The challenge of novelty

I’ve been watching videos of Sonia Lupien, who is a researcher in human stress. The Brain Development and Learning Conference in 2008 had a good talk by her.

Two videos of her presentation are below. They are not very good quality, visually, but the information is interesting. I also found that the poor quality made me pay closer attention, which was helpful.

What this has to do with anything, is that my present life seems to be about acclimating myself to stress in a way that will let me get on with my life without getting hijacked by things that make you NUTS — and create/add to stress.

NUTS stands for a situation that is:

Threat (to the ego), and it creates
Sense of loss of control

For a situation to be stressful it must contain one or more of the following elements:

NOVELTY Something new you have not experienced before
UNPREDICTABILITY Something you had no way of knowing it would occur.
THREAT TO THE EGO Your competence as a person is called into question
SENSE OF CONTROL You feel you have little or no control over the situation.

These four factors create what she and her colleagues call a “recipe for stress”. Any or all of these factors may come into play, and it all depends on the individual, how much stress comes out of the experience. Check out the link and read a bit — you may find it quite interesting.

Now, what I’m doing with this — and have been lately, independent of having watched her videos and having read more of what she’s done — is introducing more novelty and uncontrolled circumstances into my life, under friendly conditions. My feeling is that, while I have introduced good routines into my day, deviating from those routines is far too disruptive, and I need to develop more flexibility in my approach to my daily life. This is especially true in my relationships with people.

I have gotten into the habit of following a certain steps, each morning, and if I don’t follow them exactly, I tend to get nervous. And that throws off my whole day. Does this make sense for me? I’m a full-grown adult, and I can’t get by without my checklists? Now, granted, I really needed help with remembering what I was supposed to do each day. I would literally forget that I was supposed to take my vitamins or eat my cereal. And I would literally forget to gather everything I needed for the day. I just wasn’t doing well at all. So, I used my checklists, and I have been doing a whole lot better, since.

But without my checklists — for even the most basic things, like getting up in the morning and doing my morning routine — I would get so stressed out, it would throw me off. I was getting far too brittle and far too dependent on my lists, using them more and more as crutches, rather than as necessary elements of my day.

So, I am changing things up. I have veered away from using my standard-issue checklist every single morning. And I have been making lists on scrap paper that I have on hand. I’m still organized about it, using the scrap paper on my clipboard, and marking off the things I need to do in an orderly fashion. But I’m being more fluid about it and I’m relying more on my in-depth involvement in my day, rather than a specific checklist that was made out for me earlier, to get myself going.

I also started changing up my workout in the mornings, improvising and introducing more full-body movement into my exercises, rather than exercises that isolated only one muscle or a small group of muscles. I started doubling up on my exercises, also, incorporating more movement into the lifting, so that my whole body was challenged, instead of just one set of muscles.

At first, the change of pace threw me a bit, and I was pretty anxious and concerned. But the change in exercise really bumped up my attention, and I found it to be a lot more invigorating and waking-up-ing than my past routines had been. At the start, doing my regular exercises exactly the same way every single day, really helped me establish a regular routine, that got me back into the swing of regular life. But now I’m back in the swing of things, and I’m in need of a new twist (literally and figuratively) to my morning routine.

Novelty. Yes. And unpredictability, too. Because now I never really know what I’m going to do for my workout each morning. I do know that I’m going to take care of my household pet, eat my breakfast, and lift and stretch and get my heart rate going. But I don’t necessarily know the specifics, or even the order of some things.

After changing things up a little bit, I have started to acclimate to it. When I start to get nervous about not knowing what exercise to do next, I just move my body a little bit and pay attention to what movements feel tight or stiff or weaker than I’d like. Then I focus on them. I try to move my entire body somewhat during each morning warm-up, and I keep in mind that I’ll be stretching later, so I need to warm myself up. I also am mindful of the need to get my heart rate up and to get my breathing going. I need to jump-start my body so my brain will kick in. And as I move through the motions of each morning workout, I start to feel better about it — and even if I tell myself I’ll only spend 10 minutes on the workout, when I’m pressed for time, I find that those 10 minutes are good quality … or I actually have more time than I thought I did.

Well, it’s all a process, and it’s been a very busy week. But I have to say, increasing the stress in my life under very controlled and limited (and friendly) circumstances is helping me a great deal. The better I can handle my morning “artificial stressors”, the better I feel I can handle the rest of the real-world stressors of the day.

Which makes me feel really great — about myself and my ability to deal with the world around me.

Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

4 thoughts on “The challenge of novelty”

  1. So true! Being head-injured, I find that on the days when I have a list — or as my wife calls them when she makes a “honey-do” list for me, Mark’s Mission — at the end of the day I’m more tired than usual, but find I have done more that one day than in the previous two or three days without my list.

    Yes, routines are incredibly important for people — head-injured or not. Every morning, I wake up, fix coffee, smoke a cigarette while walking the dog, and pack my son’s lunch for school. If I deviate from that, it throws me for a loop.

    My wife is very good about being organized–I am not. I guess that’s why God put us together. She encourages me to make a list every morning or evening of what I want to get done the next day, but so often something comes up to provide me an “easy-out,” that I have trouble sticking to it. For example, if I need to go visit a friend in the hospital unexpectedly, I allot myself a couple of hours for travel, parking, finding and the visit. What snafus me, though, is the time it takes me to get back to my car — after finding it through a long and arduous process — and the travel time back to my house. If there happens to be a wreck on the interstate causing traffic to back up for miles, forget about it. I’m a total mess. I can handle the stress of sitting in traffic, but as for getting anything done for the house, forget about it.

    BB, I admire you, even though we’ve not met, because you are taking control of your life and MAKING yourself stay organized. Maybe that’s what I need to do.



  2. Hey Mark –

    Thanks for the insights and the kind words. Being organized is actually really difficult for me — I like to “go with the flow”, despite what I’ve described doing. My first impulse is to just toss out any kind of to-do list and “wing it” but that ends up in disaster so very often, that I have learned the hard way… many times over. I think with me, the urgency of it comes from my sink-or-swim life. I have a lot of responsibilities on me, and if I don’t hold myself to a very strict routine, I get in trouble very quickly. I have run out of energy for constant fire-fighting… so I have my lists.

    One thing that tends to throw me off, when things don’t go according to my plans, are my interpretations of how things are going. If, for example, I can’t find my way back to my car (which has happened to me lately), and I start getting down on myself for being such an idiot for failing at this simple task, the task becomes even harder, and I end up getting bent out of shape over it… which then throws me off for the rest of the day.

    But if I tell myself, “There are a ton of cars in this parking lot, and I’m lucky to have even found a spot at all… probably everybody has trouble finding their car in THIS place!” and then I congratulate and reward myself for FINALLY finding my car, then it goes from being an opportunity to beat myself up and stress myself out, to being an opportunity to experience my life as a series of little victories, however small.

    Of course, it always helps to turn around and take a long look at where I’ve parked my car, when I’m leaving the lot in the first place… I try to do that. Either that, or I always park in exactly the same area when I drive in to work. Even if it’s on the far side of the lot and I have to trudge through wind and rain, at least I’m sure I’ll remember where my car is, at the end of the day. And at the end of a long day of work, I have even less resources to remember where I parked, so doing it the same (boring) way every single time works for me. Other people would probably find it drab and unexciting, but the fun part is that I don’t have to hassle over wondering where my car is.

    The other thing that throws me, is having the sinking feeling that I’m going to be in trouble when I fail at what I’m trying to do. If I go to the store to buy more than two things, and I haven’t written them down, chances are VERY good that I’ll forget at least one of the Very Important Things. And then I get in trouble, when I get back home and I’m asked, “So, where’s the ______?” And then it’s either back in the car and back to the store, or fending off both the frustrated lecture about being forgetful and/or getting myself to calm down about my shortcomings. One of the things that helps me, is taking my cell phone with me, just in case I need help remembering. I call home and ask for help — I try not to let the frustration in the voice of my spouse get to me and I try to focus on solving the task at hand: doing/buying everything I set out to do/buy.

    If you’re in a jam, simply talking can also be soothing. Or singing. The vagus nerve, which triggers our parasympathetic (rest/relax) response, is connected with the larynx and the throat area. Singing and talking stimulate that, so it physically triggers your body to chill out. Also, singing with its rhythms and regular, controlled movement of the breathing, helps. Make sure you breathe deeply and slowly, too. Being stuck in traffic takes on a whole new feel, when you’re using the time to chill out your system and actively relieve the stress you’re under.

    And you can also use that time to go over your list of what you need to get done — another way to stay organized, even when things around you are not working out.

    Good luck with that organization — it’s well worth the effort.



  3. And what about adding some more pics? I don’t want to offend anyone, blog is really great. Just as I’ve heard humans acquire information much more efficient when they see certain useful pics.

    Jeff Mainfield


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