Losing Your Cool: Coping in Times of Mini-Emergency


WHAT CONSTITUTES a mini-emergency?

Tough to put these on the spectrum of life, but you know what I’m talking about: you get to the airport and realize you left your passport or license at home, you locked your keys in the car, your straightening iron broke just after you blow-dried your hair and you have a meeting in 30 minutes (more of a curly-haired girl problem, but the struggle is real). No one gets physically hurt, the repercussions aren’t detrimental, but you still feel that creeping panic that can make your next steps spiral out of control.

And that’s where the real trouble can begin. The panic.

Earlier this week my key got stuck in the door for separate laundry facilities in my apartment. The door couldn’t be opened from inside or outside of the basement, which also houses two apartment units. Keeping calm, I called my landlord. No answer. I waited twenty minutes and called my landlord again. No answer. I started to panic that I had locked tenants into their homes and they would need to go to work soon. I started to really panic when I thought about possible jobs they could have since we live in DC — Maybe they’re Obama’s speech writer or Maybe they run a non-profit that has an important funding meeting in an hour and even Maybe they walk dogs and I’m going to get them fired for not being there and letting the dog pee on the floor. So, panic. The panic came and I called an emergency locksmith without waiting to hear back from my landlord.

If anyone reading this is deciding on a career or wants to make a career change, I highly recommend you become a locksmith. There are few other jobs where you can charge $1,000 for an hours worth of work.

Here’s the thing: it all could have gone a lot better (and a lot less expensively) if I had paused for a minute when the winding-staircase panic thoughts came. If I had waited another hour my landlord would have called and said it was fine, she would be over shortly. If someone hadn’t left for work yet they more than likely could have explained the situation and gone in an hour late. Instead of considering all of my options, I freaked out, and footed a $500 bill.

The situation made me wonder for the millionth time why we so often “sweat the small stuff”. Sure, it sucks to get to the airport and realize you forgot something important, but there are ways to handle the situation, and staying calm is your best bet for handling it and not completely melting down in a taxi cab. My older brother, the middle child and forever the voice of reason, often talks me down during mini emergencies that feel like big emergencies. He has a series of question he makes me ask myself and I urge you to try the same:

Did you kill anyone?

Is anyone dying?

Now, is it really that bad?

In times of panic, I go through that list of three questions. Sometimes all we need is a little perspective. Ten times out of ten it calms me down. So does taking a deep breath and paying attention to my body making the air come in and go back out.

This particular type of panic has a name in psychological circles: catastrophizing. It’s a common cognitive distortion where you, first, predict a negative outcome and, second, jump to the conclusion that, if it happens, it will be a catastrophe. Somehow, potentially making one of the residents late to work turned into the President of the United States being unprepared for a meeting or a speech. Highly likely, right? Meditation gurus aside, we all do this from time to time. Making a distinction between an actual catastrophe and a problem is the first step to calming down and seeing things clearly. Another helpful coping mechanism is self-assurance: telling yourself that you are capable of handling a negative situation without it blowing up in your face.

So, next time you find yourself in a mini-emergency, try stopping for even a moment to consider the true nature of what’s happening. Ask yourself how bad it really is, and then proceed.

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