There exists a trifecta of responses given to a person who is stressing out: “Calm down,” or “Relax!” or “Don’t worry.” These comforting phrases only work as triggers to make me angrier and want to slap the deliverer in the face. However, earlier this week, my 14-year-old son may have invented an interesting psychological “calm down” technique in lieu of the useless trifecta.
We were driving to see “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” on Broadway earlier this week and the George Washington Bridge was unusually congested.
My nervous energy always spills out from my mouth: “I knew we should have left half an hour ago; we can never get out of the door in time.” I was half-muttering under my breath.
“Relax,” my 14-year-old says. “Don’t worry.” Two out of three of my favorite words.
“Thanks,” I say sarcastically but I try not to get obnoxious because this play was part of his birthday present and I am trying to be on my best behavior. The clock turns faster than our wheels.
“Tell you what,” my son says, “If we’re not under the second arch of the bridge by 6:15pm, then you can get worried.”
I thought about this for a minute. What a genius concept. He wasn’t telling me not to freak out, he was simply clarifying when a more logical, acceptable time to freak out would be. “OK!” I said and smiled, thinking, “I am training a good man. He is not discounting my emotions, but rather massaging them until they relaxed.”
We were successfully past the second arch by 6:10pm. Now he said, “See, we made it! Now if we don’t get to 96th Street by 6:25pm, you can freak out.”
We played this game all the way until we parked two blocks from the theater. It turned out to be a distracting, reassuring, and surprisingly bonding experience with my son. We play the alphabet game, pick up hitchhikers, and now play the “You can freak out when…” game.
In its simplicity, this exercise reevaluated my view of how I react to everything in life. My immediate response is direct to worst case scenario. I do this in order to subconsciously prepare myself for the worst, not only so I can feel in control, but so I can somehow imaginarily cushion the blow (of the hypothetical worst case scenario). I am a Japanese Samurai and meditate not only on the possibility of my death but on those of everyone close to me. When I don’t recognize a phone number I imagine it’s the hospital telling me my mother is dead or the police notifying me that my father was in a fatal car accident. Every single time my husband walks out the door to go to work, I imagine what it would be like if he never returned and every day when walks back home, I’m so grateful he survived. Every time I leave the playground and my daughter did not pull a Kramer vs Kramer off the monkey bars and I didn’t have to run 10 blocks with her in my arms to get stitches on her forehead, I’m grateful.
My son has once again given me a lesson. Instead of over-reacting instantly or going to the worst case scenario; instead of saying I cannot worry at all, he gave me the “You can worry when…” gift. An acknowledgment that worrisome behavior is normal, but not just in perpetuity or as a default reaction.
I now go about my days using the following coping technique: “Stop, pause, and identify a logical point in the future for acceptable worry.”