Saturday, 24 November 2012

Restore Default Settings

If you think you're good at handling stress, try to solve a sudoku puzzle while someone taps their index finger on your forehead.

I heard an interview with Steve Shapiro - a speaker on innovation.  (Here's a TED talk that he did that really encapsulates the way I try to approach a lot of things in life.  TED talks are my way of feeling smart while not taking time to read books.  Kind of like that fancy feeling you get when you walk a little extra slowly past a Ferrari).  In the interview, he goes a little further into the principle that experts are at a disadvantage when it comes to creativity, because their neural passageways are so deeply developed in a particular way of thinking.  Any time they're faced with the stress of a challenge, they default to their old way of solving problems.

But then, I guess you don't have to be an expert for that, do you?  Isn't that what we all do?  I'm usually a pretty chill guy.  At the best of times, that means most stress is water off a duck's back for me.  But when the shit really hits the fan, I tend to stray further down the spectrum and become downright avoidant.  Some people have tendencies to speak before thinking, that they can keep in check until something stressful happens.  Then they revert back to that old habit.

If you rounded a corner and came face to face with an angry tiger, your brain would short-circuit the 'logic and reason' side of your brain.  It goes straight to the fight-or-flight, instinctual side.  Your behaviour is much less voluntary when you have adrenalin running through the old meatloaf.

When I was in my last year of high school, a friend of mine (best friend of a number of my best friends) committed suicide.  Being my avoidant self, I watched from a bit of a distance as all of my friends dealt with it in different ways.  Sometimes it was vice - drinking, smoking, sexuality.  Sometimes it was spirituality.  Sometimes it was relational - some avoided others, some veered more to the needy, paranoid side.  All my friends were (and are) wonderful people, who I wish I was in more contact with.  But it was a fascinating learning experience to watch people develop coping mechanisms at that young age.  And some of us are still leaning on those same coping mechanisms today. 

If you've ever lost someone close to you, you know what grieving feels like.  It feels like stress.  You feel like you literally spilled your guts all over the pavement, and yet people are expecting you to carry on, working, interacting, being friendly.  And you just feel like you have "BASKET CASE" stamped on your forehead.  So when your guts are out, a little germ can become a deep seated infection.  Because eventually you are able to gather them back together and tuck them back, roughly where they belong.  So the decisions we make when we're under big stress or pain can be very crucial.  The strongest memories are linked with emotion, so those coping mechanisms develop fast and strong.

So, when you're under stress, just keep an eye out.  The first thing you'll find is that your desire for creativity diminishes.  If you're a musician, a planner, a performer, a salesperson, watch your passion dwindle.  Then, watch to see what you start to 'default' toward.  I bet you already know.  If not, I bet your best friend or spouse does - this is often the 'blind side' of our own personality, that we "on purposedentally" overlook.  Do you distrust people?  Is it suddenly extremely important that the boots are on the right side of the closet and the shoes on the left?

And the crazy thing about coping mechanisms?  They don't have to be vices!  Or better put, ANYTHING can be a vice when it's used as a coping mechanism.  Exercise is great - until you're doing it obsessively, to the detriment of your relationships.  Healthy eating is great, until it becomes a diet, and then an eating disorder.  Blogging is great.  Unless it means you're ignoring your 4 year old. Wait.  Shoot. 

Just kidding.  He's already asleep.

Do you know what your "Default Settings" are?  Hey - God Bless You if you've had a charmed enough life that you haven't had to find out, but I bet most of us have an inkling.  A healthy idea might be to make yourself aware of what they are.  You're going to be doing them whether you realize it or not.

Stress happens.  It can't be avoided.  But part of being prepared for it is recognizing your default settings, and not letting them go unchecked.  Allowing those bad habits in when you're stressed is like planting a seed deep, deep in your mind.  It can grow in there for a long time without you noticing, once you cover it up.  But you may start to see it crop up in all sorts of odd places with time.  Don't let those patterns get too ingrained.  Brains are like a wagon trail - the more times you go down the same path, the harder it is to get the wheels out of the grooves if you decide you don't like it anymore.

Is it just me or do I speak in pictures?

So what's your story?  How do you spot a rut in your actions?  What defaults do you reset to under stress? What tips do you have to recognize them?  To re-train yourself?  Comment away!  Thanks for reading.

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