Reducing Stress by Being Prepared
"I prepare therefore I am (less stressed)!
Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot and world war II hero, and the first person to break the sound barrier, often said that being prepared and having a thorough knowledge of his airplanes kept him cool and saved his life many times.
He is the symbol of “coolness” among professional pilots who still try to emulate his way of talking on aircraft radios. No matter how tense the situation was, he always talked with the same relaxed and confident drawl. His confidence and relaxed manners did not come automatically. Yeager used to take time to painstakingly familiarize himself with all technical aspects and flying characteristics of the airplanes he flew.
That knowledge came to his aid many times, including during his famous first flight to break sound barrier. It saved his plane as well as his life. Instead of becoming tense and anxious, he applied his knowledge and his skills to avert an emergency.
None of us will ever be like Chuck Yeager but we can use his wisdom.
Here is a simple theoretical situation. I ask you to to imagine yourself in the following scenario:
You are in your car on your way to deliver an important presentation to the board of directors of the company you work for. You have spent the past few months preparing for it. This is a crucial and pivotal day in your career. Not only this great presentation would solidify your job, it would probably lead to a long awaited promotion. However, you were somewhat apprehensive about the talk so you didn't sleep so well the night before.
Suddenly the unthinkable happens. You hit a major traffic standstill on the highway. As you peak around a curve, you notice cars motionless for as far as the eyes can see; the type of back up one sees when there is an accident ahead. Where is the accident? Two miles ahead? Four miles ahead? Do don’t have a clue. You could be in this mess for hours. It is 7:40 in the morning. You would normally have another 20 minutes to go. The board meets at 8:30 and you are number one on the agenda.
You are angry and frustrated. You start to feel the sweat wetting your eye brows. You desperately look around for a solution. There is no nearby exit to make a detour. You cannot make a U-turn because of that stupid median. You are really stuck; a prisoner of unlucky circumstances. Your hands start to shake. Your mouth feels dry. You have a sick feeling in your stomach. You clearly see the president of the company shaking his heads in disgust. You have embarrassed him in front of the board. You are history!
It is now 8:10. All of a sudden, you think of calling the company on your cell phone. “How stupid of me! Why didn’t I think of it before?" You reach in your pocket and retrieve it. Your hands are shaky but you manage to dial the number. The clerk answers. Before you get a chance to utter a word the phone goes dead. You already know why. You had left the phone on your desk the night before after you made a few calls. You forgot to turn it off or connect it to a charger. Now the battery is dead as a door nail.
You desperately look for the car charger but you already know the answer. You are not going to find it. It is somewhere back at home. You cleared your car of all the junk a couple of weeks ago and without thinking, threw the charger in a pile of stuff to be sorted out later.
Panic starts to set in. You are now seeing yourself being humiliated and fired from your job. How would your wife react? What would your friends think? How long before you can have another job? Oh no! All those bills... .Your heart is now beating hard and fast. You want to vomit. You pound on the steering wheel in frustration. Your chest is heavy. You are almost at the brink of a heart attack.
OK, Relax. Let’s stop the nightmare here!
Now, be honest! How many times in your life have you come across a situation where you were thrown a curve without warning? Those were not nightmares, were they? Things do happen. Were you ready?
As it has been said many times, life is 10% what happens and 90% how you react to what happens. So what happened in the above scenario? What could you have done to turn it into a non-event instead of a life threatening stressful situation?
What happened is that you were not prepared. You didn’t have a plan B. You ran out of ideas and luck at the same time. You did not foresee the event that would throw a monkey wrench into your plans. To make the matters worse, you didn’t use a learned skill called “cognitive re-appraisal”.
What could you have done before and during the fateful event?
1- You could have been prepared (subject of this article).
2- You could have applied the simple skill of cognitive re-appraisal, a fancy name for “Thinking again!” (Subject of another article entitled Cognitive re-appraisal).
Let's now put you in the same scenario but this time you're armed with your new skills.
The night before, after you put the last touches on your Power Point presentation at home, you put another copy on a memory stick as your back up. You had already arranged with the executive secretary about having a back up projector or at least a spare lamp as well. You also e-mailed her a copy of the presentation as a third back up. You were prepared for high-tech failure so you were not anxious and therefore you slept quite well.
You had already decided to be at work forty five minutes earlier than usual because unforeseen delays do happen. You had changed your alarm clock and woke up early enough to have a simple breakfast and hit the road by 6:45 instead of 7:30. The traffic would be much lighter at that time any way. You had already made sure your laptop was charged and the accessories were in the case along with it. You also had your cell phone charged and had made sure the charging cord was in your car. You knew there is no excuse for not having them handy. Who knows what can happen on the road?
Despite leaving early, you still come across a traffic snag. It is un-nerving at first and you utter your first two customary words everyone would, under such circumstances. It only takes you a few seconds to realize there is nothing, absolutely nothing to be gained by panicking or becoming upset. You are not going anywhere. It is time to figure out the best course of action.
You cannot call anyone yet. It will be fifteen minutes before the staff arrives at work. You have fifteen minutes to contemplate on the situation.
You turn your favorite music on and start your “cognitive re-appraisal” process. In other words you say to yourself “OK, let’s think this over now!”
1- “Realistically, what is the worst case scenario? Am I going to die? Get injured? Nah! Loose my job? Not likely. Get reprimanded? I don’t think so. Is my Boss going to be really disappointed? Probably not. He has another sixteen items on the agenda. A little disappointed? May be. Is the company going to suffer? Are you kidding? Will they understand? Most likely yes. So let’s see now. The worst case scenario is that the boss might be a little disappointed but will understand."
2- “Great! I feel better already! Now, what are my options, my action steps and my resources to lessen the negative impact of this unforeseen event? I will make a call and reach the executive secretary and inform her of my dilemma, giving specifics such as where I am stuck and what I think the chances are I might be late or never make it. I’ll ask her if possible to put me in touch with the boss when he arrives. That way I can explain it to him in person. Who knows, he might even sympathize with me!”
3- “If I get to talk to the boss, I am going to tell him how much I was looking forward to giving this presentation on which I have been working for the past two-and-a-half months, and how disappointed I am sitting here helpless in this traffic mess, I will also say I hope we can reschedule it at the earliest convenient time.”
4- “If I can’t get to talk to the boss, I’ll send the same message to him through the secretary.”
5- "There is nothing else I need to do right now. I still have ten minutes before I can place the call."
"The traffic is not moving but the music is good. I’m going to do some paper work I have sitting here on the passenger seat. Having these extra few minutes isn’t actually that bad!"
You have done your CR (Cognitive re-appraisal). You feel relaxed and relieved. You thank yourself for having been prepared and for the skill you just showed.
The calling time arrives. You place the call according to your plans. The boss is not there yet but because you have good rapport with the staff, his secretary calls you back and puts him in touch with you as soon as he arrives. He sounds friendly and tells you he is sorry you had to go through all this. He also tells you not to worry and that you will be given a chance to present ASAP.
“Wow! That feels good! Nice music and a chance to be by myself for a while, relax, do some more paper work, clean up the glove compartment and contemplate on my next project. I don’t even have to worry about being late!”
OK! Wake up from the dream!
So, what made the difference between the previous nightmare and this dream? It’s really not what, it’s who. You made the difference. You did it by using a couple of simple skills. 1- By being prepared. 2- By re-thinking your situation. Remember, what happens is not as important as how we react to what happens.
Here are some examples of knowledge and preparedness that can significantly reduce your daily anxiety and stress levels. Add your own ideas to the list and share with friends:
Being prepared at work:
Memorize names of key people.
Know your company’s mission statement.
Enter the birthdates of people who work under you in your calendar.
If you give a presentation, anticipate questions and be ready and knowledgeable about what might be asked. Know your topics inside out! Do your research ahead of time and don’t get caught by surprise.
Have back-ups for your presentations and for the equipment.
Memorize fire escape routes from your office.
If you are not using network hard drives, back up your important files.
Being prepared in your home:
Have fire escape plans.
Know how to reach the water main in the dark.
Have flashlights and flashlight batteries.
Have at least one regular (not wireless) phone even if you don’t use it. It operates on phone line only and does not require AC electricity.
Leave a key with a neighbor you trust.
Hide a key outside in an inconspicuous place (or have a key-less entry system)
Make a card with all needed emergency numbers (plumber, electrician, heating company, ambulance, hospital, neighbors, etc.) and keep it in a convenient place.
Have a first aid kit.
Have fire extinguishers in the kitchen and basement but not next to potential fire sources.
If you carry Epi-pens, have an extra one at home in an easily remembered and easily accessible place. (Next to the kitchen fire extinguisher?)
If you live in a more-than-one-story home, have foldable escape ladders upstairs (at least one for each floor above first).
If you have a basement, have an emergency sump pump.
If you have battery powered smoke detectors, change the batteries every year.
Being prepared in your car:
Have jumper cables.
Have cell phone and charging chord.
In winter time or in cold climates, have cold weather survival items in your car in case you get stranded on the road. This small investment alone is a powerful anxiety buster and may even save your life! Also have a medical emergency kit at all times.
Know where your spare tire and tools are.
Know how to change a tire. If you have never done it, do it at least once for practice.
When traveling, maintain situational awareness. Know how far you are from the nearest town. If you have travel companions, put them in charge of navigating and maintaining the knowledge of nearest towns and alternate routes.
Keep your gas tank at least half-full, especially in the winter or in cold climates. In extreme conditions ¾ full is even better; or better yet, cancel the trip if you can.
Do not drive with worn tires.
If roads are bad from a winter storm, cancel your trip if possible.
Don’t let tailgaters rush you.
If you travel in winter conditions often, consider getting an all wheel drive vehicle if you don’t already have one.
Always wear your seat belt, even for a very short drive.
These simple actions (plus the ones you came up with by yourself) will go a long way to reduce your overall anxiety and stress levels which means you will be healthier, happeir and more vital!