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.