I remember the day like it was yesterday, the giddy school girl excitement tinged with anxiety deep in my stomach as I approached my office building. I was getting my life back, another shot, but would he even remember me let alone how I like my coffee? Then, still 100 metres away, my swirling thoughts and emotions were interrupted with a booming Taaaaaanya!! I looked up to see him waving vehemently and smiling the most heartwarming smile now etched permanently into my heart. I felt a tear start to well as I approached the cafe…I hadn’t been forgotten. George, my gorgeous ‘coffee guy’ who had been a crucial and favourite part of my morning ritual before the diagnosis stood eagerly awaiting me, beaming that huge George smile. I had missed our morning ritual of reflecting on the world and life events, large and small as he made me my morning ‘happy juice’. “How are you?” George asked. “I’ve been thinking of you so much. My wife and I went to the hospital but we couldn’t get through to see you because all I knew about you was that your name was Tanya and you drank a long black.“
It was this simple but precious interaction between my friend George who made me my coffee each morning from the cafe in my office building, that I recall fondly when people ask me if, and how, cancer changed my outlook on life. You see, it was my first day back in the office after many months of recovery from a double mastectomy. A corporate lawyer in one of Australia’s top firms, the hours were often long and the work, whilst rewarding, could be equally challenging and highly demanding. My morning coffee ritual was one of the highlights of my long and busy days, not just because of my love of coffee or the conversations that would flow with George, but because without fail, George would remember how I like my coffee, what my children were up to, what I was reading at the time. George listened, he connected, he cared. George did this with everyone who came to his cafe. But I didn’t fully appreciate just how significant an impact this simple but special morning ritual played in my life before my diagnosis, whilst I was enjoying it. I was taking it for granted in the rush and stress of everyday life. It wasn’t until I was walking the familiar path toward the cafe on that first day back, realising George would probably have forgotten me and what coffee I like given the hundreds of new faces he sees each week, that I started to appreciate it a little more fully. Then as George told me of his and his wife’s attempt to visit me in hospital I was hit by the impact that we have in different people’s lives, often without ever actually realising it. They say that trauma helps one to re-prioritise, to stop sweating the small stuff when you’ve faced some of the ‘big stuff’. For me it was a journey of discovering and appreciating how some of that small stuff, and there is so much of it in our everyday, is really the big stuff!
Life without adversity is an illusion and adversity doesn’t discriminate – we all encounter stressful, traumatic, painful times in life. It’s unfortunate but it’s a fact. It is precisely when we are going through difficult times that we need to find and focus on all the ‘seemingly small’ things that are good in our life, and the stark contrast that a truly traumatic period provides, can help us to finally see them more clearly. A morning coffee, a rainbow, a hug from a loved one, a walk in nature, the small, soft hand of a young child snug within yours, a nap in the sunshine, the soft fur and warmth of a puppy resting on your lap…take a moment to think of 6 little ‘big’ things in your life right now. Reflect on how you feel just thinking about them – powerful hey! That’s cause they really are the big stuff!
2020 has seen us all thrust into a battle with another C-word. People are experiencing stress and trauma on unprecedented levels globally. My hope is that the unavoidable trauma of this time for so many will see us connect to the people and things that we might have been taking for granted before COVID-19, or perhaps are losing sight of now, consumed instead by stress, fear and uncertainty. I hope we can find the little ‘big’ things because we need to focus on and feed those right now, not lose sight of them or neglect them. So much of what is happening due to COVID-19 is outside of our control, and feeding the stress and uncertainty it is causing is hurting, not helping, us. If we are going to get through each difficult day, we need to tap into all the good things we do still have in our lives. No, it won’t make COVID go away, it won’t bring back lost loved ones or open borders, save lost businesses or replenish dwindling bank accounts…but then again neither will focusing on all these things constantly and creating further stress in our bodies and minds that can blind us to the good little ‘big’ things we do have available to us every day! Chronic stress has been shown to have adverse effects on our brain including impaired cognitive functioning in our pre-frontal cortex and hindrance of the functioning of our hippocampus. This means our decision making and memory, both of which we need to navigate a positive path out of the COVID-19 chaos, will be impaired by chronic stress. Let’s find and focus on our little ‘big’ things as a daily antidote to the chronic stress of the current pandemic – to help our brain work more effectively when we do have to give COVID-19 attention to find ways to minimise the impact of it on our loves ones, our businesses, our lives.
Studies on the effect of gratitude on the human body and brain have found overwhelming evidence that actions involving the giving and receiving of gratitude can :
• Reduce pain
• Release toxic emotions
• Improve sleep quality
• Aid in stress regulation
• Reduce anxiety and depression
• Increase resilience
• Increase happiness and wellbeing,
so let’s grow our little ‘big’ things with regular doses of attention and gratitude.
Not only did George remember me on that first day back, he remembered what coffee I liked and had it ready and waiting for me by the time our conversation finished. He made me feel seen and appreciated and helped me to appreciate the power of connection and the joy that morning ritual brought us both. It didn’t take away the pain of the preceding months but it made me realise that that C-word experience was just one difficult part of my life, but it was not one of my big things in life. If there is anything positive that might possibly come out of COVID-19, it’s that more people will hopefully begin to see with greater clarity and appreciate that those little things in life, really are the big things, and we need to find them and focus on them more than ever right now.