I’ve lived in Miami long enough not to freak out when the forecasters say we’re expecting a hurricane. But when Hurricane Irma was on its way last September, I became slightly unhinged. Okay, maybe more than “slightly.” I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t focus, couldn’t do anything remotely useful. I just paced around my condo, nonstop. Finally my husband called my best friend and said, “You have to talk to Jen because she’s behaving like a caged animal.”
“Caged animal” is not how people usually describe me. I like to think I’m pretty zen most times—I meditate and I exercise. And I spend my days urging my colleagues to incorporate more of that into their lives. “Well-being” is in my job title!
So what sent me off the rails?
My husband and I looked for clues, but nothing extraordinary had happened to me in the weeks before the hurricane arrived. I wasn’t under any significant stress. Since we couldn’t figure out what caused it, we couldn’t make it go away. Eventually the storm passed and so did my stress.
And then we realized: the hurricane was the first stressor since a rather extended period of stress that had ended ten months earlier, when I completed my treatment for breast cancer.
I had some unfinished business built up in me, some stress I hadn’t dealt with in the many months of treatment—when I did my best to convey an “I’ve got this” attitude. It was my body, after all, so somehow I felt like I was in control. But the hurricane—I had zero control over that. And I freaked.
My husband hit the nail on the head when he said, “You went through nine months of cancer treatment like a rock star, and that cancer could have killed you. This hurricane is just inconvenient.”
Yep, my response made absolutely no sense. Except if you know about something scientists call the Region Beta Paradox.
I discovered it post-hurricane when I was searching for explanations. When bad things happen, they cross a threshold and trigger mechanisms that help us cope. But the smaller stressors often don’t push us over that threshold. For instance, you can cope with delivering a very important project for a high-profile client, but when your local coffee shop messes up your latte order, you blow up.
We can’t always prevent those explosions before they happen. But what we can do is try to understand why we do it, and be more forgiving to ourselves and others.
That was the lesson that I learned. Just because I had battled cancer doesn’t mean that I am immune to smaller stressors. And I shouldn’t give myself a hard time for “sweating the small stuff”.
So when you see someone blow up at a barista because their coffee order is wrong, remember that stress does not follow rules, and our response to it isn’t always rational. So be gentle with yourself—and with the people in your life, too.
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