When I was 22, I buried my mother. I remember few details of her funeral except these: It was a rainy, cold and gray December day in New Jersey and I lost my car keys. I also lost my car keys on the morning of my husband's heart attack in 2006 and I lost them as well rushing to escape a wildfire in 1993 that destroyed multiple homes in my mountain community and left several people dead.
In all cases, it was stress -- extreme stress that left my emotions raw and my mind reeling.
Here are some other things I've learned about stress now that I'm in my 60s.
1. Stress makes you crazy.
I don't lose my car keys frequently, but I fully expect that on the day of my daughter's upcoming surgery, I will scream at my husband that I can't find the car keys, and he will point to them in my right hand. I also fully expect that I'll be screaming at my husband a lot that day because that's what I do when I'm locked in stress' grip. And when I'm not screaming at my husband, I'll be running to the bathroom. That's also what stress does to me.
Stress takes over. It occupies your body like an alien evil force. It causes you to forget simple things, behave badly, wound others including those you love, and gets in the way of fixing whatever it is that is stressing you out.
Stress raises your blood pressure, makes you more vulnerable to illness and interferes with your sleep, your digestion and your ability to focus.
2. You need to wrestle stress to the ground.
I know the situations that are most likely to tip my stress scales, and I prepare for them as best I can. I get stressed out driving to new places. I think it comes from not seeing all that well (reading street signs is near impossible for me until I'm pretty much right under them), and I hate when other drivers honk at my indecisiveness on the road. (Hell, in Los Angeles, hesitation in driving literally can be a fatal offense.)
So I compensate. I plot out routes on multiple GPS sources before I get in the car and compare them. I also ask for verbal directions from someone who is at my intended location. I ask them where to park as well. I prefer voice-delivered directions while I'm driving because I don't want to stop to read them. I only use directions that tell me to go "left" or "right" because that north-south-east-west thing confuses me. And I always allow plenty of time to get lost because being late is also something that causes me stress.
Sounds like a silly thing to get stressed out over, doesn't it? If you think about it, most of our stressors are silly -- but if they are real to us, then we need to deal with them.
3. Don't sweat the small stuff.
I don't mistake annoyance for stress. Yes, I was annoyed when the vendor at the farmers' market sold out of fresh beets last weekend when I wanted them for the dinner party I was hosting. It necessitated one of two things: that I drive 15 miles roundtrip in Sunday traffic to another farmers' market or I switch my menu. I switched. Yet I've seen friends literally freak out over stuff like this. Before we write them off as divas, let me say up front how that was also something I would have done up until about 10 years ago.
What changed for me was my kids. Life became less about me and more about them. I no longer dress -- or cook -- to impress. If I served an imperfect meal to friends and they thought less of me for it, then I would have to question the validity of the very friendship that brought them to my table in the first place.
Life is filled with petty annoyances. That can't be helped. What can be helped is how we respond to them.
4. Don't let people transfer their problems to you.
I am a sympathetic friend and live my life believing I have an obligation to help people who need me. But I do not assume the responsibility for solving their problems.
I have a dear friend whose divorced sister is a substance abuser. My friend worries constantly about how to help her sister. She's dipped into her own retirement savings to make her sister's mortgage payments on a house that was eventually lost in foreclosure. She's flown countless times across the country whenever her sister winds up in trouble. This included a trip to help organize a garage sale.
I get that my friend loves her sister. What she doesn't get is that she can't fix her. Actually my friend is figuring it out, thanks to AlAnon, which counsels families of substance abusers. In AA terms, my friend is just an enabler. She picks up the pieces, talks herself blue in the face, and gets ignored.
As cold as this sounds, sometimes, we have to cut ourselves free of those who would dump their miseries in our lap.
I may not be the world's most nurturing mother, but when my kids were younger and I worked from home, I had a rule: They could interrupt me only if they were bleeding, someone had stopped breathing or their hair was on fire. Anything else was up to them to figure out a solution to.
Today, both my kids are problem-solvers. I may not agree with all their solutions, but at least they can stand on their own and figure out how to get from point A to point B without me as the stage conductor.
5. Not everything is an E-ticket ride.
For those who don't know the phrase, Disneyland used to sell pay-per-ride tickets to its amusement rides. The rides requiring an E-ticket were the biggest, newest, most-thrilling, fastest rides. They cost a little more than taking a spin down the lazy river. E-ticket events still cost you more in terms of stress toll, but not everything is an E-ticket ride.
Learn to differentiate between what's a situation worth being stressed over and what isn't. For me, medical emergencies involving my family are E-tickets. The boss telling me she didn't love my last blog post gets my attention and elicits a promise to do better next time. Now that I'm in my 60s and have lived through more bosses than I have fingers and toes, it just doesn't rattle me the way it once did. Not every criticism means I'm about to lose my job.
6. Time isn't always on my side.
We live our lives at a frenetic pace. I live permanently in the state of rush. I function on inadequate sleep, some days inadequate nutrition, and on the rare occasion that I find myself early to the next thing on the list, I often don't know what to do with myself.
Learning to manage your time is learning to control your stress. I don't have 15 spare minutes a day, which is why when the traffic gods co-operate and I actually arrive at the school bus stop 15 minutes early, it feels like a little gift.
I have taken those little gifts and claimed them for myself. I walk down to the beach near the school bus stop, just to breath in some fresh air. I listen to music, I phone a friend for no reason, I don't compulsively check emails from the office and I don't go near Twitter or Facebook. Sometimes, I just watch the waves.
Funny, but I always know where the car keys are when I return.