This is becoming more and more obvious to me, with every passing day — the more physically tired I am, the more active my mind gets, and then the more tired my brain gets… which then feeds into a perpetual loop of problems, including having trouble figuring out what the problems really are, and not being able to figure out how to fix them.
Experts would probably call this “fatigue-based inhibitory effects on problem-solving capabilities”, but I call it just not being able to think straight.
I’ve been getting a little turned around at work. I soldier on and keep up appearances, but I really feel like I’ve been struggling, lately. I’ve tried discussing it with my neuropsych, but they are really intent on keeping my moods elevated and maintaining a can-do attitude. That’s all very well and good, and it has it’s place, but there’s no denying — I have been extremely foggy, lately, I have not been sleeping well, and I have been doing really stupid things at work that I’ve had to scramble to keep on top of.
This is totally that loop of tired body, frantic mind, tired brain. It’s so obvious, it’s a little scary. What’s even more scary is the fact that I haven’t fully addressed it till the last few days. I’ve let myself get beyond tired, into dangerously tired quadrants of my existence. And I’ve let a bunch of things slide, to my detriment.
I probably sound like a broken record here, but sometimes it takes me a little while to have stuff sink in. Intellectually, I know that fatigue will get my system going — all the adrenaline pumps me up. And I know that the adrenaline gets my mind going. And I know that the more I go, the more tired I get… But realizing that from the “center of the storm” — when I’m pumped up and over-tired, to begin with — and realizing it from a distance where I’ve been observing myself with some detachment, is another. And actually doing something about it, when I’m in the thick of things? Fuggeddaboutit.
I’m happy to report, I have managed to get back to sleeping more than 5 hours a night, which is a big plus. I had 6-1/2 hours the other night, and last night I had 7+ hours. I’ve actually been getting to bed at a decent hour, not staying up till midnight (and beyond) like I had been. And I have been able to get back to sleep when I wake up at 3 a.m. I’m not perfect, but I have been doing better, and I can feel a real difference.
I have also been working more on my breathing exercises — taking time before I start each day to sit and concentrate on my breathing. I haven’t always done a good job of blocking out distractions, but these things take time and practice. There’s all sorts of interesting research that’s been emerging about the effects of meditation and mindfulness on cognitive capacity — like at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain , which I happened upon when I Googled “meditation attention” and followed some links. They have some interesting papers about how meditation can help with inhibition control as well as attention and distractability. I haven’t had a chance to read them in depth, but I’ve checked out the abstracts, and the papers look pretty cool. So, I’ll have to read more…
But in the meantime, just from my own observations, I can say this — when I am tired and stressed, I am really susceptible to distraction. And that distraction feeds itself pretty intensely. It’s like the adrenaline is pumping, the epinephrine is flowing, and all my alert systems are on “high” without having much ability to discriminate between what matters, and what doesn’t. I notice everything, and something in my head tells me, it’s all important. So, I end up chasing everything, following it like it’s actually leading somewhere. But a lot of times, that gets me chasing my own tail, and I end up back where I was before, only more tired and more frustrated and more behind.
Which leads to more stress. And fogginess. And poor decisions. And crappy impulse control, which is a total killer.
So, I’ve got to change things up a little bit. I don’t have to do a massive, wholesale change to my entire life (as much as I’d like to), but I do need to make some incremental changes. Yesterday, I not only did my focused breathing in the morning, but I also did it in the afternoon, when I was starting to get really tired and stressed. I stepped away from my desk and found a quiet room with no windows, where I could sit down, turn off the lights, and just breathe. Counting my breaths… concentrating on relaxing… just getting my mind to let go of all the stuff it was hanging onto. (I had it all written down, anyway, so I didn’t have to keep it in my head.) After that, I felt a lot better, and I went back to work and got a lot done.
And before I went to bed, I spent a lot of time stretching and breathing, so my body could relax. It’s hard to believe how tense and tight I got from just working all day, but my body was in some serious need of limbering up. My back and neck and legs, especially. Oh, heck — my whole body, actually.
This morning I managed to sleep till about 6 a.m., which gave me almost 8 hours of sleep. And I feel better than I have in a long time. I feel like I’m actually coming back a bit. And it amazes me, because as deep as I was in the mire of fatigue and stress and some really inefficient practices at work and at home, I didn’t fully realize just how bad I felt… almost all the time.
That’s what the tired body, frantic mind, tired brain cycle does to me — it fools me into thinking that everything is fine – I’m fine – and I don’t need to do anything about it. all the while, I’m foggy and confused and thinking less and less clearly, but I think I’m okay. I think I’m good. Kind of like that old Pepsi commercial where all those guys got clunked on the head and said they were fine, afterwards .
I think I’m fine, but I’m anything but. And the cycle continues.
So, what gets me out of the cycle? I think it’s basic routine stuff — literally. When I’m in that head-space that says “I’m OK, I”m good” but I’m really struggling, having a regular practice of taking time out to concentrate on my breathing gets me out of that loop and into a different head-space that lets me see more clearly what’s going on. If I can develop a regular daily routine of just stepping away for 15 minutes to give my brain a rest and relax my body, it helps me think 100% better. And it feels absolutely amazing, too. The crazy thing is, I don’t even realize I need to do this, when I’m in the thick of everything. But if I just have a daily focused breathing routine to regulate my heart rate, loosen the tension in my body, and re-gain access to parts of my system that the stress hormones are shutting down — just like I have my morning breakfast routine — and if I can just stick with it, no matter what, then I have a fighting chance to get myself out of that cycle and come up with a different way of handling things, other than just getting more and more pumped up with adrenaline and junk food and driving myself towards the edge.
Taking a “brain/body break” not only gives my head a rest, but it also gives my body a rest, too. I just came across an endurance training blog post that mentions research about how Mental fatigue can affect physical enduranceBETHESDA, Md. (Feb. 24, 2009) − When participants performed a mentally fatiguing task prior to a difficult exercise test, they reached exhaustion more quickly than when they did the same exercise when mentally rested, a new study finds. The study … found that mental fatigue did not cause the heart or muscles to perform any differently. Instead, our “perceived effort” determines when we reach exhaustion. The researchers said the next step is to look at the brain to find out exactly why people with mental fatigue perceive exercise to be more difficult.
Riding a bicycle isn’t the only form of rigorous exercise. Sitting at a desk all day is tiring. So is driving long distances to and from work. And trying to stay “on” and present for every emerging problem is a total physical drain.
So, the cycle of tired body and frantic mind and tired brain feeds on itself. When my brain is tired, it starts perceiving exertion as exhausting, and then it just adds to the whole load. My physical weariness clouds my head, and then my head gets tired, which in turn reduces my physical stamina, which in turn makes me depressed, and the whole downward spiral continues…
Until I can step away and take a break. Or a nap. Or find some other way to get out of my head for at least a little while.
At least, that’s how it sounds to me. I have to take my comprehension with a grain of salt, because I have been tired… and already today I feel like I need a break.
So, it’s time for a snack and a little brain/body break, to get my head together again. It’s Friday, I still have a full day’s work to do, I’ve got the full weekend ahead of me, and I’ve got some new reading to interest me. I’m feeling like I’m coming out of a bit of a fog. I’m still a little bleary, but I do feel a lot better than I have in a number of weeks.
Sleep is good. Rest is good. And just sitting and breathing on a regular basis is most excellent.