Listen to the story:
I have a blue Rubbermaid bin of broken headphones in my basement — from my first Bluetooth earbuds to an old pair of Japanese Audio-Technicas. I keep them as a physical representation of the time I’ve spent searching for a solution.
It’s scary when your heart doesn’t work properly. Like a temperamental house guest, my heart lives in my chest and never lets me forget who calls the shots. I try to stay calm throughout the day. I never touch caffeine. I avoid stressful situations.
My heart dictates where I can go and what I can do. It demands attention, and when I don’t listen, it throws a tantrum.
I suffer from episodes of supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT for short. Due to an extra electrical pathway in my heart, my heart goes into episodes of fast and irregular beating. Severity varies, but during episodes, my heart beats so fast and so hard it feels like it’s going to burst from my chest.
Because my surroundings influence my emotions, these episodes always seem to happen at life’s most inopportune moments. My heart is like an alarm waiting to go off, and when it does, sometimes it doesn’t stop.
I remember sitting in the backseat of a cab. I was 21 and yet to be diagnosed with SVT. I slid my cold, trembling hand into my shirt and held it over my heart. I could feel the rapid pounding of my heart in my palm as I watched the rain streak across the back window.
I pulled out my phone and scrolled through playlist after playlist, looking for the right song to help me stay calm.
I put “Nightvision” by Daft Punk on repeat and let it play through my cheap headphones. The bass in the song mimics the sound of a heartbeat. I wanted to remind my heart what it was supposed to sound like.
“You can just drop me in the parking lot,” I told the driver. “I don’t mind the rain.”
The cab pulled away, leaving me alone in the dark, empty parking lot. The sound of pouring rain on the hood of my vinyl raincoat added to the music in my ears and the violent beating of my heart.
“Please stop.” I thought to myself.
I tried to slow my breathing.
In through the nose, hold.
Out through the mouth, hold.
I stood out in the rain for ten minutes, but it felt longer. My chest muscles tightened, making it harder to breathe, and my heart beat so fast my knees were shaking. Each step toward the red neon glow of the emergency sign was accompanied by the gathering dread of spending another night in the emergency room.
I’d been to the ER half a dozen times before this episode, and it had been the same routine every time. The episode would stop after about 10 minutes, and I’d go in and explain what I was feeling. The emergency staff would listen to my story, take my blood pressure, and do bloodwork to ensure nothing serious was happening. After finding a room, they would monitor me for several hours and send me home.
It was embarrassing.
But this time, the episode wouldn’t stop. This time, the doctors believed me.
I typically suffer an episode every few months, but during stressful periods, they can happen once a week. Without controlling my emotional state and listening to what my body is telling me, the potential for severe episodes becomes greater. I’ve taken different medications and tried various stress management methods, but nothing helped until I started using sound to help control what I was feeling.
Sound and music influence my emotional state. Not only can I control how I feel, but I can also control my experience with the world around me and keep my stress levels in check.
Sometimes I get obsessed with a song. I’ll enter a cycle of listening to it repeatedly for days, sometimes weeks. I get addicted to how it makes me feel. I want to keep feeling that feeling as long as I can, so I play it over and over.
Listening to music has been proven to have beneficial stress-reducing effects, as well as being an economical, non-invasive, and widely accepted tool for stress management. When I feel overwhelmed, the ability to shift my perception of the world around me allows me to escape into a safe and controlled environment.
As I approached the desk in the ER, still dripping from the rain, I abandoned my headphones in my coat pocket.
The nurses rushed me through triage, stripped me from the waist up, and covered my chest with electrodes. The doctor checked my chart before staring at my heart rate monitor as the lines spiked and dipped rapidly.
He asked me if I’d taken any drugs, wondering if this was a drug-induced panic attack. He held my wrist tightly and felt my pulse.
I told him the truth: I hadn’t taken anything.
My heart rate monitor flashed and beeped as my heart pounded to 200 bpm. I stared at the electrodes stuck to my chest and the IV in my arm and tried to stay calm as doctors and nurses rushed around me, preparing syringes and tiny bottles.
The doctor asked if I was okay with some other doctors attending when they stopped my heart. I agreed and laid back as a group of white-coated figures leaned over me.
They looked excited.
It wasn’t exactly comforting.
It was the first time I had ever heard the word. Adenosine is a naturally occurring compound that blocks the electrical signals in your heart that regulate heart rhythms. It also makes you feel like you’re dying — a great sense of impending doom, as medical professionals describe it.
And they are correct.
They told me to relax, injected the clear liquid into my IV, and waited.
The feeling is hard to describe. First, a cold sensation crept up my arm, across my chest, and into my heart. My body relaxed, and the cold feeling moved up the veins of my neck, and a strange metallic taste poured into my mouth. Then, all life left my body.
My heart went from 200 bpm to zero instantaneously. My vision flattened, and the world around me moved far away as I felt my body sink to the floor. All the sounds around me faded, and I felt nothing. My senses failed simultaneously, and my consciousness drifted into a deep, dark void.
Incidences of SVT episodes are rare. A study published through the Ochsner Journal, a peer-reviewed medical journal, found 0.225 per cent of the general population suffers from some form of SVT.
With my cardiovascular condition, I worry that the damage to my heart is leading to other issues. Blood clots, stroke, heart attack, all these issues loom in the back of my mind, and I worry that every episode could lead to something worse.
I think about it all the time.
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I could just get up, go out, and push my body physically without this fear of heart failure chasing me. Every day I try and listen to what my heart needs, but sometimes I can’t hear it.
I remember lying perfectly still on the hospital table. My heart stopped beating, and the emergency room faded away. My life paused, and there was a moment of numbed absence.
I imagine the scene looking similar to Henry Nelson O’Neil’s painting The Last Moments of Raphael, with the doctors and nurses reaching down to comfort me as I white-knuckle the hospital rails.
I felt warm hands touch mine and then my heartbeat.
The look on my face must have been pure terror because the nurses around me squeezed my hands and assured me I was okay. I coughed as my lungs filled with air, and a few rogue tears trickled down my cheeks as sound rushed back into my ears and all my senses returned.
The doctor asked me what it felt like, and I could only utter one word.
After a few minutes of observation, I was unhooked and helped into a recovery room. My body was still numb as I sat on the edge of the bed; I had never felt so vulnerable.
I reached into my coat pocket, removed my phone and headphones, and cradled them tight against my electrode-covered chest as I relaxed into the stiff white sheets of the hospital bed. I put one headphone onto my ear and pressed play. “Nightvision” continued to play, but now my heartbeat mirrored the bass track as I drifted off to sleep with the steady beep of the heart rate monitor in the background.
That moment changed me. The following day, I vowed to treat my body differently. I didn’t want to experience another shot of adenosine ever again. I remember thinking that I wish I could tell my heart that I was fighting for it and not against it.
This episode allowed the doctors to capture my heart’s rhythm on an EKG and give me a diagnosis. I finally had something to research and some understanding of what was happening inside me. I read stories and consulted with doctors about why this was happening to me, an otherwise healthy person in his early twenties, but no one could give me a definitive answer. People can develop SVT episodes at any age. It was up to me to start tracking triggers and patterns in my routine that led to episodes.
I didn’t realize then that my body was telling me to address emotional trauma and stop bottling everything up. In the past, I had refused to let myself break down in the bad times. I kept my chin up and swallowed my pain like I thought all well-adjusted people did. But all that emotion had to go somewhere. It had piled up inside my heart. I needed to start allowing myself to experience my emotions when they arose; in a weird way, music allowed me to do that.
I curate the sound of the world around me every chance I get. If I had it my way, I would control the soundtrack running in the background of every moment of my life. Sound and music are like a loved one telling me it’s okay to feel a certain way.
When I’m feeling frustrated and hopeless, I play “Blood and Thunder” by Mastodon and feel comforted by the aggressively desperate retelling of Captain Ahab hunting Moby Dick across the Indian Ocean.
When I feel sad, I play “Stay with Me” by Clint Mansell, a song written for the movie The Fountain, and it crushes me every time.
My choice of music may not work for everyone, and that’s because our brains react differently to music. Memories associated with music cause different parts of the brain to activate and can be used to trigger an emotional response. There isn’t one location in the brain that specifically responds to music; it’s a diverse network that synchronizes across the hemispheres, activating several parts of the brain, allowing us to feel emotions and relive memories.
Over time I found that using music to keep my emotions under control was the defining factor in minimizing the frequency of SVT episodes. Through research, I found there are songs proven to help reduce stress levels.
Mindlab, an English-based company that researches consumer decision-making, did a study on the relaxation effects of Marconi Union’s song “Weightless.” They found participants experienced a 61 per cent reduction in stress while listening to “Weightless” and concluded that such successful results could only be compared to the comfort of human touch.
I’ve listened to “Weightless” a lot, and it is a tonic for bad times.
At night, I sleep with my earbuds in, listening to ambient music or podcasts while my white-noise machine plays the sounds of rain. When I wake up, I listen to my Breakfast playlist on shuffle. The funky rhythms from Breakbot get me motivated for the day.
Throughout my life, I’ve been naturally accumulating routines based on sound. I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. Listening to music gave me something to escape into. I had a hand-me-down dark green Sony Walkman that was always attached to my waistband. I would play whatever cassettes I could find, constantly looking for a new song or album to binge.
I remember in second grade bringing my beat-up cassette of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and playing “Billie Jean” over and over with a friend. Looking back I realize it was a way to ease social anxiety. It wasn’t until I was almost 30 that I realized the importance of music for my health.
The connection between our hearing and our hearts is hardwired.
Despite our best efforts, the world around us can negatively influence how we feel. We don’t often think of sound as pollution because we can’t see it, but if you stand at the centre of a busy intersection in a downtown city centre, the sound is chaos. Cars speeding past, people yelling, buses and other public transportation starting and stopping. That nonstop harsh, unrelenting sound is overwhelming.
Loud, sudden noises cause your body to release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. This release of cortisol causes your blood pressure to rise, and prolonged exposure to increased cortisol levels in the bloodstream can negatively impact cardiovascular health.
But not all the sound that affects us is pollution. A lot of the sound we experience is quite lovely. Within a controlled environment, sound can be used to quiet your mind and relieve stress. In a pair of headphones, sound can change how your body reacts to environmental influences. According to a study done by researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School about sound in nature, the rolling sounds of ocean waves or the low rumble of a distant thunderstorm can help bodily systems control the resting activity in the brain.
Our bodies are set to music — the beat of our hearts, the pitch of our voices, the vibrations in our movements. Natural rhythm exists inside of us.
My hearing is the gateway to my well-being. I flood my senses with sound to conduct the symphony inside myself and maintain a sense of calm throughout the day.
From moment to moment, I hold the overbearing fear of vulnerability in my chest. My heart erupts into a flurry of backlogged stress and overindulgence, manifesting in these episodes of SVT. The episodes linger for days afterward, leaving tension in my chest, neck, and shoulder muscles as a reminder to listen.
I’ve seen cardiologists for years, and none of them ever showed any serious concern for my well-being. Every time I described my symptoms, they prescribed a new medication or method of managing stress and told me to report back after the frequency of episodes increased.
Nothing ever works for long.
I think there is an initial placebo phase where new things work well, but they work because I really want them to. Eventually, all the new meds and methods fail, reminding me that I could be trying to fix this for the rest of my life.
As far as treatment goes, it’s a journey — a guessing game where my sanity may be the ultimate casualty. SVT is not life-threatening in most cases, but it can damage and age the heart after severe recurring episodes.
Between my first episode when I was 17 and the shot of adenosine just before I turned 23, I ignored the problem and told myself it would disappear. What are the chances this would last forever?
I was afraid to face it.
I was afraid there was nothing I could do, that trying was futile. But part of me was trying — and had been for my whole life. I just needed to listen. Part of me had been trying to unpack this backlog of trauma, and these episodes were the last effort to wake me up.
Living with my condition isn’t easy, but the pursuit of living my life in harmony with what my heart needs is healing. Every episode is influenced by what is happening in my life, and as I get older, I understand a little more about myself each time.
Inside my chest is a tangle of chaotic emotions. I wake up and try to listen to what my body needs. I try to untangle myself with sound and music. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s what works for me.
And when I am feeling good, I don’t blame it on the sunshine, I don’t blame it on the moonlight, and I don’t blame it on the good times. I “Blame It on the Boogie.”
Feature Image illustration by Gabrielle Funk