Stress Management for the Fall

Medical Post
Helping Hand Column, September 9, 2008

When life takes a detour from a planned path, ‘recalculate’ your plans by calmly looking for new options.

I sat down to work on this column, eager to get started, write out a few points and take time to flesh it out. The computer turned on, then froze and finally went blank. For a few seconds, my mind froze and went blank, too. Now what? My initial thought was to worry; this was the evening to complete this column, and all subsequent evenings were already booked.

Then, I recalled a friend’s sage advice. “The best stress management strategy I ever learned was from my GPS,” he said. “I learned to ‘recalculate.’ ”

On one occasion when he was using the GPS to direct him as he drove in a new city, he was on course, following directions to his destination when he noticed the gas gauge reading empty. When he pulled into a gas station to fill up, the husky female voice of the GPS device stated, “Recalculating.” Taking stock of where he was and where he needed to go, the device revised the route . . . all with no emotion. The GPS did the same later when he had to make a detour for construction—no fireworks, anger or recrimination, it just stopped for a second, assessed the problem and offered a new option. Brilliant, simple, efficient and effective.

He decided he would do the same when things did not go as planned. He told me how well it worked, and how he now uses it every chance he gets. When something does not work out, he just says, “Recalculate,” and it reminds him to calmly look for an option.

It makes complete sense. The number one cause of stress, regardless of the situation, is feeling a lack of control or choice. Thus, the number one solution is to challenge this perception, identify what we do and do not control, and focus on what we can control.

It is a fact of life that things will not go as planned—that’s the part we do not control. The part we do control is that we do not need to become overly emotional, remember that there are options and look for them. In cognitive therapy terms, we are reframing the situation, looking at it differently, and are thus better able to cope and remain in control.

September is a busy month in every household, full of new beginnings, hope and promise. The kids head back to school and university. That means shopping for school supplies, healthy snacks and fall clothes that fit. The academic year starts up in the faculty of medicine, with its hectic teaching schedules, meetings and conferences. There are hockey tryouts and band auditions and exercise classes for which to register. New seasons of theatre/opera/symphony/dance subscriptions are starting.

Of course, things will not happen as planned. There will be schedule conflicts, things forgotten until the last minute, and missing and misplaced items. Each one of these situations can be an opportunity to recalculate.

With my computer not co-operating, I decided to give it a try myself. I tried to visualize my GPS—only it has a sexy male voice with a fabulous British accent. Nigel, I call him. “Sure, Nigel. . . . Thanks, Nigel. . . . Good job getting us here, Nigel.” (Yes, I know it’s weird to talk to him.) With my computer frozen, I could hear Nigel’s voice: “Recalculating.” I remembered the old days before computers, rummaged through a dusty drawer for a pen and some paper, and started to write by hand. However, my thoughts were gone. What was I going to write about? As I started to worry, I remembered to recalculate. This column flowed. Brilliant, simple, efficient, effective. And all with little energy lost to unproductive emotion.

Mamta Gautam is an Ottawa psychiatrist who specializes in treating physician patients. If you have a question you would like addressed in this column, please contact Dr. Gautam at Please include “Helping Hand” in the subject line. All inquiries will be confidential. Your questions will not be replied to, but may be selected to be answered in this column, which is intended to be educational, not therapeutic.