Are you obsessed with things you can't change?
When my younger son was 3 years old, he almost died.
He was having some health issues. We saw a specialist, and agreed that he needed an endoscopy. It’s a routine procedure. The doctors sedate the person, put a tiny camera down their throat, and take a look at their stomach. It takes a few minutes. In the context of what was happening with my son, it wasn’t a big deal and was the right choice.
The procedure itself was quick and uneventful. My son woke up afterward and was back to himself within hours.
Then he wasn’t.
The next day, he was gray and listless. A three year old boy’s baseline behavior is bouncing off the walls. He was sitting around and falling asleep in random places in the middle of the day. I knew something wasn’t right.
I took him back to the specialist. The doctor told me I was being an overprotective mother, that my son had a of virus, and sent me on my way.
I want to be clear here. I am not an MD. But I do have a PhD in Neuroscience from an Ivy League school. I have been around medicine for my entire career — 20 years. I am not a hypochondriac, nor an alarmist. I knew something was wrong.
I decided to get a second opinion. I made an appointment with my son’s pediatrician. Two days later I sat in his office and told him that I suspected that my son was anemic, although I wasn’t sure why. The doctor gave him one tiny finger prick and 5 minutes passed. The pediatrician came back into the office, looking as gray as my son.
I was right. My son had lost a substantial amount of blood. And I needed to rush him to the emergency room, immediately.
What happened next was a blur of panic and waiting. My 3 year old required a blood transfusion, thick needles inserted into each of his tiny arms. The doctors refused to admit that the endoscopy was related to the blood loss. So they put my son through a battery of tests that turned up nothing. After two days and several pints of blood, they sent us home.
In the end, my son was fine. He wandered into my office just now as I write this, a robust and affectionate 8 year old. But the experience was jarring.
When you experience something traumatic, it can be easy to let it dominate your thoughts. To ruminate. And to create constant vigilance in your mind. To try to predict the future so that you can prepare and never let it happen again.
But what purpose does it serve? How does that help you move forward with your life?
I offer three ideas instead.
Stop fighting the past with the thought “It Shouldn’t Have Happened”
There is no positive spin to put on what happened. It was a bad thing. When children get sick, it’s bad. When anyone gets sick, it’s bad.
And it’s true, it shouldn’t have happened. No one should get sick. And the specialist made a serious error in dismissing me as an overprotective mom.
I did get caught up in the “It shouldn’t have happened” vortex for a little while after it happened. I was angry. I was scared. I thought about all the points in time when things could have gone a different way. I could have told them that I didn’t want a certain doctor to do the procedure. I could have fought harder in the specialists’ office when I took my son in shortly after the procedure. I could have, I should have, It would have been different if….
But all I was doing was fighting against circumstances that already took place.
The past happened. Good or bad. We react the way that we do. We can’t change that. And focusing on what we should have done, or what should have happened, doesn’t change a thing.
As Eckart Tolle says:
What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is?
Obsessing about the past won’t protect you from uncertainty in the future
So many of us engage in Magical Thinking after something bad happens.
Magical Thinking is a psychological term defined as:
the belief that one’s ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world.
In this context, Magical Thinking is the belief that, if you think about the past enough, you can protect yourself from the future.
This is a form of hyper vigilance that many of us with anxiety experience. It’s a way of always being on the lookout for real or perceived danger.
So, the idea is that we comb through every single moment of a bad or traumatic experience. We memorize every step. So that if we ever see one of those moments in the future, we “know” something bad is going to happen. And we can prevent or avoid it. We believe that we can predict or control what is, in reality, a completely uncertain future.
The truth is, what happened to my son was a unicorn situation. A bizarre convergence of events. What are the odds that an endoscopy causes life-threatening bleeding? I found a study done on almost 100,000 patients, and the odds were 0.2%. Unicorn status for sure.
So, how would my obsessive focus on an event with 0.2% odds of ever happening help me predict anything?
In the end, those thoughts kept me paralyzed. Frozen in time instead of living with, enjoying and interacting with my then healthy son. Expecting the worst instead of embracing the joy that he was, in fact, fine. And either way, no amount of re-living the situation will prepare me for the uncertainty of what comes next.
Focus on what is right in front of you
We all process negative or traumatic events in our own way, and in our own time. I don’t want to minimize, belittle, or rush that process for anyone. And we each experience situations in a different way. What could feel traumatic to me could be a non-event for someone else.
I learned a few things from that situation that I will definitely take with me as I move forward in life. You can bet that I learned to always trust my gut when it comes to my kids’ health. And seek out another opinion if I feel like someone is dismissing me.
That said, sometimes you need to take the wheel. To help your brain drive in the right direction if you feel like it’s headed off road.
I had to let go of what I thought should have happened. To stop fighting the reality of what did happen. And to embrace the dumb luck that my kid was fine. Five years have passed. He has had his share of scraped knees and elbows, of mosquito bites and stomach bugs. But he is healthy and happy. And literally standing right in front of me. Grinning right at me. That’s what I want to focus on. That’s the memory I want to hold tight.
What can you redirect your mind toward? What’s one, tiny happiness you can find in the present? Obsess about that. And hold it tight.