You just finished writing a book on stress reduction. Does that mean your life is under control?
That's the greatest joke in the world, when we say, "I think I finally got it." I should know better by now.
I had just taken on the book, and I thought I knew how to approach stress. Then my world kind of fell apart. My mother, who had been ill, suddenly dropped into a full-blown psychotic dementia. I have two young children. My husband's job got very iffy because he was down in Seattle in the tech industry. We moved twice during this period, and my blood pressure just shot up. I started doing unwholesome behaviors like eating my stress away. I gained weight. All kinds of things that were just in opposition to anything that was wholesome and helpful.
When I finally started looking at how I was coping with all this stuff, I realized that my body was going into serious overload, and if I didn't stop something terrible was going to happen. So I put off writing the book for a few months just because I couldn't deal with it. Finally I thought, I have to write this book, I have to do it to save me. And it became a very useful experience.
It's like that joke, "How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans."
That's exactly right. The way I look at life is that everything is happening to assist me in my own awakening to my divine nature, but it's hard to remember that when you're right in the middle of hell. Yet that's the time when we most need to draw on the strengths that we've developed over years of practice. So everything that I write about I did. And it helped. I'd been on blood pressure medication for the first time in my life, and I've dropped it down quite a bit. My mother still has a problem, so I have ongoing stress. But you know, my stress isn't any different than anybody else's. Everybody feels their own pain severely and has to figure out a way to deal with it effectively.
Which techniques were most useful to you?
I felt like my life was in crisis all the time. Everything was happening fast, and there was always something new. So I couldn't plan too far ahead. I had to be real present. What really helped me were three little steps to use in a crisis.
The first was to move my body whenever I felt like I was dropping down into anxiety attacks or I felt like I was out of control. I found that if I just walked to the end of the block and back, which could take 2 or 3 minutes.simple movement cleared me enough so that I could focus. My next step was to narrow my focus rather than to spin off and catastrophize or just go numb. So I said, OK, what can I do right now to help this situation?
Can you give me an example?
I would get a call from the hospital-my mother is out of control. My daughter's coming home from school in about 30 minutes, I have no sitter, and my husband is in Seattle, so I am essentially a single mom. So at that moment I would hang up the phone and start to go into major anxiety. And then I would say, OK, first move my body. I'd walk to end of the block and back. And then I'd say, I need to narrow my focus: In the next few minutes I can figure out what to do with my daughter while I go to my mother's. Or if there was nothing I could do to change the circumstances-if I was just being informed of her condition-I'd say, what can I do for the next half hour to remove some of the chaos? Well, I can clean the kitchen. I can walk the dog. I can clean out my purse. It's a small act, but small acts are very empowering.
Taking some action that would be related to the crisis?
Yes. Taking some form of wholesome, life-affirming action or behavior. It could even be, "I need to calm down. I need to center myself."
So it could be taking a bath or calling your friend to babysit or calling your mother's doctor?
That's right. Some form of wholesome, life-affirming behavior that addresses the situation in an intelligent way, or takes care of you in some way-gives you a way of doing something and re-empowering yourself. The problem with crisis is that we feel utterly powerless, and so we're trying to take back our sense of power. It's a fallacy to think that we have ultimate power over our world, because things happen in our lives. What we do have power over is how we respond to them. And so this is a way of responding in a useful and skillful manner.