Thursday, November 12, 2015

Getting Uncomfortable

We are getting settled into the new office, which has been quite an experience. If you ever have questions about how deep you are into a particular comfort zone, leaving the entire zone behind completely will resolve those questions in a hurry. I’ve been sitting in the same desk in the same building with every arranged in the same way for five years. The pattern grooves of habit run deep after five years, and I am definitely a creature of habit. I knew this move would present challenges, but I was blissfully unaware of just how challenging it would turn out to be. By the time Monday came to a close, I was ready to move into a padded isolation chamber and wish the world away.

Heather often tells me, “Your OCD is showing,” whenever I do one of those little quirky things I’m known to do. We laugh, and I honestly don’t think much about it. It’s a running joke, but I’ve never really considered my compulsions to be too big a deal. In the grand scheme of things, they’re not, and there are certainly many people with far more severe compulsions, but five years of habit has an amplification effect. Being in an unfamiliar location with unfamiliar - and far too many - noises, with more people in my immediate surroundings than I’ve been used to having, and a completely new desk that was installed exactly backward from what mine had been … I am adamantly opposed to the whole idea of “Woe is me,” but I was feeling some woe. It was more than a little frustrating, and I am fairly certain that was my most unproductive day in ages.

In the spirit of turning a negative into a positive, though, this experience did help me to reaffirm some thoughts and practices for making the best of a bad situation.

The first thing to remember is that it’s almost never as bad as you think it is. We developed the knack for imagining the negatives around us as a means of planning ahead and preparing for dangers not yet in plain sight, but sometimes it seems that we have gotten too good at this skill. Our ability to mentally look around the next corner and guess what carnivorous horror might be lurking there has evolved into an assumption that every corner hides a carnivorous horror, and the horror has friends, and the friends are hungry, and the menu is Me. We see the worst in everything, and then imagine that to be the worst it can possibly be.

As a direct result, unless you are currently fighting for your life against seemingly impossible odds, you can usually take the Worry Scale and crank it down several notches to get to a more realistic level. If you are not in a life or death situation, it’s safe to assume that things are not as bad as they seem. We assume things are worse than they are, and then we make them worse to match the assumption. Not only is this a waste of energy, it interferes with our ability to deal with the real issues. If you’re swinging at shadows, you’re less likely to hit solid targets. Take a deep breath, take it down a notch, and focus your attention where you can do some good.

Don’t forget that breathing part. Deep breaths can be hugely helpful. Much of the stress that comes from this type of situation is caused by stimulation overload. There is too much data coming into the brain at one time, and the brain is having fits trying to process it all in a useful manner. It may not seem like an increase in data - you had all of the same people and desks and phone calls and assorted bits of fun and excitement before the change as well - but it really is. Under normal circumstances, our brains use a very efficient filing system. The familiar daily background chatter gets filed away as white noise, and the brain achieves a setting where most of this is not actively monitored unless something unusual happens. No processing is needed unless something changes. When something changes, though, or when everything changes, the background chatter can become foreground noise again, and has to be re-processed as new information. So what might seem on the surface to be the Same Old Same Old can easily become a surplus of new information, which can lead to a mental overload and Freakout.

Don’t freak out. Instead, try to understand what is happening, and help it to happen naturally. Pause, close your eyes, and take a deep breath, then do that again. Slow yourself down by taking a moment to focus on your breathing, and then let the information come in in a more guided fashion. Look at one piece at a time, assimilate that piece, and then move on to the next piece. Rinse and repeat as needed. You won’t always be able to do this perfectly - the world keeps spinning, and the events around you may not wait for you to take as much time as you might prefer - but every little bit helps. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to regain some control. Even a little bit of control can restore confidence and help to drive away the feeling of being overwhelmed, which can make the whole situation better.

Take control where you reasonably can. My little figures and my wedding photo were the first things I unpacked at the new office because they gave a touch of familiarity to balance out the unfamiliar. I then rearranged my desk three times trying to find a pattern that was comfortable, but that didn’t work. The desk was backward. Everything was reversed from where my brain expected it to be. Thankfully there was an available desk that was facing “the right direction” and I was able to move into that desk and get things set up the way I wanted them. That was a reasonable amount of control that I was able to exercise, and this helped immensely.

That is an important thing to remember: there is nothing wrong with taking a reasonable accommodation if it is available. Yes, I could have gotten used to the new facing direction, and would have done so if necessary, but it wasn’t necessary. I had an option and I used it. This freed me up to address things that I couldn’t change. As always, change what you can, accept what you can’t change, and pay attention to the difference. If a polite request will give you some control in the whirlwind, make the request. Don’t make your situation worse just because you don’t want to ask for something.

We can’t fix everything, and sometimes things are going to be uncomfortable. Sometimes the only option is to grin and bear it, and keep moving forward. Always keep moving forward. That is the biggest trick of all. As long as you keep moving forward, you should eventually get past whatever is causing the issue. At the very least, keep moving forward and you can develop new habits that will help you to deal with these issues. We do what we can and try to limit the stress over what we can’t.

We’re getting settled in here, and things are already less uncomfortable than they were on the first day. That’s usually how these things work, if we let them work. Don’t fight the process. Work with the process, use the tricks you have, and explore your options for finding new tricks. With the right effort, we can often do more than we think we can. Put your mind to it and you might be surprised.

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