As I write this article, I am sitting in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. This morning, I missed my flight from Chicago to Philadelphia, and then I was passed over for the next flight, for which I was listed as standby. Since resilience is the common theme in all of my work, from academic tutoring to divorce coaching to writing, I have decided to treat this situation as a case study for dealing with adversity – to see just what tools and skills work and which ones don’t.
The day started well. My best friend dropped me off at the airport this morning. We noted how busy things seemed, but that was no surprise – it is the Sunday after Thanksgiving. “Hmmm,” I thought, “I guess I should have allowed myself more time this morning.” But, oh well, who knew what would happen? I tend to approach the world optimistically and things tend to work out for me.
The ticketing line moved quickly, so my optimism seemed well-founded. But when I reached the bag check, I learned it was too late to check in for my scheduled flight. Glitch #1. Bummer. I felt a momentary sense of dread, but pushed it aside. The computer screen asked me if I would like to sign up as standby for the next available flight. Well, what else was I going to do? I considered possible ramifications, and decided to go for it. I still had plenty of time to get home, my kids were safe with their father, and nothing pressing was scheduled for the day. So I found my new gate, and settled into the short delay with a hot cup of coffee and a good book.
From Snug and Smug to Stuck … and Obsessive
I was feeling pretty smug. Since I was the first to arrive at the new gate, my name was at the top of the standby list. In my mind, a seat on this flight was practically guaranteed. But, as boarding time approached my name was getting bumped further and further down the list. The screen informed me that the order was also determined by frequent flyer status and flight class, as well as “flight irregularities.” Not being a Gold Class member, therefore, and as a coach passenger, I intellectually understood why I was getting bumped. My brain was telling me one thing – “This makes sense. I’m in no hurry. I will eventually get home” – but my increasingly jittery body belied my true inner experience.
I began obsessively watching the screen to see how far down my name was dropping. Then I saw the running tally of how many seats were still available on the flight. Uh, oh. Glitch #2. My name was now seventh, and there were only five seats available.
“Well,” I thought, “maybe people won’t show up for the flight, and I’ll still get on.” (Cognitive skills in action).
Then my mental gymnastics became really entertaining. I couldn’t take my eyes off that screen. Every time my name dropped down the list, I felt dread, which I then challenged with optimistic thoughts. Circumstances could change for the better, and I really didn’t need to be home for any particular reason. “Oh, yeah,” I thought, “it’s not that big a deal.”
But the screen would change for the worse and I would shift back into anxiety. I was making myself crazy. When I learned I would definitely not get on the flight, I realized the cognitive approach alone wasn’t working for me, and began to consider other strategies.
So now, here I am, facing a three hour wait for the next scheduled flight, which I may or may not get on. What to do? Well, I’ve decided to write this article. It feels good to have something constructive to do. And I will distract myself by observing how the other delayed passengers are responding to the situation.
Expanding the Tool-Box
Upon reflection, these are the key points of today’s lesson:
1. Before moving forward with resilient thinking, I need to accept my fate and acknowledge responsibility. (“I screwed up by not leaving enough time to catch my flight this morning.”) Sugar-coating this first misstep does not allow me to interpret my situation with authenticity and realism. This doesn’t mean berating myself, just acknowledging and sitting with the mistake.
2. Next, I need to calm myself. Certain breathing techniques really work well for me. I call it my “pathetic meditation,” not because the technique is pathetic – in fact, it has really powerful calming effects. But I am no guru, and don’t intend to achieve nirvana or experience transcendence. I just want to move through this moment as successfully as possible so I simply focus on my breathing. That’s all.
3. Only after these first two steps can I successfully engage cognitive skills, such as reminding myself that I am in no danger and my kids are taken care of. Even the worst case scenario is not so bad – I can call my friend to pick me up for another night at her house in Chicago. Things could be a lot worse.
4. Distraction is a very useful tool. Writing this article, looking at the people around me, making phone calls to friends and family (and laughing heartily with them at my fate) works pretty well to keep my anxiety levels down.
This has been a very interesting day, full of learning about resilience and mindfulness. I’m grateful for the nearby Starbucks, and I’ve enjoyed writing this article. And, eventually, I’ll be sleeping in my own bed at home…
To learn more about resilience skills and mindfulness, read the research below.
Tkach, C. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How do people pursue happiness?: relating personality, happiness-increasing strategies, and well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, 183-225.
Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J, & Finkel, S. M. (in press). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Frewen, P. A., Evans, E. M., Marah, N., Dozois, D. J. A., & Partridge, K. (2008). Letting go: Mindfulness and negative automatic thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 758-774.
Kumar, S., Feldman, G., & Hayes, A. (2009). Changes in mindfulness and emotion regulation in an exposure-based cognitive therapy for depression. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 734-744.
Kohls, N., Sauer, S., & Walach, H. (2008). Facets of mindfulness – Results of an online study investigating the Freiburg mindfulness inventory. Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 224-230.