It was one of those important and tightly-scheduled days where everything needed to go as smooth as silk, so of course it didn’t.
My daughter and 20-month old granddaughter were coming to visit me in Miami from New York for my birthday. I had allowed a thirty-minute window before rush hour to get the baby’s car seat from my storage unit. Then I’d have just enough time to tidy the house, start dinner, and drive to the airport.
Lesson #1: Expect the unexpected, especially when it’s really inconvenient. We set ourselves up for stress and turmoil when we don’t allow time and space for unforeseen events.
I vaguely remembered having some confusion about the storage unit key the last time I was there, so I grabbed the box of extra keys from my desk and drove off. I congratulated myself for my brilliant foresight—every key I owned was with me.
When I got to the storage unit and couldn’t find the right key, I began to worry. In my upset and rush, only found one key that was the right size. But it said “Ace” on it, so I assumed it was a duplicate key from the hardware store. Since I’d never duplicated the storage key, I left without trying it in the padlock.
Lesson #2: Don’t make assumptions when you are upset or in a hurry. Your thinking isn’t as clear when you are stressed.
Lesson #3: Don’t give up without trying, especially if the effort is minimal.
On the way home, my worrying increased. I couldn’t imagine where that key was. I considered a rapid succession of possibilities–my desktop, a purse, my jewelry box, a bowl in the kitchen. I forgot to quiet my racing mind, even though I teach and practice mindfulness and stress management.
Lesson #4: We perform better and think better when we’re calm. Take de-stressing action at the first sign of upset. Disconnect from unhelpful thinking, regularize your breathing, and allow your body to relax.
Instead, I rushed home and rummaged through every nook and cranny that could harbor a key. No luck.
My heart began to pound. Thoughts flooded my mind: Where is the nearest baby equipment store? Do I have time to buy another car seat? What if I can’t find one nearby? Can I get one delivered by tomorrow? That will cost a fortune! What will we do in the meantime? We’ll be stuck in the house!
I caught myself and stopped the runaway train in my mind. I focused on my breath and grounded myself by feeling my body. I began to calm down.
Lesson #5: Better late than never.
I looked through the key box once more and picked up the Ace key. That has to be it! I didn’t even try it! How dumb! How hard would that have been? I shouldn’t have been in such a rush! What’s wrong with me?
Lesson #6: Let yourself be human. Humans make mistakes. Irritation and self-scolding only drive up stress levels and make mistakes more likely.
Again I calmed myself, then drove back to the storage unit. The key fit! The door opened! Life was good!
My daughter’s plane would be landing momentarily. I texted her that I was on my way, dragged the heavy seat down to my car, and headed for the airport. At a red light, I opened my purse to get my phone so I’d be sure to hear her text telling me where she’d be waiting.
But I couldn’t find my phone. I pulled off the road and searched purse, pockets and car. No phone.
I remembered that I’d texted her just before I took the seat to the car. Ack! I bet I left it inside the unit.
My thoughts raced more intensely than ever: I’m going to be late! The airport will be bedlam! I need my phone to know where she’ll be! I won’t be able to find her! How did people ever find each other at airports without cell phones? This is a disaster!
In an instant, my hands began to tremble and I was no longer able to think clearly.
Lesson #7: Stress begets stress. Cortisol—the hormone that prepares us to run or fight for our lives when we’re in fear–has a half-life of about an hour. This means that an hour after an initial stress response, half the cortisol is still revving us up, and an hour after that, half of that half is left, and so forth. Each time we react stressfully over a short time frame, more cortisol is dumped into our systems before the prior load has dissipated. So our reactions come more quickly and more powerfully. By this time, after multiple doses of cortisol, my reactions were swift and overwhelming.
I turned around and headed back to the storage unit for the third time. When I arrived, I raced upstairs through the warren of hallways and opened the door to my unit. The phone wasn’t there. I felt the blood drain from my face.
I remembered that a group of men were down the hallway when I’d picked up the car seat. I must have left the phone on the floor in the hallway and those men—those thieves—took it! If they get through my ridiculously simple password, they’ll have access to my bank account information. My identity will be stolen! Why didn’t I use a better password? Why did I keep information like that on my phone? The weekend is ruined!
I urgently felt the need for a plan, but I was so confused. Halfway to the airport, I turned around. I’d go home, call my daughter, and ask her to take a cab. Then I’d delete the confidential information from my laptop and hope it would sync to my phone before those thieves messed up my life.
My heart thundered as I crawled through rush hour traffic. My mind was reeling: This is taking forever! My daughter must be exhausted. I bet the baby is starving! And my phone is gone! Those thieves are laughing at my stupidity! This will take weeks to sort out! I blinked back tears.
Lesson #8: Stress can hijack us emotionally and cognitively. By this time I was exhausted and my thinking was very compromised. Driving in this state could easily lead to an accident.
Luckily I calmed myself enough to realize that driving was my only priority at that moment. Everything else could wait until I got home. It wasn’t easy. But I got very present and focused on my driving.
Once again, I began to calm down. At a red light, I saw the clear purples, pinks and blues of the evening sky. I remembered the beautiful birthday gift of my daughter’s visit. I thought about reading stories to my granddaughter.
My thinking cleared up: Everything is going to be okay. The only thing I know for sure right now, is that my daughter has to take a cab and my phone is gone. Whatever else happens can be straightened out when and if it happens.
Lesson #9: Keep things in perspective. Identify what is really at stake, not what your runaway mind is imagining.
About a block from my house, I heard a pingggggg that sounded exactly like a text coming in. A few moments later another pinggggggg. It was a text. My phone was somewhere in the car!
I pulled into my driveway and found the phone lodged deeply under the passenger seat. I didn’t waste a moment trying to figure out why I hadn’t found it earlier. I called my daughter, apologized, and asked her to take a cab.
Tears welled up in my eyes again, and I laughed aloud at the same moment. All that for nothing! Except perhaps a good story of how not to deal with unforeseen events, stress, and upset.
Lesson #10: When all else fails, find something to laugh about, including yourself. In the School of Life, laughter always earns you extra credit.
My stories could wait. I had just enough time to shower and get dinner ready before my special guests arrived. But before I did that, I went inside to my desk and put a label on the storage unit key. That fake duplicate key would never fool me again.