We all know life is good at throwing us curve balls. Some of life’s difficulties — such as the death of an elderly relative or a child going off to college — although unpleasant, are not entirely unexpected. The real curve balls are those sudden shocks to the system – finding out you have cancer, losing your job, a breakup – that are like suddenly being hit in the face with a steaming cow pie.
Some people expect trouble all the time, living with a constant burden of fear and worry. Just watching the news for a few minutes should be enough to convince anyone these worries are not completely unfounded or unreasonable. Bad things happen regardless of whether we’ve been naughty or nice.
Getting caught by surprise can send a shock wave through our coping systems, overloading us with worry and regret. The result is often a fear of trying new things. New relationships, careers, adventures – all are avoided because of an inner voice which echoes, “You remember how badly things ended last time, don’t you?”
To say you can learn to expect the unexpected would be untrue. Someday, bad news is apt to hit you like a bolt of lightning, and it will totally suck. But living with the expectation of trouble also sucks; it sucks the joy out of life. So how can we weather life’s storms today without losing hope for tomorrow? The key is in preparation, not expectation.
People in the Gulf Coast often keep a ‘hurricane kit’ on-hand. Those in the north often have extra supplies on hand for surviving blizzards. For weathering those soul-crushing storms of the psyche, there is much comfort to be found in small, seemingly mundane tasks. As an avid fan of British mystery shows, I often wondered why nearly every crisis was met with somebody saying, “I’ll put the kettle on.” Tea was made and cups poured, but frequently untouched. After a particularly trying day, I decided to test this peculiarity out for myself and I discovered something: the act of drinking tea is less important than the act of making it.
There’s nothing complicated about making a cup of tea, but something magical happens while we do it. The part of our brain which handles repetition and sequence is engaged, granting us a temporary reprieve from the anxiety centers of the brain. Granted, stopping to make tea doesn’t resolve the major issue at hand, but it does allow us a moment to catch our breath.
Try imagining the brain as a file cabinet, with the front files in disarray and those in back in perfect order. So often, an event takes us by surprise and we feel completely powerless. This is the front of the file cabinet, but very close behind is order – those things we CAN control in a time where everything feels quite out of control. It may seem odd to claim there is power in making tea or coffee, or doing laundry, or any number of ordinary household tasks, but indeed there is.
When a crisis comes, allow yourself to stick with some small habit, even if it means encountering some disapproval from the people around you. If you normally go for a walk every day, try sticking with it even if you have to limit your time. If you write or journal each day, go ahead and write, even if the topic is how you don’t feel much like writing. Feeling anxious? Make a cup of tea or coffee. Make several if it helps you feel better; nobody says you have to actually drink them — sometimes just holding the warm cup can be soothing. The point is to focus – if only for a few minutes – on the back of the file cabinet. The problem of the day may still need to be addressed, but you will be better able to deal with it because you’ve found yourself some breathing room.