Choosing to stay chilled out

Image shows a cat lying on its back on an easy chair, with a t.v. remote lying on its belly
Image shows a cat lying on its back on an easy chair, with a t.v. remote lying on its belly

I’ve been uptight for way too long. I’ve been cranked up, worked up, stressed out, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I didn’t know how to relax until about 10 years ago, when I started deliberately practicing that.

I had no choice. My spouse was seriously ill. I was losing it. I had to figure out a way to get myself back from the edge… I was dangerously close to it, and my life was literally disintegrating around me, along with my sanity.

I got help. I found a neuropsych who could work with me.

I also learned how to do “progressive relaxation” — and I did it on a regular basis. It wasn’t just some fun thing I wanted to try out. It was life-and-death, and the balance of my life depended on it. I sat za-zen. I meditated each day before I did anything, and then again when I went to bed.

Over the years, I’ve lost touch with that old practice. I just didn’t feel like doing it anymore. And I’ve gotten increasingly cranked up and tied up in knots, as the months and years have progressed.

I’m back at that “choice point” again. Relaxation isn’t optional for me. It’s got to become a way of life. It’s not that I’m close to the edge. I’m just sick and tired of being stressed out about everything, and having nothing good come of it. Consider it a reality check on the ROI of being stressed. The return on the “investment” isn’t good.

That means, the time and energy spent is it’s not an investment. It’s a waste. I can’t get those hours and days and weeks back, that I lost to being stressed. They’re gone for good. And what do I have to show for them? A little, but not a lot.

So, I’m going to try something very different. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, but my plan is to keep my system in a prolonged state of relaxation. Just let my body relax. Just let my mind not worry about all that sh*t that everybody else is so worried about. I get too bent about crap I can’t control. It’s just kind of dumb. What the heck do I expect to happen as a result of my outrage, anyway? That it’s going to change anything? It doesn’t — except my internal state of mind. It just wrecks my peace. It doesn’t actually turn the speeding car in the right direction. If anything, it just pushes my internal accelerator to the floor.

And what do I have to show for it, after all those years of slamming the pedal to the metal? Not a whole lot, to be honest. I’ve spent a lot of time being angry, frustrated, outraged, confused, and not nearly as successful as I’d like to be. I’ve gotten in my own way, with all the frenzy. I’ve literally made myself sick, by letting my fight-flight response get the better (and worse) of me.

I know, I know, TBI has complicated matters for me. It’s at the root of much of my suffering, and not understanding it has made things so much worse. There’s no doubt of that. But I’ve also made things more difficult for myself by my choices to get bent out of shape, and stay that way — and also by not actively managing my issues. I have no excuse, now. I haven’t had an excuse for years. I know I’ve got sh*t going on with me, and it’s my responsibility to handle it, already.

But I’m getting tense again.

Let’s try to change that… No, don’t just try — DO.

To quote Yoda…

Do, or do not. There is no try.

It is possible to actively change your internal state from fight-flight to relaxation. I’ve known how to do it for years. But I haven’t consistently made a habit of it.

Till now. Till I got sick and tired of having nothing to show for my outrage, other than… outrage.

For the past couple of days, I’ve been deliberately relaxing when I felt myself tighten up. I tighten up — get tense — a lot. After being in a constantly tense state for most of my life, I know how to do that. It’s an immediate reflex. A knee-jerk response.

And when I consciously relax — just let it all go — things tend to clear up. Even if they don’t completely clear up, I feel better. And that’s something. I’m tired of feeling bad all the time, for no good reason. I’m old enough to know better, and I do. I’m also old enough to want to just enjoy myself, instead of chasing all sorts of distant goals that — if I’m honest — were never going to work out, in the first place.

Enough wasting the energy. Enough wasting time I’ll never get back.

Time to relax.

Choose to chill.

And enjoy my life.

Regardless.

Onward.

Keep The Stress Down – A Great Brain Injury Info Interview with Ken Collins

brain-firingHere’s an interview with Ken Collins with Michael Shaughnessy at Eastern New Mexico University. It’s incredibly important information about controlling stress  in TBI recovery so the limbic system fight or flight response isn’t triggered:

Q: Ken, first of all, what is your exact title, and what would you say you do?

A: San Juan Center for Independence-Gallup, Program Director, where I supervise three staff members and oversee independent living skills, peer support, advocacy, information and referral, nursing home transition, personal care option services to people with disabilities and elders in McKinley County. SJCI-Gallup is a non-residential, cross disability organization and is one of eight different independent living centers in New Mexico. All independent living centers are private non-profit tax exempt, 501 (c) (3) organizations with their own board of directors who oversee each independent living center programs and services. All independent living centers are funded through the Department of Education and provide the core services I mentioned above. However, some centers don’t provide the personal care option. New Vista’s in Santa Fe is one of those centers.

Q: How did you first get involved in brain injury and head trauma?

A: I received my brain injury 38 years ago on December 31, 1976, after running a snowmobile headfirst into the side of a parked car. I have a month missing from this accident and only remember Christmas Eve and then don’t know anything until I woke up about six inches from a mirror in my parent’s bathroom picking the wires in my mouth. I came out of darkness through a fog to clarity. I knew I was home, I played baseball and my name was Ken, but I didn’t know anything about home, baseball or Ken. My mouth was wired shut because when I hit the car I broke my jaw below my chin on the left side and rammed my right jaw bone into my ear canal, separated my skull completely (cap fracture) and knocked out a tooth and broke a rib. My rehabilitation was trying out for the Seattle Mariners Baseball team nine months after my brain injury that helped with kick starting my neuroplasticity and recovery. Lucky for me I had collected a big box of personal items from when I was in the 7th grade till being 26 when the accident happened. Every day for about six months I went through that box to put myself back together. There were old get well cards, love notes from old sweethearts in Jr. High and high school, stuff that only meant things to me and newspaper articles from sports – stuff like that. and then over the next five years conducting business as a community organizer where I helped establish the Westfir Workers Association in its attempt to purchase the closing Chicago-based Edward Hines Lumber Company in Westfir, Oregon and other non-profit community organizations. This provided me with the structure I needed and provided me with a sense of purpose and meaning that is critical during the early stages of recovery from a brain injury. In 1983, I got hired at one of the first residential brain injury programs in the country (Center for Neuro Educational Therapies) that began my formal training about brain injury. In 1985, I was a founding member of the Oregon Head Injury Foundation – in 1988 was elected to the National Head Injury Foundation and served on the NHIF board for 6 years. From 1990 to 1992 I was elected vice president of the NHIF Survivor’s Council. As a VISTA Volunteer I was a VISTA Volunteer where I helped to establish the first independent living program in the US for people with brain injuries (Uhlhorn Apartments) and also helped to get a congressional investigation of the head injury rehabilitation industry that resulted in FBI raids on New Medico which resulted in New Medico facilities closing across America.

Q: Can you talk about the impact of stress on a person that has suffered either an open or closed head injury?

A: Stress is something that affects everyone – it is a biologic event and why it is something very important for people with brain injuries to be aware of and control. This is especially true since it is well known that whatever problems someone has before their injuries these problems are magnified. This is true for the limbic system fight or flight response too since stress is what triggers the fight or flight response. Life in general is pretty stressful after a brain injury. Stress is something that all people with brain injuries experience. Relationships are stressful. Short term and long term memory issues are stressful. The loss of not being the same after your brain injury is stressful. Having friends leave because they don’t understand brain injury and don’t come to visit anymore is stressful. Not being able to go back to work after your brain injury is stressful. Having people treat you differently after a brain injury is stressful. The stigma of brain injury is stressful. Having to go to appointments and doctors visits is stressful. I first noticed how stress affected me when my friends came to visit me at home after my brain injury. I couldn’t always remember their names. I knew they were my friends because I could recognize their faces but the harder I tried to remember their names the harder it was and I could feel my body tense up as I tried my hardest to remember their names. The more my muscles tensed up the harder it was for me to remember their names. This was also true when I went through those years of “word find” issues. The harder I tried to find the missing word in what I was saying the harder it was to remember. Before my injury, I was a professional baseball pitcher and learned about biofeedback so this is why I was so in tuned to my muscles tensing up. A pitcher has to remain relaxed during stressful situations i.e. runners on base with no one out and a one run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning. It is very important to keep your poise in these situations and stay cool, calm and collected. Be in the moment and relax because if you don’t stay relaxed your wrist will stiffen up and when you pitch the ball it will not have any movement on it and will straighten out and your fastball will become easier to hit. Because I had this knowledge and awareness of biofeedback it has made it easy for me to understand the dynamics that stress has on my life and this has provided me with some insights about how stress affects my brain injury recovery. Deep breathing and relaxing is something I do naturally and this has played a useful role in my brain injury recovery process.

Q: You have spoken at several conferences about head injury. Tell us about a few of them, and your reception.

A: This will be my 5th year in a row presenting at the Southwest Conference on Disability. Much of what I’ve talked about over the years has been giving people attending my presentations an historical perspective in terms of what I’ve done over the years so they know I’m not talking about theory but experience in doing it. I have also talked about how things have changed since I first got involved with head injury rehabilitation in 1983. Back in those days there were very few services available in the community and the place I got hired was one of the first residential programs in the country for people with head injuries – Center for Neuro-Educational Therapies (CNET). I was a founding member of the Oregon Head Injury Foundation in 1985 and got involved on a national level in 1988 with the National Head Injury Foundation. I sat on the NHIF board of directors for six years and resigned in 1995 to start working with people with developmental disabilities for five years in Oregon before moving to New Mexico in 2000, to work at San Juan Center for Independence (SJCI) for three years before going to work for another developmental disability provider in Gallup for five years and then being asked to come back to SJCI as the program manager. In 2010, I presented on creating supportive housing for people with brain injuries modeled after the Uhlhorn Apartments program in Eugene, Oregon I helped start as a VISTA Volunteer. The Uhlhorn Apartments in Eugene, Oregon uses some common sense technology to help people with brain injuries live in a stress free environment as possible. Example: Timers on the wall of the apartment close to the stove. Before the burners on the stove can be turned on a timer must be activated. The timer is set so that the person with the brain injury doesn’t leave their stove on and cause a fire. Once the timer runs down the stove is turned off. Cupboards in all the apartments are open so the residents can see where their food and close are stored. These simple environmental adaptations make it easier and less stressful for brain injured residents to start their days off so they aren’t confronted by short term memory problems. Back in the early years of my recovery when my day started off on the wrong foot it would take me the whole day to start getting back on track. Now I know this was because of the limbic system fight or flight response that was triggered by the stress of having something go wrong.

In 2011, I talked about the lessons I learned over the last 34 years of living with a brain injury to help professionals, service providers and state agency representatives recognize the positive benefits for people with brain injuries to relieve stress so they can achieve happiness and joy during their recovery process.

  • Happiness & Joy after Brain Injury @ 61 from Chaos & Turmoil to Balance & Harmony
  • Happiness and joy is a journey with many obstacles and barriers to overcome.
  • Finding happiness and joy in your life after brain injury – is healing.
  • Relieving stress and anxiety will make the journey easier.
  • Relieving stress and anxiety in your life – is healing.
  • Setting a routine will help relieve stress and anxiety and will provide you structure to make planning and problem solving easier.
  • Setting a routine and sticking to it – is healing.
  • Finding purpose and meaning in your life will help motivate you and provide the means to persevere and move on and hope for a better day.
  • Hope is healing.
  • Finding discipline will help you follow though and be accountable for yourself and help regulate the impulsive behavior sometimes caused by most brain injuries.
  • Being accountable for your actions – is healing.
  • Respect for others and self-respect will help you regain self-confidence.
  • Regaining self-respect and self-confidence – is healing.
  • Exercise everyday and good nutrition makes life easier.
  • Exercise and good nutrition – is healing.
  • A supportive family and friends helps build trust in yourself and others.
  • Trust is healing.
  • Learning about your brain injury and talking about it makes life easier.
  • Making life easier – is healing.
    Finding a support group or a good friend to speak with about this is a good idea and helps you heal the unseen injuries caused by your brain injury.
  • Talking to others about your unseen injuries – is healing.
  • Being content with who you are and how you live is very important after a brain injury.
  • Being content – is healing.
  • Finding happiness and joy after brain injury is the key to recovery.
  • Happiness and joy – is healing

In 2012, I presented on Accessing Life after Brain Injury – Public Service, Political Action & Community Organizing. After sustaining a brain injury in 1976, I had to start life all over again. Through public service, political action and community organizing, I regained meaning and purpose in my life and overcame many obstacles and barriers placed before me through hard work, self-determination in structured settings. After I tried out with the Seattle Mariners nine months after my brain injury in 1977, I helped organize the Westfir Workers Association (WWA) to purchase the closing Chicago-based, Edward Hines Lumber Company operations in Westfir, Oregon. Lane County came in a did a feasibility study that lead to the establishment of a local economic development corporation – Upper Willamette Economic Development Corporation (UWEDC) where I became it’s executive director for four years. This provided me with the structure and neuroplasticity I needed to set the stage for my recovery process to take place.

In 2013, my presentation was: Brain Injury Recovery Using: Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT Tapping) Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Mindfulness Meditation Training. I used the expertice of three practioners to explain what each therapy does and how it benefits people they work with.

ABSTRACT

Ken Collins will discuss how he utilized Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT Tapping), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Techniques and Mindfulness Meditation Training to overcome problems with my brain injury he experienced after being attacked by a burglar with two knifes at his home on June 20, 2013.

Ken took 6 weeks off on medical leave because the PTSD from this incident brought back several issues with his brain injury he had resolved 15-20 years ago. His vision, balance, equilibrium and memory were all affected negatively after the attack. Ken was unable to overcome these issues by himself and started counseling with to assist him with these challenges.

His counselor used EFT, EMDR and Mindfulness Meditation Training to help him overcome the problems he was experiencing and then after going back to work in August, his attacker came by his worksite to harass him and wasn’t arrested. The DA’s office lawyer had told Ken on several occasions during court proceedings that if his assailant came by his home or office to call the police and he would be arrested. So when he did and Ken found out that the DA’s office failed to get him the protection order he needed to keep him safe. This event sent Ken into a tailspin and magnified the issues he was working on from the knife attack. Now, in addition to those issues Ken was very angry and felt vulnerable because he felt unsafe at work and at home.

Ken’s counselor continued to offer him Mindfulness Meditation Training, EFT and EMDR for 12 weeks after this and now Ken has regained his composure and has returned to work and regained his self-confidence so he can continue down the road to recovering from his brain injury.
Ken Collins will discuss what happened to him during and after the knife attack and how this affected his brain injury. Ken will also show how Mindfulness Meditation Training, EFT tapping and EMDR techniques can help other people with brain injuries with their recovery process.
Last year I did a Poster Board Presentation at the Southwest Conference on Disability: Creating a Quality Life for People with Brain Injuries Using Neuroplasticity, Mindfulness Meditation and Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. I also did a presentation on the Uhlhorn Apartments in Eugene, Oregon where I talked about the environmental stress reduction features of the program.

This year I will presenting at the Southwest Conference on Disability on The Biology of Brain Injury – Controlling the Limbic System Fight or Flight Response. I will discuss the critical need for people with brain injuries to learn about the role the mid-brain and limbic system plays in triggering the “fight or flight” response under stress. When fight or flight is triggered people with brain injuries are in a reactionary mode which affects everything they do – processing, problem solving, decision making, planning, memory, etc.

Q) I understand that you are slated to speak in August at a very special conference. What will you be speaking on and what is the exact title of the conference?

A) I will be presenting at the Native American Brain Injury Summit in August. My presentation will be about controlling the fight or flight response for Native Americans with brain injuries.

Q) What kinds of information do survivors of head injury and brain trauma need?

A) I think the most important thing is to become more aware of what stress does to them so they can play a more active role in managing their recovery process instead of reacting to it. Once the fight or flight response is triggered it is hard to turn off if people with brain injuries don’t have the skills (Mindfulness, EFT, EMDR, etc.) to relax and calm down or as I like to say: “Find Your Happy Place”. All of this takes a lot of work and won’t be easy for many people with brain injuries – unless they have some basic understanding about stress reduction like I did before my injury. As you know there is no quick fix to any of this but with awareness of the role stress plays in their lives and then an understanding about how the limbic system fight or flight response is triggered under stress most people with brain injuries can become less confused and angry. By being able to improve their wellbeing by managing stress people with brain injuries should be able to improve their self-confidence and self-esteem. This will also give people with brain injuries the opportunity to take ownership of their recovery process by not being dependent on others thus improve their self-confidence and self improve their self-esteem. Win-Win!

Q) We have all heard about the “fight or flight “syndrome back in Psych 101. But how is it relevant to those with head injury?

A) This is why what I’m saying is so promising for improving the quality of care for people with brain injuries. Since doctors, educators and professionals already know about the limbic system fight or flight response they just need to pass on the importance of regulating stress so the fight or flight response is controlled so the fight or flight response isn’t triggered. I have been living with my brain injury for 38 years and know firsthand how stress has created chaos and turmoil in my life. I thought professionals knew this already until i was at a Brain Injury Resource Center, peer mentoring training and found out different. I think professionals have been so busy treating the symptoms of brain injury (sympathetic nervous system/limbic system fight or flight response) that they haven’t looked at the causes of these symptoms. I see two problems with all of this. 1) Getting doctors, providers, educators and brain injury professionals to value this information and buy into this concept and then incorporate it into their practices. 2) Getting brain injured individuals to do the work it will take to control their stress so they start seeing a difference in their lives. I was hard wired for my brain injury recovery process to take hold because of my understanding about what stress does and how to react to it – biofeedback/deep breathing/relaxation/keeping my poise. The mindfulness of this process improved my wellbeing and has given me the hope I needed to carry on and not give up. The majority of folks with brain injuries don’t have this understanding before their injuries and it will take them time to see the results. I also have the will and self-determination it takes to improve my condition and get better. I realize understanding controlling stress so the limbic system fight or flight response is managed won’t work for everyone because of the extent of some people’s injuries. That being said, there are many who can and will use this information to improve their lives. If we can improve the lives of some people with brain injuries that will be a start and then other people with brain injuries might be more willing to give it a try. I know understanding how I have gotten better since my brain injury has helped me control the stress that triggers the limbic system fight or flight response. This information has also helped others too. Lets’ give this information to others and see what happens. Since you already know about the fight or flight syndrome from “Psych 101” it should be easy for you to spread the word about why controlling stress so the limbic system fight or flight response isn’t triggered for people with brain injuries.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to help spread the word about my brain injury recovery process.

Tap those brakes…

Just a touch – not too hard – don’t go into a skid…

One thing I’m very grateful for, is that I have not been very sick at all, this past winter. This is a change from other years, when I would get very sick at least once — often twice or three times — and spend a lot of time in bed and/or recovering after the fact at maybe 2/3 of my real ability.

This year, I have a slightly different challenge — things are going so well for me, and I have so much to keep me busy, and I am functioning so well, that I am pushing myself much too hard, and it’s dragging me down.

I’m doing it to myself, really. And it’s no fun.

Yesterday was a tough one for me. The morning was full and pretty packed with intensity. I had a deadline to meet, and the folks on my team who were supposed to work with me to get there, were making extremely poor decisions. Their work product was substandard, and they were telling me that insisting that things work properly was unrealistic and out of line.

Well, okay then.

I did as much as I could, I sent an email to my boss explaining the situation, in case they caught hell for the result — which was entirely possible. It wasn’t about “tattling” on anyone, just giving the person in the line of fire the right information to defend their position — which is always a likelihood where I work.

After that, I checked out for the day. I set my out of office message for noontime on, then I logged off around 2, took a shower, and went to bed. I was incredibly dizzy and seriously wired. All the frenetic activity of the past several weeks, without any serious extended downtime (as in, more than several hours at a time), has kicked my ass. I felt like crap, and I just couldn’t do it anymore.

So, I crashed. I got about an hour of sleep, then I lay in bed reading FB and news. After a while, I got up and decided I needed to ride the exercise bike, because I needed to move some lymph. The lymphatic system is what moves waste out of our systems, and it doesn’t move on its own. Circulation moves it, so if you’re sedentary and you’re not moving very much, you end up with a bunch of gunk in your system. It’s basic physiology/ physics. If you want to feel better and take a load off your system, get your heart rate up and get your blood pumping, and the lymph will clear out the crap.

When I got downstairs, my spouse was there and they started to ask me about things I was supposed to do for them, over the past several days. I have had no time to do much of anything, other than work-work, as well as take care of myself, and it really pissed me off that they couldn’t say anything to me without it adding crap to their endless honey-do list. I swear to God, I get sick of being treated like “the hired help” at home. I don’t have any other use and purpose, other than doing my spouse’s bidding? Geez.

So, I snapped and went off, and of course I looked like the crazy person, because I was just so beside myself, with being so dizzy, not feeling well, and not feeling like I can ever get a break — especially in my own home. Everybody wants something. Everybody needs something. And because I’m able to give everybody just about everything they want, just the way they want it (that’s been my bread-n-butter for as long as I can remember), the requests just keep on coming.

When I protest and put my foot down about everybody pulling on me and demanding sh*t from me, everyone wants to know what I want from them.

Here’s the thing:

I DON’T WANT ANYTHING FROM ANYONE.

I WANT TO PEACEFULLY CO-EXIST WITH OTHERS IN A NEUTRAL SPACE, TO LIVE MY LIFE FREE OF OTHERS’ CONTROL AND JUDGMENT AND MANIPULATION.

I WANT TO DEAL WITH PEOPLE AS AUTONOMOUS ADULTS WITHOUT A HIDDEN AGENDA.

I WANT TO DEAL WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE EMOTIONALLY SELF-SUFFICIENT AND DON’T WANT TO USE EVERYONE ELSE AS A CRUTCH TO SHORE UP THEIR FLAGGING SELF-ESTEEM.

I WANT A BREAK FROM BEING EVERYONE’S “SAFETY BLANKET” AND I WANT PEOPLE TO LEARN TO FEND FOR THEMSELVES AND APPROACH ME AS ADULTS WHO ARE ABLE TO PROVIDE FOR THEIR OWN SENSE OF SELF, WITHOUT DEMANDING THAT I DO IT FOR THEM.

I have no need to control others. I have no need to manipulate others. I am wholly capable of knowing who I am and supplying my own self-esteem and going quite happily about my business without needing to be constantly reminded by others who I am, what I’m about, what matters to me, what my goals and values are, etc. etc. etc.

And I am sick and tired of being surrounded by others who can’t figure that sh*t out. At home. At work. Out on the street. In groups of friends and acquaintances. They’re everywhere.

I swear to GOD, I have had it up to here with people who just help themselves to other people’s energy and attention, like it even belongs to them.

It doesn’t. My energy and attention is my own, and they can’t just waltz in and help themselves to it.

And I deeply resent others who have such a sense of entitlement to my energy, my attention, my focus, my help.  Friggin’ vampires.

Yes, I make them feel better. Yes, I help them feel more balanced and confident and self-assured. But what does it do for me? Not a damn’ thing. If anything, it just drags me down and prevents me from taking care of my own stuff.

And I fall behind. And I get overwhelmed. And I run out of energy. And I end up extremely dizzy with a splitting headache and a foul temper that just makes me feel like crap after my outbursts.

Which is really bad for me.

And it cannot stand.

So, clearly I need to change the way I do things and get my act in order. Gotta draw some boundaries and take care of my own damn’ self. And I can’t do that, if I’m exhausted and completely depleted by other people’s draining needs.

I’m feeling better today — more rested, after getting to bed relatively early last night. I was in bed around 10:30, which is about where I need to be. I woke up around 4:00, which meant I got 5-1/2 hours of sleep, which is NOT enough. But instead of getting up, I just lay in bed, relaxing. I just lay there in the warm bed and breathed… paying attention to how I was feeling, and consciously relaxing.

It felt pretty good, too, and although I didn’t get back to sleep, at least I was resting. And when I got up, I felt better.

I really need to get back to listening to Belleruth Naparstek’s “Stress Hardiness Optimization” CD. It’s designed for first responders and other folks in high-stress situations, to help them relax and overcome the negative effects of stress. I used to listen to it all the time, then for some reason I took it off my smartphone, and I replaced it with the soundtrack of “The Crow”. If you know the death-metal soundtrack to “The Crow”, you know what a 180-degree turn this is.

And you know how much sense it makes, to swap out the listening material on my smartphone…

Anyway, these are just things I need to address, and I’ll address them. I’ve got a lot of problems that are really good problems to have — a job that challenges me on many levels and has a ton of opportunity… a house that needs to be taken care of… a marriage I need to sustain… and time that I need to manage properly.

I just need to make sure that I don’t overdo it.

Well, it’s time to get going. The day awaits.

Onward…

Training my brain to choose

I talked before about how sitting za-zen helps me to physically wake up. I can’t sit for very long before I go to sleep, because it wakes me up too much. So, I sit in the mornings – and I’m going to try to sit in the afternoons, when I have a few minutes. I just set up a reminder on my calendar to do it every day at 3 p.m., and we’ll see how that goes.

Now, waking myself up is fine. But in fact, for me, sitting za-zen is about more than that. It’s actually about training myself to choose what kind of experience I want to have — if I want to give in to fatigue and frustration, or if I want to dig down and find the resources to deal better with my situation. I am actually able to change my frame of mind in different circumstances — that’s what I do when I interact with certain types of people. I suffer from terrible dread in so many situations, but I “buck up” and decide I’m going to have a different experience that being full of dread and anxiety, and when I do that, it actually works. I forget about my fears and dive in… and almost always, the result is a good one

Sitting za-zen has given this to me. That’s what it’s about for me — choosing the experiences that I want to have.

It’s very much about learning to choose my reactions to situations… training myself to wake myself up as needed, or to calm myself down if necessary. Sitting with focus demands that I pay close, sustained attention to some very simple things — my breathing and my posture. It trains me to pay attention to how I’m feeling in my body, so my posture is always good. It also trains my attention on my breathing, as I count my breaths and make sure I am breathing at a constant rate. It trains me to note any ideas and thoughts that are flit-flitting through my head, which are taking my focus away from my breathing and my posture.

And it’s hard. It’s quite demanding. It’s so demanding, that it’s rare that I can count 17 full cycles of breath without some interference from thoughts and distractions. I do my best, but it is incredibly difficult at times, to just keep my attention trained on my posture and breathing. My posture is not typically za-zen — I can’t sit cross-legged, because it is too painful and I have back and knee problems, so I generally sit up in a chair. My breathing is steady and balanced — five slow breaths in, a slight pause, then five slow breaths out, followed by another slight pause. Many’s the time when I get to 7 full breath cycles, and then my mind starts to wander.

But after working with this for many years — on and off — I am doing much better about not losing track of the number of breaths, and I’m not as “absent” as I used to get, when I would sit and breathe.

It turns out that this kind of practice is incredibly good for the brain — it decreases the activity which is associated with falling asleep and actually wakes you up. So, contrary to a lot of beliefs that meditation is all about relaxing and chilling out, according to the Awakening Is Not A Metaphor study:

“… the result (of meditation) is not a calming in the direction of relaxation/sleep, but rather a move in the opposite direction: toward an increased alertness and vigilance that counteracts mental laxity and sleepiness.” (p. 6 of 18 in the pdf of the study)

The study talks in depth about it, listing a number of examples where meditation training of one kind or another improved alertness, reduced fatigue, and had positive after-effects for months after a single training session. From personal experience, I can testify that when I sit za-zen regularly, I feel better, I act better, and I’m able to handle what life throws at me, even in very challenging circumstances. I’m training myself to decide — for myself — what my reactions to life are going to be, and I’m reducing my overall reactivity. I’m teaching my brain to not just run in every different direction, following whatever shiny object it might find, and I’m training my mind to not chase after my brain when it starts acting like a monkey running off into the forest with my car keys.

This is such an important part of my TBI recovery — it really supports and strengthens my ability to choose for myself how I will behave, how I will think, how I will react. That choice can mean the difference between saying and doing things to others I will regret and not be able to take back, and keeping my relationships neutral and healthy. It can mean the difference between getting into hot water with the cops and getting let go with a warning, or getting sent to jail. It can mean the difference between becoming angry and letting it go, or letting the rage take hold of me to the point where I break something or hurt someone.

It literally can make all the difference between a temporary upheaval — a speed bump in the road of my life — and a semi-permanent deep-sh*t situation that I have to then manage and smooth over and fix, taking tons of time out of my regular life to fix what I’ve broken.

So, sitting za-zen is more than just a way to pass the time. It’s an important part of my everyday life, that helps me not only feel better, but also helps me act and overall function better. It wakes me up. Because I’m training my brain to wake up. And I’m teaching my mind to react the way IT wants to, not the way others expect or try to force it to.

Less Facebook, more za-zen

Keeping it simple

So, I’ve had a crazy busy week, and I’ve taken a few steps to make my life simpler and less hectic.

The first thing I did, was unfriend a person who has become a tremendous pain in my ass. I work with them, and our relationship has really altered over the past months, with them climbing to the top of the corporate ladder, and me holding back and not diving into all the politics and drama for a number of reasons. First, I’m not at all impressed with the opportunities available to me at work. Second, I’ve already done the ladder-climbing thing, and while it was exciting for a while, back about 15 years ago, I saw the dark side of it and opted out. Third, I’m not big on games. Fourth, in their heady rise to the top, they compete intensely and step on people to get there, and I’m not interested in being someone they compete against. That sh*t just depresses me.

So, while this onetime friend of mine has been maneuvering and operating all over the place (and trying to pull me into their activities), I’ve really cooled to them. And I unfriended them on FB. Which kind of freaked them out and made them feel rejected (which they were, if you think about it). But it simplifies my life, because now I don’t have to worry about getting miffed over something they post — or some comment they make to one of my posts.

FB has gotten way too intrusive for me.

The other thing I did was remove FB from my mobile phone. It was just getting too enticing for me, and I was spending way too much time on pretty much nothing. I mean — like so many others — I would start looking at posts, pictures, movies… and before I knew it, an hour had passed me by.

Which is never good. Especially when I have so little time for the things I truly want to be doing.

So, I made it harder for myself to go on FB, and I removed it from my phone for a few days. And it did simplify my life. (Turns out, I had to reinstall it last night, because my internet connection died, and my smartphone was the only way I could reschedule a meet-up I arranged for today) Just not having access to FB for a few days gave me additional time to focus on projects that are late-late-late, and just calm the heck down.

The calming down is the important part. Because even when the things I see on FB are good, they are still energizing and invigorating, and they get my blood pumping. There are jokes, there are observations, there are rants. And they always get me thinking and reacting. They jump-start my system as few other things can.

Now, that’s fine, if I actually do need a boost to wake me up. But all that uproar, all the time? It’s not necessary. And even if I am dragging a little bit, the neurocognitive / biochemical jolt of Facebook is usually a lot more than I really need, to get going. Going on FB for me, when I am a little “off” is like drinking a couple cans of Red Bull when I’m feeling a little distracted. It’s way too much for me, and no matter how good it feels to get that Facebook “rush”, it’s still putting a strain on my system that ultimately wears me out.

So, now I’m repairing the damage I’ve done, and I’m doing several things:

  1. I’m rationing my Facebook time and staying OFF it, first thing in the morning, as well as last thing at night.
  2. I’m back to doing za-zen, or sitting silently and focusing on my breath and my posture for set periods of time.

This is accomplishing several things:

  1. It is keeping my system from becoming drugged by biochemical / neurocognitive overload.
  2. It is re-training my system to develop its own ability to wake — or rest — at will.

Za-zen — my own version, which is simpler than thinking about koans, but more focused than Shikantaza (which is just sitting) — is for me about simply sitting, being wakeful and mindful about what is going on in my body and mind, but not “taking the hooks” of thoughts that “want” me to follow them, like monkeys running off into the woods with my car keys.

Some say that meditation is for relaxation, to relieve stress, but I have long believed — and I recently came across a study that echoes my belief. That study, “Awakening is not a metaphor: the effects of Buddhist meditation practices on basic wakefulness” talks about how sitting meditation can actually heighten wakefulness in long-term practitioners. It’s not necessarily about relaxation — it’s actually about waking up.

I have noticed, over the past years of sitting za-zen (which I have done for over 20 years, since I first learned about it), that I have actually learned how to wake myself up, even when I am incredibly tired. Sitting — just sitting — focusing on my breath and keeping myself alert to my posture, the sensations in my body, and whatever thoughts might be rattling ’round in my head, doesn’t relax me. In fact, it does the opposite. So much so, that I cannot sit za-zen right before I go to bed, because it wakes me up too much.

I sit in the mornings, instead. And I’m considering starting to sit in the afternoons when I start to get cravings for sweets. When I’m feeling low and groggy, I tend to reach for the trail mix, which is a far better option than a Snickers bar or some other kind of sugar. But I often end up eating too much sugar in the course of a busy afternoon, so I need another option.

The more I think about it, the more za-zen seems like a good option for me. Sitting with silent focus, even for just a few minutes, does wonders for me. And if I can incorporate it into my daily life — not only stepping away to sit in silence, but also having that attitude of za-zen when I am in meetings at work, or I’m trying to better focus on what’s in front of me… well, so much the better.

I used to actually do that, years ago before my last TBI. And it helped me so much. It “leveled out” the upheavals that had long been with me, because of all my previous TBIs. But when I fell in 2004, that completely threw me, and I became just a shadow of myself. I stopped sitting. I stopped meditating. I stopped thinking about anything except the daily business of just getting from Point A to Point B, and not falling victim to the demons that seemed to rage in me.

Now much has evened out with me, and I’m in a place where I can actually put my focus back on za-zen. I’ve done this before, so it’s not new to me. And the Awakening study confirms that people with past meditation experience can have greater increases in “tonic alertness” which is where you can become more alert in unexpected situations.

That’s what I’m striving for, these days — more alertness, more engagement in my daily life, less reactivity, and more skill at handling sudden and unexpected situations. And it turns out that I have the past experience and the present tools to help make that happen.

When I just sit and breathe and count and focus on my posture, even for just a few minutes, everything gets better. And that’s what I want. Better.

I’ve got another full day ahead of me, so it’s time to get going. On it goes.

Onward.

How 90-second clearing helps

Here’s a picture of before and after I realized just how much 90-second clearing helps me:

This is what would happen before I could stop the crazy rush of panic chemicals:

gray-no-zone
Before – when my panic would get hold of me

Gray Zone

  • Stress response to the thought of change – adrenaline, etc.
  • Reduction in cognitive resources, narrowing, sense of danger, alert
  • Escalation of stress response, based on sense of narrowing options, bad past experiences
  • Fear / anxiety / dread mixture runs the show
  • Chase back to how things are – get content, stay stuck

Before, I would escalate really quickly, thinking that I couldn’t manage, or that I was trapped. The stress response would trigger a physical reaction with me that would make me feel like I was blocked in and didn’t have a way out, and I would begin to panic. It didn’t matter if the change was something as basic as fixing a curtain rod that had come loose from the wall, or starting a new job. I would still feel it coming on and have the same catastrophic reaction. And because my own personal catastrophic reaction often involves involuntary crying, and I cannot stand to cry in front of people for no apparent reason, I avoided a lot of situations that I feared would get hold of me.

But now, I have a different way of handling things, and so far it’s working pretty well — when I remember to do it, of course 😉

This is what is possible now, when I stop the escalation of stress chemicals and use my breathing for a minute and a half to calm everything down:

yellow-yes-zone
After – When I spend a minute or so clearing out the stress response and stop things from escalating

Yellow Zone

  • Stress Inoculation Training, Stress Hardiness Optimization
  • Ability to shift the physical experience by breathing and other coping mechanisms
  • Clearing of stress response broadens options, opens thinking
  • From fear / anxiety / dread into anticipation / engagement / hope

Basically, the difference is like night and day. The old storms that would come up don’t have to anymore. I have a way to calm them down and think more clearly about what is in front of me. And most importantly, I don’t feel like I’m hemmed in, simply because of a physical response.

My nervous system is wired to be, well, wired. It’s automatic with me. I’ve been trained that way by life. Now I need to train myself to be another way.

And so I am.

No, stress is NOT all about our interpretation of TBI…

There’s more going on here…

So, I have some time to catch up on some reading, and I just came across a stress management consultant with many years’ experience coaching and counseling, who says “the source of all stress is the subjective meaning we attach to events”. I won’t say who it is, to protect the not-so-innocent.

Okay, that’s fine. I get that to a certain extent. Stress can be a killer — and it is, for many, many people. And the subjective meanings we attach to events can indeed add to the stress of our lives.

Here’s the thing, though — when you look at stress from a broader point of view that includes the physical part of life as an integral part, things start to be a whole lot less clear-cut. Or maybe they become even more clear. Because over time, you can build up a lot of physiological stressors which contribute to your overall stress levels… to the point where it doesn’t really matter how bright and shiny and positive your psychological outlook is — you feel like crap, and that stresses your system… and it also impacts your frame of mind (which is now inclined to look on the dark side, for reasons it cannot cognitively identify).

Even if you can get your mental, spiritual, and emotional stresses down, if you don’t have a handle on your physical stresses, there’s only such much progress you can expect to make.

Take for example, this scenario, which shows the relative stress levels of the four different areas over a time span that has a lot of the usual stresses we experience on a daily basis: trouble with the boss, re-org at work, $$$ worries, health problems, marriage troubles, promotions, raises, recovery, family problems.

Cumulative stress effects over time

Even if you do manage to cut down on the mental and emotional and spiritual stresses of your eventful life, you can still have a buildup of stress in your body that, if not dissipated or reduced in some way, will still keep your overall stress levels high.

Even when everything is going great.

Now, with a situation like TBI, where all of a sudden, sh*t is all effed up for no reason that you can explain, something as simple as making breakfast or getting ready for work can be a huge physiological stressor, because things that used to be so simple for you — like buttoning your shirt or combing your hair or getting milk and cereal to end up in the bowl instead of on the counter — aren’t going so well, and it’s just one surprise after another… one little “micro-trauma” after another, getting those fight-flight juices flowing like never before.

On a daily basis — and this is what a lot of folks fail to understand about TBI — you can experience hundreds of these little surprises, which pump up your adrenaline and alternately make you high as a kite and downright depressed. It makes you seem/feel bipolar to those who are fond of that label, and it keeps you on high alert, just trying to make it through the day trying to do all the things that used to come so easily to you, but now require a different sort of attention.

And those stresses add up. The biochemicals keep collecting in your system, by default. Because you have to stay ON, to keep from falling off. And you end up on constant alert, a perpetual first responder to your own personal mini-disasters… which may not be that big, objectively, but seem bigger and bigger and bigger because, well, you’re really pretty tired from all the adjusting, and that adrenaline and ephinephrine and norepinephrine is actually making it harder for your brain to learn the new things it needs to learn.

Which is yet another source of stress… which has next to nothing to do with how you look at things.

Now, I’ve talked with neuro-rehab folks who were of that same philosophy — that the thing that gets us into trouble with our stress levels is the way we interpret what’s happening to us. And I agree, to some extent, that interpreting everything along catastrophic lines raises our stress levels and is a big culprit in frying our systems. At the same time, people seem to be overlooking or discounting the role that the body plays in all this — in the role that physiological stressors play in our lives. It’s NOT all about how we look at things and the meaning we ascribe to what happens. It can be just as much — sometimes even moreso — about the physiological burdens that we have to deal with.

Does our mindset affect our physiological stress levels? Absolutely? We can flood our systems in an instant with a reaction of our choosing. Can our mind reverse physiological stressors on its own? I’m not so sure. I think the body needs to be directly involved to do that to the fullest.

All this being said (and I wish I could say everything that’s in my head, but I’m still a bit foggy from the past week), I think that any stress management program needs to incorporate the body. Actively. On purpose. As a full partner in the whole process. We need to use our bodies to move all that biochemical sludge along. Can you say lymph?

And I also want to say that I don’t think that stress is necessarily a bad thing. It’s the long-term effects of stress that do the job on us. I personally believe that when we develop ways to discharge the effects of stress and use the energy for good instead of evil, we can build up a sort of immunity to the downsides, and stress can actually become a vital and productive part of our lives. Rather than being something to dread and try to control and “overcome”, stress can be our friend. One of our best friends, in fact.

I have friends who would cringe to hear me say how much I love stress. But I can’t help it – I do. I really thrive on it. The thing that gets me in trouble is when I don’t allow myself enough recovery time from tough stints. I also work in a stupid job that is constantly stressful and doesn’t let you stop moving for a minute, so that’s another effing culprit. I work at a very high, fast pace, and I can get pretty intense. I get a ton of stuff done on a regular basis, and I enjoy it. I’ve figured out how to be ultra-productive after years of experimentation and trial-and-error, and it works for me. I just know how to get sh*t done. And Stress (capital “S”) is a big part of that. So removing stress from my life — rising above it, overcoming it, keeping it within “liveable levels” — is the kiss of death for the parts of my life that I love the most. Hey, I’m a jock, okay. I want to run faster and lift more and be stronger… It’s in my nature, so if you take that away or diminish it or talk it down, then you’re hacking away at my innermost core and you’re pulling the rug right out from underneath me.

The thing is, I know what a toll all this can take on me. It gets me hurt. It ruins my life. I burn out  in a very big way. So, I need to find a middle ground that lets me keep going, without heading right off the cliff.

Nowadays, what I’m working with — especially with my 90-second clearing — is letting my energy spike, then bringing it back down, consciously, to restful levels. I push myself hard for a period of time, then I stop, slow it down, get myself out of that frantic mindset that drives me forward, and put myself in a calm, relaxed state that actually feels really good.  For me, it’s not the pushing hard that does the number on me — it’s not having a rest/recovery period to let it all sink in and integrate. I’ve been recovery-deprived for a long, long time. Only in the past few years have I actually learned how to relax and feel good. And only since I learned how to feel good while relaxing, has it truly become clear to me that my continued growth and improvement depends on recovery as much as it does on testing my limits.

It might even depend more on it.

For my money, one of the most important things anyone recovering from TBI can do, is figure out how to get to that sweet spot of emotional/spiritual/mental balance, where it’s possible to feel physically good. If you don’t know how to get there, and you don’t get there on a semi-regular basis, your recovery is going to be hampered. You’re going to stay amped up on fight-flight biochemicals, and you’re not going to learn as well as you can, when you’re able to relax and just enjoy yourself. Feeling good doesn’t have to even be a huge deal — if you can just manage it for a few minutes a day, and remember what it feels like to take the edge off, that can help. Absolutely positively. But if you never figure out how to get there, and you find yourself unable to relax and settle into a sense of being OKAY, I predict you’re going to have a tough row to hoe.

And we don’t want that.

Anyway, it seems I found the words I was looking for.

Bottom line is, as much as some folks would have us think that it’s our interpretation of events that does a number on us, rather than the events themselves, I have to respectfully disagree. The stresses and physical reality of dealing with one surprise after another, having to pump yourself up to keep going, and having to constantly be aware of ways you need to shift and change, can be physiologically stressing in ways no change of mindset will reverse.

We need to recognize the role the body plays in stress, and find ways to address our physiological stressors, so that our minds can relax and we can learn the lessons we need to learn.

It’s all a process, of course, and an imperfect one at that. But if we pay attention and keep an open mind and realize that 9 times out of 10 we are unconsciously deluding ourselves — and then take corrective action, we just might get somewhere.

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.

 

 

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:

Novel,
Unpredictable,
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.