Recently, I accompanied my wife Jill to her annual mammogram exam. Since Jill was diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years ago, I do this every year. I would like to think I am getting better at the waiting room part, however, I still notice when waiting, my heart rate is a bit quicker, my thoughts are more unsettled and my concentration is certainly more uneven. 

As a family caregiver, these physical and emotional responses are all too familiar. In fact, as I looked across the large waiting room I noticed some of my fellow caregivers trying to read while constantly looking up from their magazine or book, unconsciously tapping their foot faster than Flight of the Bumble Bee, fiddling with their iPhone over and over or just sitting quietly, side-by-side with their loved one, occasionally having very brief short conversations. All different ways we pass time while thoughts such as “Hope all is ok in there.”, “What will I do if there is a problem?”, or “I wish there was some way I could to feel more in control.” are rushing through our heads, sometimes at what seems an uncontrollable pace.

It is so easy to experience non-productive, runaway negative thinking. You know, thoughts like the terrible meeting that never happens, the financial uncertainties that don’t result and yes, the dire medical report that is, well, just not that dire. All that fretting, all that angst, all that stress…taking up residence in our heads and rent free to boot!

The problem is our mind doesn’t differentiate between our realities versus our perceptions. Our interpretations and emotional thoughts drive biochemical reactions in our brain, like the release of cortisol, a steroid hormone that can contribute to heightening our response to fear, and before we know it bang the emotional cascade turns on and will not change direction until we take steps to redirect it. 

Now, if all I said is true, and it is, then when we encounter situations that internally freak us out (Not a very sophisticated clinical term, but pretty accurate!) it is a good idea to practice the anti-freak-out ABC’s:

  • Become aware of what you are doing to yourself
  • Take a few deep breaths and slowly exhale 
  • Course correct your thoughts

As psychologist Dr. Wayne Dyer says “what you think about expands” (“As a man thinketh, so is he”, Book of Proverbs). Please understand, if our mind and body reacts to the negative stories we create and internalize it only makes sense that they will also react to positive stories we create and internalize!

Recognize this and when you’re feeling emotionally challenged take a quick “thoughts” inventory. For instance, are your thoughts consistent with the “reality” of the situation? Is there another way of looking at your current situation? Will your current thoughts help you access a better outcome? And, never forget, you have absolute choice about what thoughts and narratives you create and focus on!

Oh yeah, back to my personal story… just as my thoughts seemed to be taking on a life of their own, especially after waiting for 1 1/2 hours, I saw Jill come out of the examining room with a reassuring smile and a thumbs up. Ah, all is right in the world and I felt my anxiousness immediately begin to calm, at least for NOW. Good ending, right? Absolutely! But…it can be even greater if I am honest with myself and learn from this experience. 

Next year, while Jill is in the examining room, if I find my heart beating more rapidly and it is a bit difficult to concentrate I will practice my ABC’s to develop a more positive thoughts and a story that promotes greater well being and peace-of-mind. Thumbs up to that!

Help yourself. Help others.