How to Handle Stress Without Panicking
Make Loosey-Goosey Plans
As you focus on the present, you'll find the next step arises almost automatically, and then the one after that. Your thought as you run from the bear is to reach the car. Your aim as you press on a wound is to stop the bleeding. Unlike plans made in calmer circumstances, which may be detailed, researched, and rigid, the ones you make when facing snafus should be so loose that they're almost floppy.
One year, when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I decided to run the Boston marathon. On a snowy afternoon, I took a bus to Wellesley, which lies at the halfway point of the marathon route. The idea was to run home, both training and familiarizing myself with the terrain. I overlooked only one thing: I have absolutely no sense of direction. After running for an hour, I noticed that Boston was not where I thought it was. After two hours, I was jogging past eerie, deserted factories. After three hours, my world was empty country roads in a pitch-dark blizzard.
Peter Levine would have been proud of the way I eventually freaked out, stomping, kicking, and, yes, using strong language. My tantrum freed me to release my expectations of knocking this off in a few hours and accept that I was well and truly lost. This allowed me to narrow my focus to the immediate situation, and I immediately formulated a plan: Retrace my route by following my own footprints. It worked for a half hour, until the falling snow obscured my tracks. By then I could hear the rumbling of motors, so my approach changed: Follow the noise. This took me to a freeway, from which I could see a distant glow of city lights. I followed them to downtown Boston, where, switching strategies one last time, I caught the subway home. Staying loose and flexible not only got me through a snafu but proved I could run for six straight hours. After that the marathon was a cakewalk.
The plans that take us out of short-term crises almost always proceed like this. A strategy that works well one moment is useless the next. That's okay. Keep moving. Keep letting go of expectations. Keep your attention on the here and now, and keep adjusting. And finally, refuse to contemplate the distant future until the snafu is over. Cancel lunch, obsess later about the social fallout. Look in the yellow pages under "flood repair" without wondering how much it will eventually cost to replace your carpet.
The difference between unthinkable disasters and short-term crises is that if you follow these instructions, life snaps back to being surprisingly normal surprisingly quickly. Think what that deer must have felt as he roamed the aisles of Target, wondering why the humans were forcing him toward a wall of glass and metal. Imagine his gratification when he finally triggered the door sensor. That's the way a minor crisis ends. It's almost anticlimactic: You look up from the one step that has your full attention and realize you're out of the woods. Or, if you're a deer, back in the woods. Back, in any case, to the world you're used to, where snafus are typical and things occasionally get fubar, but where you feel in your DNA that things are exactly as they should be.
Martha Beck is the author of The Four-Day Win (Rodale).
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