Lessons From Urban

His heart was pounding, racing at a pace that surely would make any competent doctor raise an immediate concern for the safety of his patient. Beads of sweat rolled slowly down his forehead, wiped away by a hurried swipe of a forearm, only to be replaced by fresh ones. He was hunched over his keyboard, fingers flicking over its surface in a frantic blur of activity. His eyes gleamed with fury; two dark spots whose glare was entirely focused on the screen before him.

It was anything but an elegant fight that they waged, the operator and his silicon-based opponent. They darted back and forth, each one probing the other for any sign of weakness. Even as one seemed to gain the upper hand, the other would counter with a move both swift and unexpected. It was a war of attrition waged by two stubborn parties: one driven by his need for dominance, the other because it did not know how to do anything but respond in kind.

Words and numbers trailed endlessly across the screen, a seemingly meaningless stream of nonsense, uttered by a mind bereft of all reason. Yet to the operator it all made perfect sense; perfect nonsense, that is. As his nemesis endlessly spewed chunks of data, his eyes sprinted back and forth, trying as best he could to collect and analyze it all. But try as he might, it seemed always that his enemy held the upper hand. Just as he gleaned a tiny bit of understanding, some small nugget of progress, a new wrinkle would appear, more confounding than the last.

As his frustration grew he felt his temples begin to throb; gently at first, but increasingly as time passed. It was as if his body was trying to tell him “Back off, you’re in dangerous territory.” But he was past all reason, so completely consumed he was with his task at hand. On and on he pushed, till the throbbing became outright agony. He flung open the drawer to his right, digging feverishly through its contents until a small bottle was found. Pawing it open, he quickly extracted two small white pills and swallowed them hurriedly, without water. They offered little hope of relief, but perhaps they would give him the edge he so desperately desired, no, needed.

So, I’ll give you three guesses around what the above narrative is about. A piece from my first attempt at an epic sci-fi perhaps (yes, that is very much on my someday list)?

I’ll give you a hint: been following the saga of Urban Meyer, the embattled yet highly acclaimed football coach of the Florida Gators? If you have, you know that he’s basically been told by his doctors that the very thing that makes him one of the most successful coaches in history may also cause him to prematurely leave this Earth: his singular focus and intensity.

When I first read this story, my immediate thought was “Wow, that could be describing me to a T, minus the arachnoid cyst pressuring his skull and all.” I am probably one of the more driven individuals you’ll ever meet; when my mind is set on solving some problem, it’s a nearly useless task to try and pull me away. Just ask my wife, she’ll be happy to oblige you with all sorts of evidence supporting that statement.

On the one hand, this trait is an asset: it lets me persevere when others would stop, long discouraged by setbacks and seemingly insurmountable challenges. It’s probably the major reason why I’ve been so successful in a field that, up until around three years ago, I knew nothing about. But there is a dark side to this unending focus. It manifests as the (not so at times) occasional splitting headache, the missed personal responsibility, the midnight awakenings when nothing short of a blow to the skull will seemingly quiet my mind.

Faced with the prospect of enduring this escalating chain of physical and emotional malaise, I’ve made the decision, much as Meyer did, to step back. No, I’m not taking a leave of absence, but I am engaging in a concerted effort to become more aware of my emotions and the physical manifestations thereof. Journaling, reminder alarms to “check in” with my state of mind, even asking others to notice when my symptoms begin to show themselves.

I love my work, but I love my family and my health above all else.

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”.