Getting the Gunk Out – Again and Again

Here’s your memory training image for the day (sorry I have forgotten to include these in the past days)

memory training image
Study this image for a few minutes, then read the post below… and then draw it afterwards.
Get that gunk out of the gears

So, I’m starting my new job tomorrow, taking it easy today, catching up on my rest, and not going too crazy with everything. I had some errands I intended to run, but I went to bed, instead.

Just as well. Those errands can wait.

I’m pretty excited about my new role, and I can’t wait to find out how it’s going to go.

I got myself some really nice, fresh food for dinner, and I’ll start cooking that up in a little bit. I need to get my things together — make sure I have clean socks, as well as a formal suit to wear. It’s my first day. I want to look my best. I’m sure it will prove to be a lot less formal than I’m dressing for, but I’ll just take off my jacket. Roll up my sleeves.

Problem solved.

I’m trying to drink a lot of water, so I’m clear for tomorrow. The last few weeks were pretty action-packed, and I need to settle my system. Yesterday I ended up being pretty busy and active, which wasn’t my ideal. I really wanted to have yesterday off, but that’s not what happened. Oh, well. That’s what Sunday’s for, right?

I spent a lot of time, this afternoon, relaxing and stretching and breathing. I did that after my nap, while I was lying in my warm bed, feeling comfortable and easy. I am having more trouble with my upper back, shoulders, neck, and trapezius muscle. I’m really stiff and sore, and not feeling great. All that lifting and moving yesterday didn’t help. Oh, well. I stretched, rolled on a tennis ball to work out the knots, and I “breathed into it ” as my chiropractor tells me to do. In the end, I felt better than when I started, but it’s still tight and painful to move at times.

The main thing for me is to work on clearing out the stress sludge from my last job. Let by-gones be by-gones, and also help my body clear out the biochemical leftovers from all the ridiculous dramas and conflicts that people seemed to dream up to keep themselves entertained. It’s not a small thing, clearing out the sludge. We have to do it, in today’s world, because nobody else will do it for us. We live in very stressful times (especially as the new political season picks up), and our systems are deluged with all kinds of conflict and strife and perceived threats.

If we allow it to build up and stay there, it takes a toll. It puts additional stress on our systems, and it drags us down. I dunno about you, but I don’t need anything else dragging me down. Especially if I know how to clear it out.

So, I’m breathing – steady as she goes – count of 5 in… count of 5 out… nice and even, relaxing all the while. It balances my autonomic nervous system and gets me out of fight-flight mode. It backs down the stress response and makes it possible for me to clear my head, so I can think properly.

This is important. This is critical. I know how to do this, and I must do it. It’s no longer optional for me. Not just some interesting thing to try out, here and there, but a discipline I need to regularly do.

Like the image memory exercises.

Both help. In different ways. They really help.

 

 

And now, get your pencil and paper and draw the image you just looked at above. No peeking. It’s important to see where you come up short. If you succeed each and every time, you’ve learned nothing. Good luck.

Beyond ye olde comfort zone

So, yesterday was interesting. I ended up not having to help a friend with the event they were dj’ing, but I did have to dog-sit for one of their buddies. And it turned out okay, actually. I got a few hours of my life back, and I also got to hang out with a pretty cool dog. I went for a couple of walks throughout the evening, and I even got 4-5 hours of good solid work done on this project.

The crazy thing is, I actually was able to start work on my project, once I got past the hangup about not being in my usual comfort zone, where I have hours and hours of uninterrupted time to work. I had this dog to take care of. I had to take it for a couple of walks (then wash off the dust and possible poison ivy each time we got back). I also had to make sure it wasn’t digging in the trash, which this dog loves to do. I was definitely not un-interrupted last night, and I had to keep an eye on things in ways that I usually don’t.

And yet, it didn’t stop me from making real progress. It was an added factor to deal with, but I dealt with it and it turned out fine.

I also slept like a rock last night — must have been all that walking, especially the midnight walk on an amazingly bright night. I think that “super moon” is happening this weekend, and outside at midnight, even with the overcast sky, there was a glow that lit things up like I haven’t seen in a long time.

I also haven’t been out walking at night in a long time. The last time I was actually outside walking around was several years ago, when the neighbor’s dog kept circling their perimeter going crazy crying and whining and barking like there was some wild beast out there. Turns out, there was — we have some large-ish, potentially dangerous predators in the woods of this area, and one of those creatures had been wandering into our neck o’ things, coming after the neighbors’ chickens. After the neighbors got rid of their chickens, they went away, but for a while it was a little dicey going out at night. I found out the easy way — shone my flashlight into a clearing in the woods, and saw two bright eyes looking back at me, more than a foot above the ground.

Definitely not a possum. I backed away slowly and went back inside. We haven’t heard tell of any of these creatures around, lately, but for some reason, I just stopped going out for night-time walks.

Last night was different, though. The dog had to be walked. He’d been drinking water all evening, and nature called. Plus, he was all rested from sleeping for hours, so he needed to be worn out so I could get some sleep. Beautiful walk on a beautiful night, and not terribly much traffic. Anyway, you can see people coming, so you just step off to the side, signal you’re there with your flashlight, and then move along when they’ve passed. In some ways, it’s actually safer than the daytime, when you can’t always see them coming.

Oddly, the mosquitoes didn’t make me crazy. Normally, they do, but I was so relaxed yesterday evening, it was crazy. Just so relaxed and feeling great — even though I was short on time, and my hours of working on the project ultimately turned out to be a bust because I had gone down a wrong path of thinking, and I’d persisted in this wrong path for hours. The only thing I really achieved last night, was figuring out what NOT to do. But in the end, that’s fine, because I needed to figure that out, anyway. Better to make the mistakes now, than later. I don’t have a lot of time later.

One of the things I was figuring out last night is a program I need to use to complete this project. I have been terribly resistant to figuring it out and learning the system, for some reason. I’m blocked, and I don’t know why. That little voice in my head that tells me, “You can’t” has been working overtime — in every single aspect of this learning task. It tells me:

  • I can’t find the time to work on this.
  • I can’t figure out how to work all the features.
  • I can’t find all the different pieces I need to put together.
  • I can’t learn the advanced functionality.
  • I won’t be able to change the things I need to change.
  • I can’t come up with a decent end-product.
  • I can’t hold my own, and I will be treated like a fool and an idiot when people see the product of my hard work.

Yes, this voice has been very busy — like so many mosquitoes buzzing around my head, distracting me and annoying me and stinging me.

Last night, though, I finally buckled down and dove into the starting parts of learning this process, and once I got going, I wasn’t bothered by that voice and all its little BS messages that are designed to just get me to stop what I’m doing and take a break and give myself a hiatus from… living my life.

The mechanics of this are fascinating. This voice-thing seems to get “triggered” by a biochemical state — a combination of excitement and anxiety and uncertainty, which my mind apparently interprets as DANGER – RUN AWAY!!! When that particular mix of emotions ramps up, my mind seems to shut off and immediately starts looking for the nearest escape route. It’s like my mind thinks I’m in a fighter jet that’s headed right for the side of a mountain, and it hits the eject button, getting me out of “harm’s” way.

The only thing is, I’m not actually in any danger. There is no threat — either immediate or distant. It’s just a feeling I have that comes from the circumstances around me, that my mind decides means something that is simply not true.

My neuropsych loves to tell me that it’s a psychological thing, being connected to how I think about things and what I decide things mean. Personally, I think there’s something to that — and yet the whole process happens way before any psychology has a chance to engage. It’s a physiological thing to me, mainly, which hijacks my abilities to reason and see clearly. My mind doesn’t even have time to interpret what’s going on, but my body jumps into action immediatamente. No time to think – just react. Get the hell out! Go! – Go! – Go!

So, what’s making a different to me in this? What’s helping me get past it?

Well, first, really practicing being cool is helping. Just staying impassive in situations that test me, watching what is happening, and really working at keeping my cool — no matter what.  I decide how I want to be in situations that test me, and I treat them like tests… like training… to help me learn to be cool. It doesn’t always work — like with that meltdown a couple of days ago — but when I am in my right mind, it can work.

Stopping the escalation is an important part for me — it’s critical, really. Taking a break and allowing all the biochemical drama to subside, is such an important step with me. It gives me back control over my life and my experiences in life, and it lets me just be myself, instead of a collection of mindless reactions to what’s happening around me. When I escalate just because I’m all fired up, I stop being myself. I start being a reaction. I don’t want to be a biochemical concoction. I want to be a human being. I want to be me.

Of course, until I realized that I could actually chill out the process and stop the madness, that was well nigh impossible. But realizing that I can do this — that I can stop the escalation and let the biochemistry settle down before it bursts into flames, has made all the difference in the world. It’s been revolutionary, really. It’s like I’ve turned this page, and nothing can get to me — provided I am rested and am paying attention to what’s happening around me.

And when it comes to paying attention, one of the things that has helped me a whole lot, is something that wouldn’t seem that big of a deal — paying attention to my breath and relaxing. Relaxing cuts down on my stress levels, which takes the edge off my sensitivities, which can be extremely distracting. In fact, I would have to say that my sensitivities to light and sound — which get much worse when I am stressed / tired / pressured — are a huge source of distraction to me. And they set up a feedback loop that’s a little like putting a microphone in front of a speaker — not good.

Stress makes me more sensitive. Sensitivities distract me and make it harder to attend to what’s going on . When I cannot attend as well, I cannot monitor my internal state as well, which often results in me not realizing that I’m getting more and more stressed, and I’m about to blow…

But when I can take the pressure off and just relax and settle into what’s happening in front of me, with the people who are with me, things get a lot better. And I get a lot better. Because I can pay attention to what’s going on with me, instead of the flurry of activity all around me that is distracting and pressuring and bothersome and so often ends up in a meltdown — whether it’s internal or external.

And when I can manage that, I can get beyond my former comfort zone – and have every zone be a comfort zone. This was unheard-of, just a few years ago. And I suffered for years and years as a result. But now things are turning around. And it’s good.

So, anyway, that’s the deal for today. I slept till 8:30 this morning. Unheard-of in recent history. Must be all that walking yesterday. Note to self: go for more walks today.

Figuring out how to relax… and get on with things

The flood doesn’t have to last forever

I’m running a little late this morning. I was supposed to have an early phone call with a colleague on the other side of the world, this morning, but that was cancelled — partly because they told me they would be traveling at the end of this week, but I didn’t put it together that I should reschedule our meeting till when they got back.

No worries, though. They reminded me of it, and I’m rescheduling, so that’s fine.

In the past, I would have really given myself a hard time for not putting that together. I would have been unsparing and relentless in my self-criticism, and by the end of my internal tirade against myself, I would have reached the conclusion that I am good for nothing and I can’t do much of anything at all. It’s happened before, lots of times – especially at times when I’ve forgotten to reschedule meetings.

Today that didn’t happen.

If anything, I was relieved that I didn’t have to get on the call right after I woke up. I have had a couple of late-evening calls with colleagues, for the past couple of days, and I haven’t been able to get in bed before 11:00, or sleep past 7, which means I’m getting 6-7 hours of sleep, when I should be getting 8+. Oh, well. At least I’m not getting 4-5 hours, like I was last week.

I felt a bit foolish for a little bit, having spaced out on the schedule thing, then I just got on with my morning. I’ve had some time to check my personal email and make a list of things I need to get done today — and wonder of wonders, I don’t have anything scheduled for this evening, so I can take care of some things for one of the projects I’m working on.

There’s been an interesting change with me, lately. It happened around the time when I went to see my family and got out of my daily routine rut. There was a LOT of driving involved, I did NOT sleep very well, and the whole time was pretty uncomfortable for me in a lot of ways. But I handled myself extremely well, and as a result, no relationships were trashed or threatened, and there was no left-over biochemical sludge that I needed to clear out of my system.

Also, all during the trip, I was practicing the “90-second clearing” that helped me to regain my balance after upsetting or unsettling or anxiety-producing discussions or situations.

Basically this “90-second clearing” works this way:

  1. I pay attention to my stress level, my physical situation — am I stressed? Am I relaxed? Am I getting tense and uptight? When I think about a picture of how I’m feeling, do I see a crazy line chart that looks like a craggy mountain range, with the line going wildly up and down to extremes?
  2. If I am getting tense and uptight, I stop what I am doing and thinking, and I take a break for a minute and a half.  I stop the reaction to what’s happening. I stop the racing thoughts. I stop the escalation. I stop the fast breathing.
  3. Then I breathe slowly for about a minute and a half — sometimes I need less time — until I feel “level” again.  I think about what my state of mind and body looks like, and if I see a line that looks like a nice little wave, or gently rolling hills, I know I’m good.
  4. Then I can get back to doing what I was thinking and saying and doing before.
  5. Then I can relax.

By stopping the crazy escalation and bringing myself back to a point of biochemical equilibrium (many times during my vacation), I was able to keep my head from going nuts over passing things. It wasn’t about tamping down my experience and suppressing my feelings and reactions — it was about just letting it all come… and then letting it all go… and moving on.

I’ve continued to do it, too — with good results. In fact, I just did it this morning, when my spouse and I were having a heated discussion about something that wasn’t going right, and we were both getting pretty uptight and tweaked over the situation. It wasn’t something that either of us had done “wrong”, just something that was wrong that I needed to fix — and we were starting to get pretty bent out of shape about it.

I managed to stop and just breathe for a minute or so, and the calming effect on me also had a calming effect on my spouse. I could relax. So could both of us. Good stuff. And now I can get on with my day.

This is a big change with me. I mean, just the fact that I even know what it feels like to relax, is a change. Up until about 5-6 years ago, that never happened. I had no idea what relaxation really felt like, and I wasn’t interested in finding out. I just needed to be ON. I just needed to be UP. I just needed to be GO-GO-GO, all the live-long day. And frankly it was tearing the sh*t out of me and my life and my relationships. Especially after my TBI in 2004, when suddenly I was unable to keep it together and manage the GO-GO-GO in a sensible way.

Then I started doing “stress hardiness optimization” which is guided meditation for first responders and other people in high-stress conditions. I figured that applied to me pretty well — especially since I felt like I was always responding to emergencies in my life on a personal level. That trained me to physically relax, with progressive relaxation.

Mentally relaxing and being able to just let things go, however, still eluded me.

But over time, the more I’ve relaxed physically and the more capable I’ve become at understanding and managing my own “internal state”, the better I’ve become at being able to relax my mind as well as my body.

Ironically, one of the things that’s helped me to relax my mind, is coming to realize that no matter what the circumstances, I’ll be able to figure something out. It may not be perfect, it may not be what I want, but I’ll be able to deal. I’ll be able to manage myself and my situation. I’ll be able to handle things. The 90-second clearing is a huge piece of the puzzle that helps me incredibly.

First, it defines my internal state of anxiety and upset as a biochemical thing. It’s not that something is wrong with me, and I cannot handle things. It’s my body reacting to what’s going on, trying to help me rise to the occasion with a flood of biochemical stress hormones that are specifically designed to kick me into action. It’s a purely physical reaction.

Second, it’s all about recognizing that my body can be a little “behind the times” — and my mind / awareness can jump in to help it calm down. My fight-flight system (like everyone’s) is quick to react, but slow to back off — once engaged, my fight-flight system doesn’t want to let go. It wants to keep me safe. It keeps escalating, until the “danger” has passed, but it doesn’t always realize that a “danger” is not actually dangerous. So I have to help it do that. It’s not doing it by itself. It needs my awareness to help. Which I can do.

Third, it’s about exercising my mind in very basic ways — just paying attention to how I’m feeling, and doing very simple things to adjust. It’s not about some elaborate plan that will require tons of practice and has to be done just right. It’s about just noticing what’s going on with me, and doing something with it. Taking action. Working with my situation to turn it in a different direction — adding important ingredients — elements of balance and just plain feeling good, which is a new experience for me. Just plain feeling good… what a concept.

Last of all, it just works. Slow breathing for a minute and a half puts a halt to my downward slide and stops the escalation in its tracks. I’ve used it a number of times in a number of different situations, with excellent results. I can’t even begin to explain how great it feels to have the waves of anxiety and dread and fight-flight sludge back off — to feel them subside, leaving calm in their place. It’s like the flood waters of the Nile are receding, leaving fertile fields awaiting a new season of crops. And it leaves me feeling awake and confident and better than I did before.

Feeling tight and cramped and anxious and nervous and antagonistic feels like crap, I have to say.

Feeling loosened up and relaxed and strong and flexible and friendly feels pretty awesome.

90 seconds is all it takes, too (well, sometimes it takes longer, but not more than a few minutes). It “resets” me, “reboots” my brain. And it lets me get on with my life. Relaxed, confident, and with a lot more better ideas than I had just a few minutes before.

 

 

Whatever I want it to be…

The last day of a long week. After another long week before that…. and another long week before that…. Come to think of it, February was a long month. The shortest month of the year was the longest, experience-wise. And packed full of new details. And as stressful as it was exciting. A real roller-coaster ride, if I say so.

I’m sure things will settle down as we move forward and people find their place. At least we have our job responsibilities clearly (well, sort of) outlined and described in our HR “goals and objectives” system. And it’s pretty good, when I step back and take the view of someone who is just passing through, rather than chained to this galley bench till the end of the sea voyage.

A lot of folks at work are incredibly stressed out over everything. There are adjustments going on with everyone, and tempers run hot at times. People are tired and long-term stressed, and we all know what happens when that happens. Unfortunate things are said and done, and then everyone gets all worked up over this, that, and the other thing. Over nothing, really… And then the fur flies, and people dig in, trying to justify why they did or said that stupid thing, 15 minutes ago… and a whole elaborate conceptual framework gets built up around people trying to defend a position they know is not right to begin with, just because they feel they need to defend it or they will lose face, lose ground, and not have the same standing with others that they want to have.

Some call it “ego”. I call it a heavy-duty bias towards the sympathetic nervous system — you know, that fight-flight-freeze response that is all but out of our control… but we can manage and modulate with the right approach(es). Some people spiral out of control in a downward slide, when things change or go wrong, while others find ways to work through them and come out on the other side in one piece. In my former life before my TBI in 2004, I was the kind of person who could deal. I could handle things that came down the pike that threw other people for a loop, and I prided myself in that ability. After I fell in 2004, that all went out the window, and I lost myself in the increasingly stressful details of my everyday life. I felt terrible about myself, I felt like I was useless, couldn’t handle anything, and that I was good for nothing to anybody anymore. It took such a toll on my self-esteem and ability to interact with others… and I built up this whole new self-perception that just wasn’t accurate. I believed that the way I acted under circumstances in a given moment, was an indicator of who I was all the time — and that messed with my head like nothing else.

Now I know that my perceptions just were not true. I can be however I want to be, and I can interpret situations however I want to. I am not chained to any one version of reality, and in fact so much of what we call “Reality” is just a conditioned response that makes us feel a certain way. Our body chemistry — like a radio — gets tuned to a certain frequency, and even if we don’t like the music at first, we get used to it. And then when we’re in that “frequency,” if it feels right, then we think that what we’re thinking and feeling and observing is true. Our systems are built to acclimate to “normal” circumstances and then reinforce us when we are in that “normal” zone.

But the thing is, all that “normalcy” is nothing more than habit. We just get used to things being a certain way, and when they’re not that way anymore, we freak out – to a greater or lesser degree. Our freak-outs can range from general discomfort… to cranky-bitchiness… to outright meltdowns. And you know what? It’s not the external circumstances that are to blame. It’s our own internal reactions to them.  We are just so accustomed to our own internal reactions and our own “scema” of “reality” that we take them for granted, and they never get questioned until something changes that doesn’t synch up with our assumptions. And 9 times out of 10, rather than blaming our assumptions, we blame the thing that changed — something outside ourselves — for the problem. It couldn’t possibly be us… right?

Now don’t get me wrong. I do think that a lot of external circumstances are genuinely stress producing and can make us miserable, no matter how well-prepared or well-tuned we are. It’s just how we’re built. And obviously something like an earthquake or flood or tornado or organizational “redesign” at work will throw you for a loop. But we often make things harder for ourselves than need be, with our reactions and our determination to interpret things in the old way — which stopped being valid, the minute things changed.

The point is, we always have a choice about how we’re going to interpret the world around us. We’re not locked into any one “real” way of thinking or doing or being. There is no such thing. And the things we believe are true, are more true to our biochemistry than they are to our actual circumstances. Especially in America, we tend to believe the more true and real and authentic something feels, the more true it must BE. And yet our feelings stem from habits we’ve become biochemically attached to, along with the reactions that we have that reinforce our biochemical experiences. They’re real. They’re visceral. And they can really save our asses in a pinch when we don’t have time to think through things. But as a way of living life… going by gut feeling and sensation alone can get you into real trouble.

Anyway, today is a new day, and I am taking special care to watch out for what I’m thinking and saying and feeling and doing about things. In the past years of my recovery from TBI, a lot has changed in my mind about my life and what it’s all about — a lot has changed about who I am and what I am all about. The bottom line is, I get to choose today, how I will feel and how I will interpret things around me. It’s a dramatic time with work changing so drastically, and it’s a hard time for so many people around me (including myself).

For today, this day isn’t just about stress and anxiety and change. It’s about opportunity and potential and growth. There are elements of both sides in all this, and there’s a lot that’s out of my control. I have been having headaches. I am generally exhausted. I have a pretty short fuse, these days. And my light and noise sensitivity is pretty amped up, these days.

But there’s also a lot of good in my life, and spring is on they way. It’s my choice how I feel about things, and it’s my choice what I focus on.

Onward.