Mindfulness – writing before exams

I’ve mentioned mindfulness a bit in this blog. I don’t practice mindfulness every day in terms of meditation, breathing, body scans etc. But I do try and practice it as a lifestyle. I try and be aware of what I’m experiencing moment to moment, not be too futuristic nor live in the past and to be aware of what’s happening inside me – my thoughts and feelings.

I try and allow my feelings to be and my thoughts to come and go without fusing with them. I try and allow my thoughts and feelings to be the actors on stage while staying in the audience. I experience the drama, but try and refrain from jumping up on stage and being part of the drama. I suppose of verge more toward the ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) strain of mindfulness than the Buddhist/yoga strain which emphasizes practice (thirty to sixty minutes a day of breathing, sitting etc.) I guess I would really like to do yoga and meditation, but I’m not disciplined enough (I wish I was because there’s no denying the evidence around the changes to the brain that takes place).

Some really interesting research recently came out of Chicago University around the affect of anxiety on performance. Researchers found that students who were prone to test anxiety improved their high–stakes test scores by nearly one grade point after they were given 10 minutes to write about what was causing them fear. Interestingly, researchers showed that it wasn’t just the act of writing that inoculated students against choking; rather, specifically writing about test–related thoughts and feelings had helped.

What they found was that anxiety and stress took up “working memory” – something like RAM in a computer or CPU firepower and decreased performance. Basically this was an exercise in mindfulness. It turns an experience of stress and anxiety, into one of observing the stress and anxiety. Of noticing it, and acknowledging it (by writing it down). How does this work? It re-engages the cognitive left cerebral hemisphere which has been deactivated as brain function has descended into the more primal limbic system where flight, freeze, fight mechanisms have taken over due to the fear, anxiety and stress.

Actions of mindfulness (such as writing) are powerful and practiced consistently can produce a more peaceful, lower stress, richer life experience and the body of evidence continues to grow.

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And the good news is….

I remember distinctly a few months ago pulling out of a department store, crossing the road with the kids in the back seat and I realised I was feeling happy!

My first thought was “that’s novel. I like it. I actually feel happy”. It was fleeting – it lasted about a block until one child started bickering with another and my emotions fell back to earth. But it was great. Feeling happy was like finding an old friend again.

Over the last few months that feeling has become virtually the new norm. The listless, dull, low mood that was the tidemark has slowly and gradually been replaced.

In the leadup to Christmas we travelled across two states to the coast to join my sisters and their families. I came down with a virus which then morphed into an evil sinus infection and I spent four days in the motel bedroom without food. I dragged my sorry carcass off to the doctor and came away with some antiobiotics and came good on Xmas day, only to leave the seaside resort the next day. But there was good that came out of it. I didn’t slide back to the low mood. Emotionally I was able to maintain my good spirits. So it turns out that it was a good test.

My wife asked me what the reasons were for the turn around, but there aren’t any. I think it was just the slow trajectory of improvement and the final change from negative back to positive.

Even though I’m feeling a lot more contented and positive, I’m not my old me again. I never wanted to be my old self when I thought about recovery. Some things are not like they used to be.

I still have trouble making simple decisions. Yesterday I took the kids for a bike ride and couldn’t decide what to wear. It was warm enough but a cool breeze made me think I should wear something more than a T-Shirt. I couldn’t figure out what and went without and ended up feeling cold. I have trouble figuring out small change so it’s easier to just use a note and get change back than paying for things with loose change. The brain is just a bit fuzzy.

I’m not very ambitious. I don’t have great plans. It’s school holidays, but I don’t plan much. I’m not hoping to achieve much with the kids. We take each day as it comes. I don’t look ahead very far – that takes too much computing power.

I do things a lot slower. I drive slower, I walk slower, I talk slower. Part of it is because my brain works slower, but most of it because I just want to move through life slower. Going slower allows one to lower anxiety and experience more. If you haven’t done it before, google the slow movement. It’s fascinating.

I don’t try and exercise much control over others or situations. I used to be type A, so I used to be quite good at imposing myself, but I don’t bother now. I think I’m much more “live and let live”. Control takes a lot of energy and is largely ineffective anyway. I’ve realized I’m responsible for myself (and the kids because they’re dependents) but not for anyone else.

I haven’t allowed work to take over – partly because I’m only doing two days per week in the mental health support service. It doesn’t consume much of my thoughts when I’m away from work. I do think having the right kind and amount of work has been instrumental to getting well.

I was interviewed recently by a researcher from a leading university on depression. I told her than my brain function had dropped, but luckily I was a genius prior to burning out…. you had to be there.

Oh, by the way, the guy who invented the smiley face Harvey Ball, never trademarked it. He received $45 for it. Sucks to be him!

Mental Overload

An interesting article on Forbes.com discussing how technology makes us rude in the office, actually touched on stress and burnout that comes from overloading our brains which then affects our relationships. The full article is here, but I’ve excerpted a few quotes for you if you’re um… busy 🙂

Technology, of course, was supposed to make life easier and give us more time. And it does enable us to do many things more quickly than before: type documents, send invoices…. But there is a price. It has also created an expectation that all tasks can be accomplished as quickly as it takes to check a Wikipedia page.

The problem is our brains aren’t wired any differently than they were 30 years ago, and tasks that require concentration and creativity (say, writing a Beach Boys song) take the same amount of time that they always did.

“The brain hasn’t changed,” says Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. “We still can only handle so much. But we’re asking our brains to process exponentially more data points than we ever have before in human history, and that mental energy has to come from somewhere.

Unfortunately, human relationships are often the casualties of this mental exhaustion. We have so much to do and so much information to process that we don’t even realize we are interrupting each other, failing to listen, subtly or not-so-subtly saying, “Hurry up. Get to the point, already.”

Not only mental exhaustion, but stress also impairs our productivity…

“The stress level is so high, not just for those laid off or the people worried about layoffs, but also for the people who are left doing a lot more work,” says organizational psychologist Henry L. Thompson.

It quickly becomes a vicious circle: You’re under the gun to get that quick-turnaround project into the boss, which makes you late for the meeting, which annoys your co-workers. Each incident builds on the last and the stress level ratchets, making you–quite literally–unable to think.

Stress, Thompson explains, impairs our ability to use our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that organizes, plans and processes information. The result is you become more disoriented–and more likely to ignore the e-mail or forget the lunch date. “There’s a whole series of things that is exacerbated by stressful events,” says Thompson.

Last week I had the CFO of a multimillion dollar social sector organisation employing hundreds of people who told me, he’s had his actual work hours changed so he can work a half day on Wednesday’s and go play golf. He makes up his hours, but he says for the first two days of the week, he looks forward to playing, and on the last two days of the week, he looks forward to the weekend. He still gets the same amount of work done, or actually probably more as a result of maintaining positive mental health. Smart guy.

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Mushy Brain

I’ve mentioned before how my brain turned to mush as I burned out. Comprehension skills slowed down, decision making felt like walking on a planet with super-high gravity. My brain is slowly getting better but I still lose lots of things and have no idea where they are…. I found my gumboots in the middle of a field yesterday. I’d been missing them or a week….

I wish I could find my wallet and chainsaw chaps.

I’m kind of used to it now, so it’s not so bad. Interestingly, research has shown that if depression is not diagnosed early (in other words, persistent untreated depression) permanent brain damage can take place.

“By the year 2020, researchers expect depression to become second to heart disease as the leading cause of death worldwide. This is just one of the reasons they are working diligently to find a cure.

For those who suffer from depression, their world is a dark one. For many, that colorless life is unbearable as it persists year after year despite the variety of treatments that are used.

According to researchers, the secret to defeating depression starts with early intervention because the illness can, in fact, cause damage to the brain cells. The longer the depression continues, the longer the recovery time, and the longer it will take the brain cells to heal.”

That is scary, but I’m ok with the fact that my mind may never be as sharp as it used to be. At this stage of my life, I’d rather be strong than smart.