How To Stay Calm When Stress Strikes
I was scheduled to speak in Munster, Indiana at 7pm in front of 300 cancer patients, their support people, and their health care providers. Mapquest said it would only take 48 minutes to drive from the North Shore of Chicago, but knowing Chicago traffic, I left at 2:30pm, thinking Iíd avoid traffic, sit and work on my next book in a coffee shop with plenty of time to spare, and show up fully chillaxiní in a relaxation response.
Good thing I did.
I inched my way east in bumper to bumper traffic, past downtown Chicago into eastern Illinois, until finally Ė still with 2 hours to spare Ė the traffic speed picked up. I was cruising along at 60 mph, listening to Pandora on my iPhone, when suddenly something in the road jumped up and blew out the two driverís side tires on the car I had just borrowed from my BFF from my Northwestern days.
So there I am, at 5pm, in a full on stress response. My amygdala is rightfully screaming ďDANGER!Ē as I try not to careen into the car next to me or get crushed by the car behind me. Full of cortisol and epinephrine, I wrangle the big minivan into control and limp my way to the highway shoulder, where my whole body shakes from an overdose of adrenaline.
Knowing what I know about stress responses from all my research for†Mind Over Medicine, I take a moment to assess myself. I know that stress responses only last 90 seconds if we donít add more stress response-inducing stories to them. As soon as my amygdala realized I was safe, my stress response should have shut off. But then the stories start.
I watch myself in slow motion, like I am an observer, watching myself in a movie, realizing how we let one real, healthy life-endangering stress response spin into dozens of them. (ďOh no, Iím going to miss my speech and Iíll disappoint 300 people! Oh no, itís not even my car! Oh no, how much will it cost to fix this? Oh no, I donít even have my AAA card because it got stolen in Miami!Ē) And so onÖ
Aborting The Stress Response
I know that when the body is in stress response, the bodyís natural self-repair mechanisms flip off to focus on getting you out of danger, but personally, I want my self-healing mechanisms in fine form as often as possible. So before I even pick up my phone, I close my eyes and give thanks for my safety and practice a little Herbert Benson-style relaxation response technique to cut off the cycle (I teach you how to do this in†Mind Over Medicine. As I do so, I feel my nervous system start to unwind.
Then I call Matt to get my AAA number, dial up AAA to request a tow truck, alert the event coordinator to my situation, call my BFF to explain what happened to her carÖ and try to let go of any other stories, since at that moment, there is nothing I can do but wait.
Angels Come In Tow Trucks
The tow truck driver finally arrives Ė sweet, sweet burly guy. When we arrive at the mechanicís shop, there I am, in heels and stage makeup, looking quite wind-blown from my side-of-the-freeway hour, and there are 5 guys all standing around waiting to help, even though the shop closed 10 minutes earlier.
Turns out thereís not much they can do. The tires are totally blown out, and they donít have those tires in stock. They apologize profusely. I am grateful for their efforts.
So we unload the car off the tow truck into their parking lot. Itís now 6:30.
Tow Truck Angel then says, ďDonít you have a speech to go to?Ē
He says, ďClimb in, darliní.Ē
Tow Truck Angel proceeds to drive me in the big olí tow truck across the border into Indiana to the performing arts center where Iím giving my lecture. On the way, he asks what Iíll be talking about, and I tell him about Mind Over Medicine. Tow Truck Angel gets teary and starts telling me about his father, who was his best friend, who he saw every single day.
His dad died 5 years ago of metastatic cancer. ďBut he was so healthy,Ē Tow Truck Angel says. ďHe ate perfectly, exercised every day, followed all his doctorís orders. And he was only 67.Ē
I told him thatís what my book is all about and that I was about to speak to 300 cancer patients.
Tow Truck Angel shows me a clipboard adorned with photos of the Ford Mustang he and his father built together before he died. The front plate of the car has a photo of his dad on it. Tow Truck Angel gets teary again.
ďI loved my dad so much,Ē he says.
Tow Truck Angel and I have a moment as I tell him about my father, how he died of metastatic cancer 7 years ago, and how I dedicated the book to him. Weíre quiet for a bit, and Iím noticing that my overriding emotion is gratitude. Iím grateful I didnít get hurt or hurt anyone when the tires blew. Iím grateful people have been so kind. Iím grateful for how green the trees are and how blessed I am to be able to do the work Iím doing. Iím grateful the car failed me so close to where I am going.
I arrive at the performing arts center 15 minutes before 7pm, feeling awash in gratitude that I arrive in time.
Choosing To Heal
When I get up on stage, rumpled but not frazzled, I say the prayer I always say, ďMake me a vessel.Ē And then I look out at the faces in the audience and I am, again, grateful.
I tell the story about my flat tires and remind all of us Ė- myself included Ė- that when things donít go the way we plan, we can easily spin into a series of unnecessary and unproductive stress responses Ė or we can be proactive and choose to abort the thoughts that poison our bodies and turn off our innate self-healing processes.
The choice belongs to us.
This is not an easy practice. Itís so natural to spin out when things donít go as planned. Iím certainly not immune to the cycle of stress responses. But for some reason, this time, something Ė- Divine intervention? Ė- stepped in and helped me avoid my natural tendency to make up a million stories that would have left me stressed, frustrated, grumpy, out of sorts, exhausted, and, because the Universe has a sense of humor, probably late.
Iím sure Iíll fall prey to the cycle again. But the more Iím aware of my tendency to spin into stress responses and the more tools I learn to abort them, the easier it gets to navigate stressful situations.
What Do You Choose?
Share your thoughts, techniques, and stories in the comments.