Reductio ad Absurdum: A Stress Relief Tool

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Two weeks left, a brief respite, then my internship begins. I’m looking forward to it. Unfortunately, it is not a paid internship, so I have to also find a part time job. I’d like to find one in my industry, but I’m not sure that’s a viable alternative at this point. I’ll have to do some searching…in between classes, labs, studying, car issues, etc. First, though, I need to find my way through four tests and three practicals. Here’s the rundown:

Physiology: Test on kidneys (including acid/base homeostasis), digestion, endocrine, and reproductive. Cumulative lab exam on everything from membrane physiology through reproductive systems.

Performance Enhancement for Athletics: This is the NSCA class. We only have 1 test, and it’s cumulative. The lab exam is also cumulative, though not comprehensive. First is video and picture analysis. Then we randomly draw exercises, have about a minute to set them up before the test subject comes in. We then explain, demonstrate, cue, and correct the subject.

Program Theory and Instructional Design: This is the ACSM class. We have one more non-cumulative test. The lab practical involves doing a series of assessments on a friend we bring in.

Dance: Yes. Apparently dance has a final exam. Technically there’s also a practical, but it’s more of a review. Given this is only a 1 hour credit course, I’m not worrying about it too much.

Oh, and we have final assessments for our faculty clients this week.

Why did I list all this out? It’s one of my “get a grip” tools. By listing what I have to do, I make it easier to figure out how to go about doing it. It’s more than defining hoops to jump through. Not only do I have the hoops defined, I also have clues as to the best approach for each hoop. For instance, the physiology test is probably the most involved; however, the lowest grade I’ve made in that class thus far is in the mid-90s. I have a very significant buffer. The NSCA class, however, has had no tests thus far. Thus this one exam carries more weight than any exam in any other class. That’s my priority. I’ll review and talk with my physiology lab- and classmates, but I’ll spend most of my time getting ready for the NSCA class.

The ACSM class, though in my area of study, has had a couple of tests and several quizzes. Based on my previous history, I’ll spend a little extra time preparing for the assessments in lab, but the test probably won’t be that much trouble. Certainly the dance class won’t get much of my attention. The majority of the grade comes from participation. The test goes over time signatures, cadences, styles, terminology, etc. Given my attendance and participation, even if I make a 0 on the test, I’ll still pass the class with a 75. I’ll do a skim-through but not really worry about it after that.

I’m not saying that none of these tests will be challenging. On the contrary, I know that at least two of them will be VERY challenging. All I’m saying is that with this list and this approach outlined, I now have a reasonable hope of putting my study time in the areas that are of most use to me. Explicitly stated, the order of my efforts are: NSCA, physiology, ACSM, dance. Having determined this, my stress levels are now well within manageable limits. In fact, if I help some of my classmates, I’ll not only be making sure I’ve learned the material, but I’ll be sure I can explain it in multiple ways. When I can explain something in multiple ways, I cease to have doubts about whether I actually know the material.

Happy Stress Day!

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Wow. It’s been a couple of very busy weeks. The “achievement” score so far stands thus: 1 car totaled, 1 used car bought, 2 tests taken (without being studied for), 1 minor project completed, 1 major project started, 4 training sessions altered to account for client improvements beyond expectations and new client injuries, 2 new students. Gotta love life.

The ability to devote all your attention on the task in front of you is one of the greatest abilities we have. In this digital age, we constantly hear about “multitask” this and “multithread” that. That’s great for computers, but the human mind only fools itself into thinking it can do that. The closest we can come is to break down multiple larger tasks into chunks, then address each chunk in turn. By devoting all attention to each chunk one at a time, the tasks get done much more quickly, whether or not consecutive chunks are part of the same task. This is the basis of just about every time-management lecture/book/workshop/etc. I’ve ever seen.

These past few weeks have put my ability to do this to the test. I’ve really had to discipline my mind in ways I haven’t had to do in a long time. Creating multiple contingency plans for transportation is a great idea…just not during a test. Likewise, when with my client, I have to keep my focus on her, and not let my mind drift to the test I have to take the following day which I have not yet studied for.

I hadn’t intended to write about time management, or even the illusion of attention (as mentioned in The Invisible Gorilla). To be fair, I didn’t have a specific topic in mind, today, but giving clues as to a low point in my life was not my intention. On the other hand, maybe the catharsis of stream of consciousness writing will help me focus on some of my tasks today.

Speaking of writing, I find it’s easiest to write when my stress levels are within certain tolerances, call them X for the low end and Y for the top end. Writing this entry has been an interesting exercise in both the focus mentioned above and writing while pushing the Y boundary. When my stress levels are far beyond the Y limit, I just don’t care. The challenge is when my stress levels are just above my normal Y limit.

I wonder if there’s a correlation between the type of writing I find easiest at any one time and where within the X-Y tolerance my stress is. If this post is any indication, it looks as though the closer to Y (or past it), the easier it is for stream of consciousness writing. I know I have to have a fairly low level of stress in order to write fantasy (whether traditional or urban). This is not unexpected, since in writing fiction, I tend to try to imagine myself in the specific physical and emotional situations of the characters. My stress buffer has to be fairly clear in order to constructively cope with deliberately putting myself in…unfortunate…situations.

If my stress level gets too low, I just don’t have anything to tap into to write about. This is probably the best time for me to write my academic papers. Without a minimum level of stress, I can’t creatively express the conflicts necessary for amusement writing (notice I did not say “good writing”). Without that minimum level of stress, being able to focus on facts, understand them, interpret them, and apply them become much easier for me. Below that point, logic, deductive reasoning, and inductive reasoning become very easy for me.

I guess if I had multiple writing projects I had to take care of, I would have to break them into chunks, then address the chunks separately, deciding which chunk to take care of at any one time based on my current level of stress.

Tailspin

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My brain, for some reason, doesn’t seem to be working well today. Perhaps it’s overloaded. I missed one of my busiest school days last week because I was dealing with the aftermath of an accident the afternoon before. I’m still dealing with some of that, but since I missed not only two lectures, but two labs, I’m naturally obsessing about that. For the first time in a long time, I’m wishing I didn’t have school today.

On the other hand, it’s a chance for me to find ways to push past a major concern. Find ways to set it aside so that I can concentrate on things I can do something about. Right now, my thoughts are VERY sluggish, hence the lower quality of blog today. Nevertheless, here are some of the coping mechanisms I’m using:

  1.        Prioritizing: Make a list of things to do based on deadlines
  2.        Reframing: Find alternate ways to look at any given situation
  3.        One Step at a Time: Focus on the next task, not the mountain of worries ahead of me
  4.        Determine what I can change and what I can’t, and leave the stuff I can’t change alone

 

There are, no doubt, others that I will come up with and use; however, it’s one thing to know what to do, and something else to do it.

Progressive Flailing

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After teaching martial arts for a number of years, I’ve realized a pattern in the progression of students. I’m not talking about ranking, or even proficiency in movement. I’m talking about reaction to stimulus. It has to do with inherent fight/flight reactions. There is a third part of the fight/flight response, and that is “freeze”. The freeze response is what most people refer to as “deer in the headlights” response: somatic muscle stimulation stops, and the person just sits there and watches. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I suspect it has to do with hypersensitivity to perceived threats. So how does this apply to students in the martial arts?

Here’s my new progression:

Freezing, Wildly Flailing, Directional Flailing, Flailing Overcompensation, Directed Response, Appropriate Response, Reflexive Response.

Freezing: When training students, as an instructor, I have to assume the student is going to start here. Thus my “attacks” are slow, linear, and separated from each other. This prevents the overload by greatly reducing the perceived threat. In this stage, it is also a good bet that we have to teach the student it is okay to hit back. Once the student gets the idea that 1) he can hit back and 2) an incoming attack is dangerous only when it lands, then they move on to the second step in the progression.

Wildly Flailing: This is most easily seen in “slap fights”: hands and arms reach out blindly, trying to find a target. It’s also seen in defense as a shotgun barrage of untargeted blocking. It’s roughly the equivalent of the last twitches of a drowning person that might get his head above water—usually unproductive, but better than nothing. Students in this phase are, for the first time, in a situation where the attacks are coming in more quickly and in random sequence.

Directional Flailing: Students in this phase are still flailing, but the area covered is much narrower. Whereas in the Wildly Flailing phase, the flailing happens roughly evenly across the entire half-sphere in front of the student, Directional Flailing happens in more of a cone type area that encompasses the incoming attack. In this phase, the student’s subconscious mind has started to kick in, allowing an inherent understanding of “if the attacker’s right arm is coming in from this direction, it can’t be coming in from any other direction”.

Flailing Overcompensation: In this phase, there is apparently a slowing down of response. What is actually going on, however, is the student is having to consciously overcome the inherent flail response. In other words, the student’s drop in response speed has more to do with fighting himself than being unable to execute the appropriate response. Some flailing will still happen, but if the attack speed is reduced, the correct responses will become more apparent.

Directed Response: The student has now internalized a series of possible responses, but is still in the process of narrowing down the appropriate stimulus response sequence. The movements of a forearm block have been practiced so often that it’s second nature, but the forearm block is lost amidst an index of other possible responses. The response speed is faster than in the Flailing Overcompensation stage, but is still slow enough that the student wouldn’t last long in an actual fight…or even in a sparring match.

Appropriate Response: The student has learned his own hierarchy of stimulus response in both attack and defense. In this phase, the reaction speed picks up again, but the student can only deal with a few sequential attacks at a time since he is thinking about each attack individually. The goal of this phase is to smooth out the stimulus reaction loop to the point where conscious thought no longer has a place in the system.

Reflexive Response: In this phase, the responses are at the operant reflex level (as opposed to physiological reflex). Instead of thinking about dealing with the incoming attack, the reflex takes care of it and the brain can think about other things such as tactics, environment, and self-control.

This progression of responses is mostly tongue-in-cheek, but I suspect you’ll find a certain level of truth in it. Part of the purpose of martial arts classes is to take someone from Freezing to Reflexive Response as quickly (and hopefully painlessly) as possible. As an instructor, I teach responses to stimuli (even attack is a response to stimuli). In order for the teaching to be effective, however, I have to initially teach the responses in a very sterile and uncomplicated way.  In a more dynamic, non-drill situation, the appropriate responses are less obvious, which is why a student who performs very well in the drills can become flustered in the dynamic situation.

The other thing to keep in mind with this progression, is that it focuses on stimulus-response. It does not map to differences in ranks, only to experience with techniques. Every technique (especially in the beginning ranks) goes through this series. Even now, when I learn something new, I usually start in the Flailing Overcompensation phase as I try to fit the new technique in with the rest of my skills. I may even regress slightly into the Directed Flailing phase as I begin a Reflexive Response, remember I’m doing something new, and switch mid-movement.

Addictive Reframing

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I was sitting in a computer lab, struggling to come up with a topic, when this energetic guy comes in, plops down in the chair next to me and logs in. Moments later, I reeled back from the stench of him. I’m not talking about being unwashed, but every time he moves (even to turn a page) the noisome odor of cigarettes rolls over me.

In my mind, I picture people like him surrounded by a symbiotic malevolent aura. He may be a very nice person, but cloaking him is this invisible monster. It spends some of its time controlling him, but the rest of the time, it reaches out to those around him and slowly throttles them. Every time it feels itself start to weaken, it forces him to light up and recharge. Then the man-monster symbiote returns to strangle more people.

No, this isn’t another rant about smokers. It’s an example of reframing. Reframing is a conscious shift of mental perspective. It can go either way. For instance, instead of a malevolent symbiotic entity, I could have thought of the guy as intentionally trying to ruin the day of the people around him. In the first example, he’s only partially responsible being both instigator and victim. In the second, he’s entirely responsible. The first opens the possibility of pity, empathy, or sympathy. The second is almost entirely adversarial.

Anyone who’s dealt with an addiction can see themselves in the first example of reframing. It’s even in colloquial dialog. “It’s the booze talking,” or “[drug] is the only way to appease this gnawing emptiness.” I’m not excusing anything. Addiction is a path that started with a choice. This is the reason so many people take the “blame the addict” stance.

The problem is after that first, perhaps almost trivial, choice, the ability to choose the other way disappears. The addiction grows and slowly takes over the person’s life. It becomes and obsession and a compulsion. It takes control and drives the person to the very edge of sanity, then seduces them back into its arms. It is territorial in that it finds ways to make the person shut out others that don’t share in the addiction. Addiction is a living thing, but only because it is part of the person.

I don’t like being around smokers. I don’t like being around alcoholics. And yet, looking at those sentences, it’s obvious that I define people (at least in this case) by their addiction. I suspect that most people view addicts this way. Fortunately, I have a tool garnered from Alateen: separate the person from the addictive behavior.

Remember that an addict is not a single person, an addict is a symbiote: part person, part addiction. When the addict is temporarily free of the addiction influences, that person may very well be a charming, decent person. It’s only when the addiction decides to sharpen its claws on the scratching post of the person’s soul does the harmful behavior come back.

Thus, when I catch myself thinking of someone in terms of their addiction (smoker, drinker), I consciously try to separate the person from the addictive behavior—I try reframing. The person who sat next to me in the computer lab is not “a smoker”, he is someone who smokes. His behavior, especially the result of his behavior, may annoy the hell out of me, but by blaming the behavior rather than the person opens the door to being his friend. And if there’s anything an addict needs, it’s friends.

Testing and Nuts

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I’ve decided that postponing tests is not usually a good idea. Especially if you’re not behind in the lecture schedule. My physiology professor sent out a message last week saying that our test on Monday was being postponed to Wednesday due to many requests and his desire for us not to “have a nervous breakdown.” However, he is still going to lecture on the next unit on Monday.

I’d have preferred to take the test and get it out of the way. Now the test anxiety has another two days to build. It’s been my experience that postponing a fear-based encounter only allows the fear to grow. Not only that, but today’s lecture will be going on the following test, not an ideal situation for recall.

As for not wanting to give us a nervous breakdown, I applaud his intent; however, while his physiology is spot on, I would not say the same for his psychology. Short term anticipation (such as delaying a test by two days) only exaggerates the current emotional situation, it rarely ameliorates it.

 

As an antidote to this heightening anxiety, I’d like to recount something that happened in a different class. This other class is an evening class. Those of us in this class have had at least one class with the other people, and most of us have had two or three with the others. It’s been mentioned that this is probably one of the tightest cohorts in this degree program. Before class, while waiting for the others to arrive, we were discussing various and sundry things and bringing in all kinds of innuendo for the most basic and innocent of topics…bringing up memories of junior high. A giggling mood descended on the students even as the instructor called the class to order, despite the late attendance of a couple of other students.

About halfway through the class, the woman sitting next to me (one of the late arrivals) suddenly said in a voice everyone could hear: “I wish your nuts weren’t so far away.”

A brief silence of shock, then the whole room erupted in laughter. Someone across the room had been eating handfuls of mixed nuts. Someone else said, “What would your girlfriend say?” Even the instructor, possibly the most Zen man I’ve ever met, lost it at that.

I suspect it’ll take her a few weeks to live it down.

Slipping into Banality

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I sometimes wonder about me. I’m overloaded in school. I have little to no time outside of school because I’m preparing for school. And what do I do? I download and listen to lecture series on my commute that have nothing to do with what I’m learning in school. This semester, I’m drowning in physiology, struggling to keep up in performance enhancement, and relying almost completely on recall from class in program design. So I grab lecture series on Chaucer, the history of the English language, and reclaiming Europe’s lost literary tradition. I listen to these while traveling from one campus to another.

Why do I do this? I don’t know. Maybe I’m addicted to learning. I know that some of my other recent choice in audiobooks are: Slights of Mind (a book on the neuroscience of perception and stage magic), Freakonomics (a book which uses the statistical and analysis tools of economics on non-traditional subjects), and The Invisible Gorilla (a book which explores our often mistaken assumptions on how we perceive and recall the world around us).

Somebody described my activities to me as “creating a bigger net”. The analogy is the bigger the net, the easier it is to catch fish. Unfortunately, I may be heading towards an information overload. I fully expect, at some point this semester, to be found curled up in the corner of the library, giggling, and saying, “Here fishy, fishy, fishy.”

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