All my life my heart rate has seemed unreliable. Most of the time it ticks along quite appropriately. My resting heart rate is quite low, especially since I started endurance running. Yet every now and then my heart rate spikes.
The earliest I distinctly remember having this happen was when I was 9 or 10. I was in a classroom, not doing very much, fiddling with the blinds, idly overhearing a conversation on the other side of the room (I had no idea at the time how supercharged some of my senses are), when suddenly my heart took off. I remember feeling that this was something with which I was familiar.
At one point I even went and got a full cardiac workup which confirmed that there was nothing physically wrong with my heart.
This happened again yesterday during my run, and I have a new theory as to why.
The route I decided to take yesterday was crowded. Not masses of people crowded. No, but given that we are officially in lockdown there were a lot of people out and about. Sometimes I ran in the road to maintain my distance from people on the pavement. At one point some muppet in a car honked at me. He waited until he was right next to me. Clearly he was just telling me he was mad I was in the road. This was not relaxing.
I kept thinking that the streets would get quieter. They didn’t. In retrospect, and I can feel this in my body now as I recall the experience, I was feeling distinctly on edge. I tried to just keep myself running, but even that was challenging given all of the people I was trying to navigate around.
Then it happened. My heart rate suddenly jumped from 160 beats per minute to over 180. My max heart rate is in the low- to mid-180s. I almost never manage to push it this high even in my toughest workouts.
I stopped running and gave my heart rate a bit of time to come down. It didn’t. Well, a little bit, but nowhere near as much as it normally would have. As soon as I started running, it jumped again. Even running super easy. I ended up walking the last mile or so home. My heart rate remained elevated for close to an hour after I got home.
While I was walking, I did some thinking, and suddenly I had an explanation. Ever since I was diagnosed as being autistic I’ve been more aware of how stressful everyday life is for me. There is so much that I’ve just been pushing myself through my entire life because I thought everyone else was just dealing with it, so I should as well. Except it turns out that everyone else’s sensory system is set to about a 2 or 3, and mine goes up to 11.
Add in the anxiety of COVID-19 and the stress of working around other people’s indifference to the social distancing guidelines, and it isn’t too much of a surprise that my brain could get itself worked up enough to trigger an anxiety attack. Not as intense as a panic attack, but still pretty uncomfortable.
So that’s my new theory, and it seems to fit the facts. One more side effect of living in a world which isn’t designed to accommodate people like me.
Fortunately I already know of lots of quieter places to run, so I’ll just mentally label yesterday’s route as off-limits on my mental map of London. Plus I now have a program of observation to undertake to see whether or not future heart rate spikes correlate with an anxiety trigger. When trying to understand myself, these observations aren’t anecdotal, they are all the data I need to do some science!