How To Transform Stress Into Relaxation

The audience of empowered patients and conscious health care providers in Munster, Indiana

I was scheduled to speak in Munster, Indiana at 7 pm 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 I’d avoid traffic, sit and work on my next book in a coffee shop with plenty of time to spare, and show up fully chillaxin’ 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 – still with 2 hours to spare – 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 driver’s side tires on the car I had just borrowed from my BFF from my Northwestern days.

So there I am, at 5 pm, in a full-on stress response. My amygdala is rightfully screaming “DANGER!” 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 don’t 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. (“Oh no, I’m going to miss my speech and I’ll disappoint 300 people! Oh no, it’s not even my car! Oh no, how much will it cost to fix this? Oh no, I don’t even have my AAA card because it got stolen in Miami!”) And so on…

Aborting The Stress Response

I know that when the body is in stress response, the body’s 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 car… 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—sweet, sweet burly guy. When we arrive at the mechanic’s 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 there’s not much they can do. The tires are totally blown out, and they don’t 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. It’s now 6:30.

Tow Truck Angel then says, “Don’t you have a speech to go to?”

I nod.

He says, “Climb in, darlin’.”

Tow Truck Angel proceeds to drive me in the big ol’ tow truck across the border into Indiana to the performing arts center where I’m giving my lecture. On the way, he asks what I’ll 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. “But he was so healthy,” Tow Truck Angel says. “He ate perfectly, exercised every day, followed all his doctor’s orders. And he was only 67.”

I told him that’s what my book is all about and that I was about to speak to 300 cancer patients.

Practicing Gratitude

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.

“I loved my dad so much,” 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. We’re quiet for a bit, and I’m noticing that my overriding emotion is gratitude. I’m grateful I didn’t get hurt or hurt anyone when the tires blew. I’m grateful people have been so kind. I’m grateful for how green the trees are and how blessed I am to be able to do the work I’m doing. I’m grateful the car failed me so close to where I am going.

I arrive at the performing arts center 15 minutes before 7, 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, “Make me a vessel.” And then I look out at the faces of those who appreciate my work and I am, again, grateful.

I tell the story about my flat tires and remind all of us – myself included – that when things don’t go the way we plan, we can easily spin into a series of unnecessary and unproductive stress responses – 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. It’s so natural to spin out when things don’t go as planned. I’m certainly not immune to the cycle of stress responses. But for some reason, this time, something – Divine intervention? – 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.

I’m sure I’ll fall prey to the cycle again. But the more I’m 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.

You too can choose relaxation responses over stress responses. I teach some simple techniques for how to do so in  Mind Over Medicine, or you can read this blog post here.

What Do You Choose?

Share your thoughts, techniques, and stories in the comments.

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