Hello Saturday – welcome!

Got some work to do

I’m having a great Saturday, so far. I woke up early and got some work done on a project I’m helping some people with. It’s been a really good experience for me,because I’vebeen thinking about offering this service to people for a fee. Now that I’ve been through the process, however, I’m not sure I want to spend a lot of time doing this sort of work. It’s a little tedious, and it involves a lot of sitting, which is not that great for me — and is actually what I’m trying to get away from.

So, it’s good that I’ve gone through this exercise. It’s giving me more information to work with — so I don’t waste time on things I don’t really want to do.

I’m also winding down on another big project I have, so I will be able to turn my attention back to TBI S.O.S – Restoring Your Sense-of-Self After Traumatic Brain Injury. I have gotten away from that for several months, and I’m looking forward to getting back to it.

On the bright side, I have been really good about not spreading myself too thin, so I can finish one thing before I start another. This is a big change for me. Massive, in fact. In the past, being scattered and not able to focus on one thing at a time cost me a lot. It kept me from moving forward, and I was always getting down on myself for being such a loser and never being able to complete anything. Now that I have been actively working on my focus, and I have more confidence that I can actually complete things I start — and I know how to say NO to things that distract me — I’m able to follow through, and it’s pretty awesome.

After I do some work around the house today, I’ll have my nap and then sit down to make more progress. It really feels fantastic, I have to say.

So, the day is shaping up nicely. I got a lot of chores done last week, so I don’t have to do a lot of little things today. I have a handful of big, important things that absolutely need to get done.

And now I can do them.

Onward.

Body practice for brain improvement

I’ve added a new piece to my morning/evening routines — when I am about to brush my teeth, I pull my toothbrush out of the holder and toss it from hand to hand. Sometimes I flip it around and try to catch it. Sometimes I can, sometimes I miss… drop it, and have to wash it thoroughly before I brush my teeth.

But I have noticed my hand-eye coordination improving. And my response times improve, as well. Also, I have noticed that I have been able to catch things that I start to drop more easily than ever before.

Like silverware falling out of my hands and headed for the floor — I have caught them several times.

Like a travel mug full of coffee that tipped over, and I was able to right before it spilled all over the place.

There have been a number of situations where my eye-hand coordination is definitely better than I can remember it being for a while – perhaps if ever. I was very active as a kid and played a lot of ball games, but I was a little spastic and had trouble coordinating my movements.

And I was convinced I could not juggle, because I was so “dorky”. I was convinced I was a lot of things (not all of them flattering) because of my coordination problems. My issues were probably a lot less than I believed they were, but because they didn’t match what I was expecting, I considered them terrible.

And I kept myself from doing a lot of things, because I figured, “Well, that’s just how I am, and I have to live with less as a result.”

Sad – pretty much of a waste.

Now things are different. Now I’m not convinced that anything I believe about myself is actually true. I’m questioning it. Trying new things. And discovering more things about myself than I ever did before.

Juggling helps me. Even just tossing around a pen is beneficial.  How?

  1. It improves my eye-hand coordination. I am getting better at catching things I toss from one hand to another. And when I spin the thing(s) I toss, it challenges me. I have dropped a lot of things, but I am getting better.
  2. It improves my self-control. When I drop things, I typically get very upset and start to blow up (inside mostly, sometimes outside). This is very disruptive. Knowing that I am practicing keeps it chilled out for me. Tossing a non-essential object, dropping it, and then practicing self-control and not flying off the handle, is helping me in my everyday life, when things go wrong unexpectedly.
  3. It improves my sustained attention. I can focus for longer and longer periods of time. I notice that I drop things when my attention wanders. Focusing on the object I’m tossing from hand to hand for a few minutes… then a few more minutes… then a few more minutes… is helping me to stay focused longer.
  4. It teaches me to block out distractions.  This is different from sustaining my attention. It’s one thing to lengthen the amount of time I can focus single-mindedly on something. It’s another thing to know how to block out sudden distractions that pop up into my field of view, or come to mind. Most of my distractions actually come from inside my head. I’ll start thinking about something else… and then I’m toast. I drop what I’m trying to catch. Or I toss something in the wrong direction. Practicing tossing things from one side to another — and most of all practicing not getting my attention pulled away — has actually helped me a great deal.

Recently, a reader posted a comment:

I saw a documentary on the brain and neuroplasticity and heard that juggling tennis balls can improve executive function.
I think it worked:
It only took the (uninjured) guy in the movie one practice session to be able to juggle several tennis balls.
It took about 2 months for me to be able to consistently juggle one ball.
I could only do a few minutes once or twice a week because it used so much of my brain energy.
After a few weeks I noticed my thinking seemed faster and switching between tasks was easier. There was also a measurable jump in my typing and reading speeds.

Now aprox 3 months later; I still do a few minutes, two times a week, but can use 2 balls. I just tested my typing speed again and it is aprox. twice as fast it was when I started the juggling exercise.

It’s worth a try: low cost, no side effects. Be aware that it took lots of patience and really used up a lot of brain enery when I started (so plan accordingly), but it got easier.

This is WAY cool. As they said, it is low cost and has no side effects — other than improvement in important areas.

It also takes a lot of brain energy at the start — I can also attest to that, because when I started tossing my toothbrush from hand to hand, first thing in the morning, I dropped it a lot, and spent a lot of time rinsing it off. (Why did I used my toothbrush? Because tossing something important raised the stakes and forced me to pay close attention.) It was very challenging when I started, to tell the truth.

But bringing in a tennis ball has expanded this — and it’s something I can do just about anywhere, just about anytime. In fact, I sometimes take a break at work to go to a quiet room and toss a tennis ball around. I may just add another ball to it and practice juggling.

Now, it’s all very well and good to learn how to juggle. It’s fun. It aids neuroplasticity. And it will be an accomplishment, if I ever manage it.

But the real benefit is not the juggling ability alone. It’s the psychological, experiential, and behavioral benefit I get from it.

Having better eye-hand coordination can reduce the number of “clumsiness events” in my life that not only drive me crazy but make me feel stupid and dim.

Being able to catch a tipping cup of coffee — that I can’t afford to spill — is a huge boost to myself-confidence. And it also spares me the internal storms of anger, range, frustration, and self-recrimination. It’s also good for my self-image, which can use a lot of help.

Being in better contact with the world around me, and having a more fluid interaction with my physical environment can offset the effects of my dizziness and the times when I am “off” — for one reason or another. Developing my coordination, my muscle memory, my ability to skillfully adapt to sudden changes in my environment… it’s all good, and it only helps me.

Overall, the strangely wonderful side-effects of tossing objects from one hand to another are helping me feel better about myself, feel like less of a klutz, and make me more relaxed and at-ease with the world around me.

And that’s a good thing.

So, onward…

 

 

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.