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”.

The Power of Having Everything In Front Of You

Today was my first day back from work after nearly a week off.  Surprisingly, I had only around 300 e-mails to process in my inbox; I usually receive that amount each day, not counting automated alerts and the like.  After reviewing everything and making sure all my lists were up to date, I began working on what was the most important, urgent matter at the time.

By about 9:30AM, several fires had appeared on the horizon.  Each demanded much attention from my team, and it quickly became obvious that my day would not be very productive, at least from the perspective of crossing off a lot of items.

In the past situations such as this would cause my blood pressure to rise almost instantly.  Not because of any physical danger (“When Servers Attack” anyone?), but because subconsciously, I immediately began worrying about what I was not doing.  That is, if I was spending all my effort to correct some immediate problem, what was getting implicitly pushed off?

So what happened today?  Certainly at first, I felt a slight twinge and a brief rise in my pulse.  But after taking a breath and calmly reviewing everything in my “Next Actions” list, I was able to definitely know that I was indeed directing my time appropriately.  The feeling was one I am certainly not used to!

This state of being was possible only because of the following pre-existing conditions:

  1. I have been incredibly good in terms of making sure that each and every possible “open loop” is in my trusted system, no matter how small or how insignificant it may seem.
  2. I have developed the habit that whenever one of those “it needs to be done now” (usually stated by whomever reports the problem) type of problems hits my plate, I do the following:
    1. Use soothing words and a little empathic listening to get the person to remain calm.
    2. Ask pointed questions about the true severity of the issue. How many, what’s the workaround, etc.
    3. Take note of all the information for future reference. Moleskins are great for this.
    4. Politely let the person know that I am going to review the problem with my team and get back to them when more information is available, and as soon as time permits.
    5. If I believe the problem is truly urgent, I’ll immediately decide on a next action and put it in my list. Otherwise, I’ll throw some reminder into my “in bin” for later perusal.
  3. I review my lists with near religious regularity, constantly reminding myself to not lose sight of the larger picture.

All of these combine to enable me to do my daily work with agility and perspective, such that at any given point, I feel very confident that I am doing exactly what  I should be.

The most difficult part?  Maintaining an even keel and and objective frame of reference in the face of perpetual problems.  That is a skill that I am still very much honing, and one that can only be developed through daily practice and a strong sense of your emotions.

How do you maintain a broad view of your responsibilities, while still responding to the fires that fall on you unexpectedly?