How We Create Our Own Stress

Between stimulus and response is our greatest power – the freedom to choose.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve written before about how kids can be amazing teachers if we just let them, and this week yet another example of that came to pass.

It was later in the evening, and I was in the process of giving my son a bath. It had been a trying day at work, so my mind was drained and it was all I could do to keep up with the boundless energy of a four year old. My son is an extremely perceptive little guy, so he noticed that his dad was a little less talkative than usual.

Him: Daddy, why are you so tired?

Me: Sorry buddy, Daddy had a really crazy day at work.

Him: Why did you make your day at work so crazy Daddy?

Me: No buddy. Daddy didn’t.. pause

I was about to say “No buddy. Daddy didn’t make his day at work crazy, all the <insert various mean but yet appropriate for kid words here> at Daddy’s work made his day crazy.” But his question made me think: did the people at work really make my day crazy, or was it how I chose to react that caused the problem?

If you think about it, we’ve all probably been guilty of this classic mistaken attribution of our bad days at some point. “That guy really ruined my day!” “If only my flight were on time, I wouldn’t be so stressed out!” “That damn kid, if he would just leave me alone I wouldn’t be in such a bad mood!”

All of these responses, while completely natural, are based on a fundamentally flawed idea – that the things that happen to us determine our own response.

The jerk at the coffee shop this morning didn’t make you angry, you got upset because you felt he was disrespecting you and the other customers. The flight being late didn’t stress you out, your worry about not being on time did. And the kid demanding your attention? Well, perhaps you hold a belief that he should be more independent at his age, or that you deserve some quiet time to yourself, and his threatening that makes you uncomfortable.

Mind you, I don’t want to imply that merely being aware of this fact will allow you to flow through life with the calmness of a Vulcan. Nor am I saying that one should feel bad about reacting to life’s little challenges in a, well, human way. Being aware of our thoughts and how they affect us is not the same as the ability to turn those thoughts in a more productive direction. But awareness is certainly key, and a valuable skill to have in your emotional toolkit.

The next time you feel yourself becoming angry, or your blood pressure rising, take a moment to consider what is going through your mind, and how it is affecting your emotions. Consider carefully if you are creating your own stress, and if so, if it is really a productive use of your energy. We have so many things to do and so little time to do them; why add more unnecessary tension?

Reflections Of A Failed Closer

I have a problem with closing things out.

There, I said it. I’ve always had a nagging notion in my head that while I’ve made leaps and bounds in terms of my personal productivity and effectiveness, something still just wasn’t quite right. After careful consideration (and a lot of not-so-gentle nudging from my wife, bless her patient heart), I’ve finally admitted what I’ve known all along, but didn’t want to hear.

Starting things is easy. You’re excited about the new project or achieving something. Your energy level is high, as is your interest. You want nothing more than to focus on getting this done. And as you work, it feels wonderful to make progress.

But as time goes on, the luster fades. The once intriguing effort turns into a dull, draining mountain of seemingly endless tasks. You avoid looking at the list of remaining work because every time you do, you feel like you will never get through it and finish. Whenever you try to start work, you always think “Oh how boring this will be, why don’t I just do something else.” And, of course, that is exactly what happens.

Now, in the spectrum of productivity, I consider myself to be fairly well into the realm of the good. I make lists, I update them, I do some planning around how to spend my time, and I try to be intentional about my actions. Thus, the idea that I can’t finish things naturally introduces a good bit of cognitive dissonance, which is to say, it’s not a comfortable feeling. If I see myself as a productive individual, why would I not also be someone who follows through and completes things?

If you’re noticing a preponderance of psycho-babble so far, that’s good, because what I’m trying to get at here is how important it is to understand the psychology of not following through.

Humans are not a rational animal, but a rationalizing one.

Leon Festinger

Emotions are an incredible driving force in our lives. They shape how we perceive the world around us, and how we make choices. Unfortunately they are also, at least at times, based on no part of rational thinking. And when emotion and reason collide, emotion usually wins.

It might sound a bit extreme, but I truly believe that my struggle with not closing things out might be the single most important hurdle I need to overcome in my journey towards realizing my full potential as a human being. Think about it: when your life has ended, will people remember you for all the things you started? Have you ever heard anyone say “Boy, remember Josh? He sure was an incredible starter. Think of all the unfinished novels he wrote! What an accomplished guy!”?

Perhaps it’s a mark of a cruel world, but in the end, people are largely remembered (and thereby judged) by what they finished.

That is why I want to devote some time here to exploring my problem in depth. I feel that, while there might be some tough introspection ahead, in the end it will be an important journey, and an interesting one. And, I hope, one that will be useful to others who suffer from the same weakness.

The Two Forms Of Racing Brain Syndrome – Part I

Update: I’ve been following the comments on this post with a mixture of surprise, amusement, and a little bit of nervousness. It’s great how everyone is commenting, but based on the somewhat “medical advice-y” nature of some of the comments (and perhaps the post itself) I feel compelled to explicitly point out the following: My naming of “Racing Brain Syndrome” is purely anecdotal and should not be considered any kind of official medical diagnosis. I came up with this name purely from my own experience as described in the post. If you are experiencing any kind of severe or disturbing symptoms, including severe forms of anything described in this post, please consult with a licensed professional. I am not a doctor or psychologist and my advice here should not be taken for medical prescription. I’m just a guy with a fidgety brain trying to relax and be productive.

We’ve all had this happen to us at one time or another. You wake up in the middle of the night, thoughts rushing through your head at a mad pace. You try to take the zen-like approach of “letting them go”, but it’s hopeless. You toss and turn, but the harder you try to sleep, the more awake you are. This, friends, is what I call “Racing Brain Syndrome”.

There are two main forms of this nasty little bug, which we’ll call “Stress Induced” and “Excitement Based”. In this post, we’ll look at the first variety in more detail.

Stress Induced

As the name implies, this version is caused by an excess of built up stress that has yet to be dealt with. Common symptoms (not inclusive of the other variant of this syndrome) include racing pulse, pounding heartbeat, cold sweats, and possibly (in extreme cases) delusions of persecution or general paranoia.

Now stress, as you well know, can come from many sources, including the practice of keeping things in your head, nagging concerns over projects left un-planned, fear of upcoming regulatory audits (a favorite of us IT folks), and of course the ever present conflict between the Ego and the Id caused by an underlying need for affection, complicated by an Oedipus complex.

Whoops, I must apologize for that last one. This post has me reverting to my old psychobabble style of writing. Ignore that one, will you please?

When dealing with this variety of RBS, one’s best course of action is tri-fold:

  1. Determine if the cause of the stress is a rational one. That is, are you feeling stressed because you’ve fallen off your good practice of keeping things out of your head, or are you suddenly having a sinking feeling that you’ve left your torrent bot up and running at work, and the folks from InfoSec are, at this very moment, hot on your trail? Ok, that’s an extreme example, but you get my drift.
  2. If the former, your best bet is to take a few minutes and put some thoughts down on paper around what is bothering you. You don’t have to answer every question out there; just make sure every question is written down so you are confident it won’t get lost in the shuffle.
  3. If the latter, you would be advised to fall back on a technique I used to teach to the children at the mental health clinic I worked at out of college, called (in it’s most complex form) Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. The basic idea is that you write down the thoughts that are causing you discomfort, such as “I’m afraid the ninjas from security are after me”, then examine them in a critical, analytical fashion. For instance, what evidence is there that you’re really about to be attacked in your sleep? Do you even have a torrent bot on your work computer? These techniques are usually used by patients with more severe mental health issues such as depression or anxiety disorder, but they serve RBS sufferers equally well.

On a sidenote, if you’re actually interested in a more clinical view of CBT, I’d heartily recommend the book The Feeling Good Handbook by a fellow named David Burns.

Next time we’ll examine the milder, and perhaps more pleasant variety of RBS, “Excitement Based”.