Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Norman Cousins' Good Advice

I forget when I first wrote to him, or why. A long time ago I had a habit of writing letters to authors. Usually, they wrote back. Sometimes that developed into a correspondence, and that's what happened with Norman Cousins. It must have been in 1980s, because I had a newspaper column then, and he thought I was witty. And it was in that decade that I had symptoms of anxiety and underwent some heart tests, and that's what his advice was about.

Norman, who wrote Anatomy of an Illness and Head First, among others, explained to me that since the nervous system affects breathing and the heart, tension can skew the results of numerous tests. When I was scheduled to have a thallium scan heart test, he said I should use humor to lighten the atmosphere in the testing room, thereby reducing my stress levels.

I remember four or five grim-faced people bending over me as I lay on the table, attaching straps and devices of various kinds. I forget exactly what I said to them—something like, "You people would be nothing without Velcro"—no, I'm sure it wasn't that harsh. But it did involve Velcro, and it did make them laugh. And I laughed, and I aced the test.

All these years later, I applied it again when I had to go for a breathing test last week. The technician and I didn't exactly have an affectionate history. In fact, I considered insisting that I take the test elsewhere because I was sure just one look at her would cause my chest to tighten up. I was sure hers would, too, but her lungs didn't have to perform well under pressure.

Finally, I decided I could do it. I could be charming. I could win her over and lighten up the atmosphere in the room. You're probably expecting me to admit that I failed miserably. But no, I did it. I was chatty, she responded, and the atmosphere in the room was just fine. And not only did I ace the test, but I came away feeling a lot more positive about the technician.

Thanks, Norman.

9 comments:

Mali said...

Thanks, Susan. That is a wonderful reminder!

Helen said...

But why did you have to go for a breathing test in the first place? Maybe all that hilarity is causing a temporary blip from your normal state?

You had a newspaper column? Wow...

Dona said...

Good advice, Susan (and Norman).

You had a newspaper column? Wow...

Susan said...

It was a small newspaper.

One can never have too much hilarity, Hilarious Helen.

Susan said...

I forgot to add that I posted this in the hope that if anyone ever needed this advice, they'd remember it.

Re the breathing test, I started getting shortness of breath two years ago. This was most unwelcome! I learned diaphragmatic breathing years ago, and always felt it was such a good thing for me. Now it's difficult. Lots of different tests showed nothing's wrong, so that's good at least.

crystal said...

I remember his books, the idea that himor helps people get well. I hope you're feeling better :)

Eulalia (Lali) said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Indigo Bunting said...

Great advice and fascinating story. Sometimes I think I would like a list of all the famous people you have met and/or corresponded with. It seems vast.

Susan said...

Lali, Norman was as kind as he was wise.

Not vast, IB. I just make it seem that way. :-)