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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15 Comments

  1. Nick Maneck

    The story of the Tow Truck Angel was touching.

    Reply
  2. Ann Musico

    What a great story! It’s so real and something we can all relate to and incorporate into our lives. Being aware and intentional are the first steps.

    Reply
  3. F.C. Boyd

    First, I want to say that I am so glad you were not hurt! This technique does take some concentration but is so worth it.

    Reply
  4. Trisha D.

    Sounds a lot like my morning! Minus the tire-blowout. There are always a few good people out there just when you need them. There is always a bright side to everything…and a better way to respond to stress. Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

    Reply
  5. Annie

    So, did you invite the tow truck driver to stay for your lecture? 🙂

    Reply
  6. Sarah Haykel

    Thank you for this beautiful story. I am struck by two things: how much knowledge you have to back up your book, message and meaning in the world ( I am wondering and learning how I can show up with this kind of depth in my own work) and with how you supported me to remember to breath and take a breath and many more and watch, be the watcher, and observe myself keenly!

    Thank you so much for posting Lissa and I am grateful for your being here in the world supporting and guiding us all!

    And writing another book?! I am on my first and wanting to spend more time writing 🙂 I better get going 🙂

    Sarah

    Reply
  7. martina

    loved this— recognize the lesson– it reminds me of one of the ALANON tapes from Fr. Tom Foster SJ, almost the same lesson— which he called “asking for help– never our first thought!” It is wondeful to get the reminders, to be flexible, and to stay with gratitude and serenity!

    Reply
  8. Heidi G

    Isn’t it interesting how life can often lead us to where we are supposed to be by alternative routes and unexpected detours? You transformed a terrifying ordeal into an opportunity to nurture yourself and to connect on a deeper level with others. Your story is a beautiful example that while we may not be able to control many of the difficult and challenging things life literally throws at us, we do get to choose how to respond. I am so grateful you are safe!

    Reply
  9. sally masri

    The ability to shutdown that natural response is so challenging and yet the rewards of focusing your energy in the other direction can surprise us. God does give each of us the opportunity, we simply need to trust and have faith. What a blessing you and Tow Truck Angel were to one another. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  10. mae

    I discovered a long time ago how to calm myself down in bad situations by slowing down my breathing, deep breaths, and remember my slogan “you are where you are supposed to be” and that calmed me most of all. I never heard of the amygdala until I read your tow truck story so I looked it up on Google. I now believe that I know why we hold our hands over our ears when in fear and stress….. it is very close to where the amygdala resides.

    Reply
  11. Belinda Archibald

    Hebrews 13:2
    Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.
    I have found this to be true over + again. I also like how you got to a place of gratitude just as you were arriving. This is a biblical truth which is actually a divine method of quieting that amygdala and it works for me ! We are commanded to give thanks , in all things – NB NOT for the crisis or the terrible news we just got, but for ALL the promises we have- that nothings impossible for God, that Hell never leave us nor forsake us, that weve been healed by Jesus stripes, that Hell supply ALL our needs, that Hell deliver us from ALLour afflictions, if we will just believe + receive.
    Lisa – I got the diagnosis of secondary progressive MS 13 years ago.’Incurable, wheelchair, gloom + doom’. I came out of that room + something in me stood up + said ‘ No !! I refuse that bad report + will NOT receive it into my body, soul or spirit (amygdala). I remain mobile , working + in good shape !
    6 months ago, my neurologist (who I asked NOT to curse me with his words), told me whatever youre doing IS working.By meditating on your promises, relaxing + praying, you have kept your immune system well.Carry on !!
    What you are saying is tapping into supernatural truths, which are scientifically fact.Thats WOW !! Thankyou for sharing with the world your story. We so need to hear it + bless you x

    Reply
  12. Matt

    A great article. In New Zealand, 10 years ago a wise councillor told me how to beat anxiety, based on a method by Claire Weekes. In a nutshell it was about acceptance. Going towards the anxiety and fear. Whenever i felt anxious I would always “let my thoughts and feelings do as they want”. By not getting involved with the the frightening/distressing thoughts and feelings we calm down in time. It is the constant analysing that tires us and builds more stress. My motto was “to let it all happen” whenever I felt anxiety coming over me. It is such a simple and easy technique to use!

    Reply
  13. Carol Leigh

    Thanks for putting this message up today. It very much is “where I’m at” as I try to figure out how to dig (or churn cream) my way out of some “big” feeling holes right now. PERSPECTIVE!

    Reply
  14. Helga (Gegga)

    I am living in Iceland, working as nurse, artist, spiritual speaker and entrepreneur (www.smiler.is). I, myself gave a lecturer for cancer patients last week and I´m so thankful for knowing your great book MIND OVER MEDICINE – I tell people about it and use informations from it. THANK YOU for all your gifts!!

    Reply
  15. Carol Seavitt

    Your story brought tears to my eyes. Reading your book; one-half way thru; visited doc today and told ‘no chemo for you’…nurse saw the book and chuckled yet asked if she could read it. Have another friend waiting for my book. Might have to just buy them their own. Loving it and so happy you are safe.

    Reply

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