effect on my health outcomes.

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Next Steps

This article discussed how I prepared for surgery. It’s been four months since my surgery. During this time, my resting heart rate jumped to 78 beats per minute after surgery and is now down to 56. Each week, I do two hours of cardiac rehab sessions, two hours of weight/resistance training, an hour of karate, and occasional hour-long walks.

My next article will start with waking up in an intensive care room after surgery. It will cover a social panorama technique and a resilience frame. I created the former to access social resources while I was alone and immobile in a hospital bed. And I used the latter to manage several setbacks.

AUTHORS NOTES: August 20, 2022:

(1) Click the link to read the second article in this series, Recovering from a Crisis of the Heart.

(2) After reading this article, some may have had the impression that I had a heart attack. I did not. A pressure in my chest when walking uphill sent me to the doctor. I had three extensively clogged heart arteries and would have had a heart attack if I had not had surgery.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to my wife Claire, my family, and others whose support and prayers carried me through this crisis. Thanks to Femke Mortimore, Wayne Buckhanan, and Sandra Viljoen for their mind map feedback; Shelia Weingard, who helped me stay active and fit during the last eight years; Dr. Jose Quirós, my primary care physician, for diagnosing the problem; the doctors, nursing staff, and cardiac physical therapists at the Johns Hopkins Suburban Hospital for treating and helping me manage it. As always, I appreciate Claire’s editorial feedback.

I took a year-long coaching course exploring “NLP and health” facilitated by Femke Mortimore. That is where I worked on healing principles and gained many insights. It helped me refine my health strategy.

References and Further Reading

Dilts, Robert. Tim Hallbom and Suzi Smith. 2012. Beliefs – Pathways to Health and Well-Being, Second Edition. Portland: Metamorphous Press

Fayter, Alan. 2014. How to Chill Out – Earthquake Proof Strategies for Staying Calm in Any Crisis.

Gambardella, Pascal. 2021. “Mind-to-Muscle Mindmap.”

Hall, L. Michael. 2004. Sourcebook of Magic, Volume 2, Neuro-Semantic Publications. “Meta-Stating Ownership of Your Powers” page 90; “Mind-to-Muscle: Closing the Knowing-Doing Gap” page 99.

Rief, W., Shedden-Mora, M. C., Laferton, J. A., Auer, C., Petrie, K. J., Salzmann, S., Schedlowski, M., & Moosdorf, R. 2017. Preoperative optimization of patient expectations improves long-term outcome in heart surgery patients: results of the randomized controlled PSY-HEART trial

Robson, David. 2022. How Your Mindset Can Change Your World. New York: Henry Holt and Company. Chapter 2. A Pious Fraud. How beliefs can transform recovery from illness.

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