Vaguely Vasovagal: Adventures in Fainting

Just a case of the vapors.

It’s happened to me in Boston, in Amsterdam, in New York’s Chinatown. And every time, I’m terrified that I’m about to leave the conscious world forever.

That sounds dramatic, and the truth is it feels dramatic when it occurs. But taking a step back, I’m a healthy woman in her mid-20s who just happens to have an extremely sensitive vagus nerve. In other words, I faint a lot!

Fainting is weird. It freaks out the people around you, and for the person experiencing it the loss of control is horrifying. The first time I fainted I was about 14 years old, and it’s been ramping up in frequency ever since. And while it’s sometimes related to distinctly external factors such as acute pain, dehydration or standing for long periods of time, on other occasions the symptoms are seemingly the result of psyching myself out. I start worrying that I’m going to faint… and then I do.

Fainting is also kind of hilarious. Aside from the fact that it conjures up images of Victorian-era smelling salts in my mind, it’s led to a few interesting, if almost involuntary, trips to the ER. Bystanders haven’t known what to make of me passing me out, and they’ve come up with explanations far more colorful than the truth. Even though I will always panic for a moment, recognizing the symptoms and the pattern has made me a bit calmer in handling each episode, so I can firmly decline the ambulance ride next time I have a fainting spell. At least I hope so — those hospital bills are no joke.

Researchers have found a strong genetic link when it comes to fainting, and you could say my predisposition for syncopal episodes is one way in which I’m becoming my mother. I have childhood memories of her fainting in a Target, fainting after breaking her foot in Hawaii and even fainting at home and ending up with a serious black eye. The fainting gene apparently manifests itself in one out of four people, so we were just dealt some unfortunate cards. Hey, at least we’re both able to laugh about it — someday soon we’ll have enough episodes between us to create a round-the-world fainting tour.

For me at least, there’s been a silver lining to being fainting-prone, and that’s learning to stand up for myself more. I now know that when the symptoms strike, I need to toss all vanity aside and do whatever I can to stop them in their tracks. That usually means lying down and elevating my feet wherever I happen to be at the time (usually in some very public place where all the surfaces are concrete). And while I don’t like causing disruptions, I’d say maintaining consciousness is worth the awkwardness of desperately asking for a glass of sugar-heavy soda.

Note: Though fainting spells are often benign (if unpleasant), they could also be related to more serious issues — such as heart or nervous system conditions. If you start fainting out of the blue, you should definitely seek treatment to be on the safe side!

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