You know the trope. The hero of the story is under great duress. Demons have kidnapped his girlfriend or she has some major court case to defend and the future of the free world hangs on the outcome. Whatever the situation, the hero still needs a shower. So they turn on the water, step under the spray, and, somehow, it helps. The world comes back into focus and their clarity and strength are restored.
Now, I’ve been stressed to the point of breaking. My life has been one long traumatic event, if you really want a description of it. Through it all, I have tried to shower regularly. Sure, I feel a little better after, but it really wasn’t anything extremely mood altering. I’m skeptical by nature, so the whole shower-makes-it-better thing ranks right down there with “praying” for things to do to make it all better.
Turns out, I’ve been doing it wrong. Done correctly, it appears there is a true physiological response that does, surprisingly, make things a little better. Let me explain by way of a true story.
When you first step into the parent’s shower at the children’s hospital far enough from your house that there is no reasonable way to go home for anything, you think the room was created to remind you that you really are living through a hell on earth. With it’s cold tiled floor and walls, it’s dripping shower head that looks older than anything you’ve ever seen in all your years traveling on the cheap, and the grey-brown curtain you are certain is from a bad horror movie, it does about as much to create a warm and relaxed feeling as the idea of having dinner with your ex-in-laws.
You’ve been awake for nearly 35 hours, though, and you’ve been in these clothes while sitting on the floor of the local emergency room off and on for 10 hours. You need to wash it all off and change, if for no other reason than your mind is starting to convince you that you’ve picked up some disease off the floor.
You set your things next to the sink because there is no other place to put them. Then you turn on the water to get the temperature to a place you like. This water, though, is just more proof that someone is mocking you and your pain. You’ve turned it 360 and it’s still cold. You turn it up again, higher and, then, higher, until the knob can’t go any further and you are reminded of the last time your child needed surgery and you stayed in that cheap motel that had no hot water. You are almost ready to give in to the mental anguish, almost ready to break down, when you feel the faintest hint of heat as the water splatters on your hand. Accepting your fate of a tepid shower, you undress and step inside the stall, pulling the curtain behind you and hoping it is thick enough to keep in what little heat the water is generating.
The water finally warms enough to not be a complete shock to your system and you step under it and let it hit your chest. You think, jokingly, that the tropes are ridiculous. Nothing is happening. It’s cold. The tension in your body is wound so tight that it’s the only thing that keeps your mind from coming unglued. But, just to give them a fair shake, and because you really need to wash your hair, you step completely under the shower head.
And, by f***, it works. There is an actual, palpable, physiological effect on your body. For a few seconds, because that’s all you can mentally afford, you let go of everything, and allow a few tears to flow with the water streaming down your face. Then you stand there for another minute to take advantage of this moment of reprieve.
Somewhere, downstairs, they are performing surgery on your son to save his life. Deep down in your psyche you’ve forced all the horrors of watching your child suffer such pain for over 24 hours that CIA torturers would be jealous of the outcomes. For ten minutes, though, your body can release a little bit of the stress. It can loosen just enough to, maybe, make it through another 24 hours.
They really ought to do a study on this. Just how high does the tension have to be in the body for person to experience the trope-like effect of a shower? Don’t expect me to sign up, however. For now, I am content just to be a believer.