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My Perfect Storm of Stress

Thirty years ago, my life was engulfed by what I call my perfect storm of stress.  I lost a high-level executive level position that I had devoted a decade climbing the career-ladder to reach, and nine days later I was diagnosed with a brain tumor that the doctors warned could leave me seriously disabled and potentially unable ever to work again.

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I was married with four children and a big fat mortgage, so suddenly my life was coming apart at the seams, and it appeared there was nothing I could do to stop the impending catastrophe.

As part of my severance package, I was required to work another month to finish an important project, which only added to my stress. The first two weeks of trying to adjust to this calamity was emotionally painful, to say the least.

Every night I would wake up at three in the morning and stare out the window into the cold dark night, terrified that I would lose everything I’d built in my life and that my family would become homeless.

Then one night I reached a point where I seriously questioned which was worse: the dire problems the doctors predicted that could happen to me in the future, or the abject fear that was happening in me every day, all day long for the previous two weeks.

Well, the answer was clear to me; the intense fear was worse. The bone-chilling stress I experienced was consuming me, depleting the strength I would need to get through the surgery. I could see that fearful thoughts were painting me into a corner of doom that was psychologically unbearable.

I had to do something to ease my suffering, so for the next half hour I committed myself to doing a practice someone I respected had suggested.  It involved being diligently aware of every fearful, stressful thing I thought and to let it go … simply by not believing its story of doom.

I told myself, these painful thoughts about my future are in me, not necessarily in reality, and I kept telling myself this until the truth of it was clear to me.  I had to make room for my negative ego, which said, “go ahead, stop believing these painful thoughts, but it won’t change anything.  You still screwed. “

I noticed that when I repressed a painful thought it got bigger, but when I simply observed it and allow myself to feel it, its negativity had a way of rolling through and dissipating and eventually disappearing, like an illusion. It was quite revelation to really see that the stress was happening in me, far more than to me.

As I let the stressful story drop, the calmer I became, until about half hour into this process, my mental state had shifted from fear … to simple relief … which gradually grew into an expansive feeling of peace that seemed to encourage optimism.

This time when I looked out the window, I didn’t see the cold, dark night of oblivion. What I saw was the stillness of moonlight shining on the trees that made the night look sacred and made me feel hopeful.

I decided, right then and there, to work at letting go of fear and stress in this way whenever it raised its ugly head and to strengthen my willingness to be positive and at peace as I faced whatever I had to face that day. And I discovered that choosing to be at peace was not as hard as I thought.

Stress and anxiety were hard. It was peace that made everything easier, and it allowed me to tap the creative power to visualize the outcomes I wanted, instead of o-pressing myself with the picture fear projected.

When I returned to work the next day, I found that the usual stressors didn’t bother me. I was even friendlier to people I used to perceive as my adversaries. I didn’t want a head full of grievances. I wanted to give my head every chance to heal.

During the remainder of time before surgery, as I recall, I did not entertain one fearful thought. I certainly had fearful thoughts, but I practiced not believing any of them. My motto became: if fear is talking, stop listening.

My change of mindset changed the outcomes. The surgery was a complete success, sparing me a life of disability. And it even saved my job. A department in the medical school heard about my positive attitude and interviewed me and called me the day before surgery to offer me and my positive attitude a position on their team. It was clear to me that none of this would have happened if I had not shifted my mindset from stress and fear to peace and optimism.

If neuroscientists back then knew what they know today, they would have told me that my shift in attitude over those four weeks had literally re-wired my brain to quiet stress reactions, which in turn, established the mind-body connection that gave me the best chance for a positive medical outcome.

Well, forty years of research in cognitive therapy has established that all our moods are produced by the thoughts we believe, determining how we see the world and what we expect will happen. Mood and expectation profoundly influence what does happen, meaning we usually get what we expect to get.

One of the best ways I know to generate the mind-body connection is in those words I spoke to myself as I approached surgery: if fear is talking, stop listening.

My Perfect Storm of Stress