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Stay cool when stress strikes

BY DELISE DICKARD

Recently, I spent a day en route from Piran, Slovenia, to Rome by car. Small car. My husband bravely drove it, filled to overflowing with people and luggage.

As head navigator, I suggested we stop for lunch at a little medieval town called Arezzo. “It’s a walled city, where the movie ‘Life Is Beautiful’ was filmed,” I told my family.

You may remember that this was an Italian film from the 1990s that won an Academy Award for best foreign language film. We had a lovely day in Arezzo, taking a break to explore the city and experience the thrill of climbing to the top of the town, where you get a breathtaking view of the gorgeous Tuscan countryside. Then we continued on to Rome.

We arrived in Rome after dark, tired and hungry. Around and around, we circled the huge central train station in an increasingly desperate search for one tiny parking spot in some nameless garage.

The sky turned dark and cloudy over the most horrific traffic situation I have ever seen. There were narrow one-way streets, speeding cars, bikes, buggies, taxis, streetcars, and defenseless pedestrians everywhere.

As our fruitless search approached an hour, it felt like we were circling the drain. I was useless, navigating from my cramped seat in the dark with a map of Italy almost as big as the car itself.

I’d like to say we were still cheerful, but a debate was brewing and I seem to remember mentioning, more than once, that we should have sprung for the GPS navigation package.

And then my husband suddenly, accidentally, made his way into the streetcar lane! Now everyone was screaming—even the people outside the car.

WHY WE MELT DOWN

Eventually, we found a parking space and arrived safely at our destination. And once we were fed and cozy, all was well.

Assuming I’m not the only one who can nosedive from enjoying a wonderful afternoon to becoming an active participant in a foul-tempered evening, I began exploring the reasons the mind can make such a dramatic shift—and what we can do to stop it.

Here are some of the reasons, I think, we melt down in stressful situations.

We want our immediate needs met. And if that doesn’t happen, we can misbehave like cranky toddlers.

One primary goal of our lower-order of thinking is to demand the basics: food and shelter. It makes sense that a failure to recognize this as a fundamental concern can result in meaningless but sometimes heated arguments.

Instead of saying out loud or internally, “I’m not mad, I’m just hungry,” we can fly into a rage over something we won’t even care about later. The sooner we can recognize this mistake and move on, the better.

The “I would/will be happy  if ” problem. It is all too easy to attach our happiness to a moving target. We say, and believe, “I would be happy if (fill in the blank).”

Maybe it “I would be happy if I went to Italy.” In fact a friend, who had been there recently, echoed my sentiment when she said: “I’d be happy if I could go back to Italy.”

If we keep believing that happiness is not with us, but is two steps ahead or behind, we won’t enjoy the moments we have today.

We get irritable when we feel things have been taken away from us. I recall an old study where two groups of kids were given telephones. Not smartphones. These were the old ones with a base and a receiver that you held to the ear.

Group 1 got the phones with a receiver and Group 2 got only the base. Both groups of kids played happily, with Group 2 only pretending to have a receiver. Then the researchers took the receivers away from Group 1 and gave them to Group 2.

Of course, Group 1 kids began to scream. The kids became unhappy because they were losing something the other group never even had.

Sometimes we focus on the negative when that is just one choice. In psychology, some theorists, Gestalt in particular, have been interested in the object of our focus versus our field of choices.

Consider the scenario with the kids and the phones. If someone slipped a stool out of the back of the room where the kids were playing, it is unlikely the kids would have been concerned. That is because the focus was on the telephones. The telephones were the object of concern, and anything else, like a stool, was just in the field of possibilities.

But imagine an enlightened youngster taking the opportunity to change the object of focus to something like a stool. If you’ve ever seen kids wheeling around on a stool that swivels, you can imagine that if the kids had been more focused on the stool than the phones, they would have been upset by the removal of the stool—but would not have cared so much about the removal of the phone receivers.

Sometimes much fun is possible if we change our object of concern to something else in the field of possibilities.

CHOOSING YOUR FOCUS

“Life Is Beautiful,” seems to me an unlikely name for a story about a father who was sent to a concentration camp with his son. The father was in the most stressful situation imaginable. In a funny and compelling way, the father tried to stay calm and give his son joy and hope. (Spoiler alert: The next paragraph gives away the movie’s ending.)

Tragically, but not unexpectedly, by the end of the movie the father loses his life to save his son. In the final minutes, we learn that the son chooses to see this as a beautiful act of sacrifice, rather than a harsh reality of an unfair situation. The son focuses on the beauty of the gift of life his father so generously gave him.

While some situations can certainly bring anyone down, sudden emotional spirals that can hamper our pursuit of happiness might, with practice, be avoided. As the movie reminds us, the choice we make to see the beauty in life is, I think, a choice we make every day.

Dr. Delise Dickard, a licensed professional counselor, is the director of Riverside Counseling in Fredericksburg. She welcomes reader comments and questions. For contact information, see riversidecounseling.org.

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