Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stop Pretending You Don't Know What to Do!

My friend Kat (Houghton) has an uncanny ability to to transform dry research studies into meaningful, digestible and actionable concepts. She routinely bridges the gaps between physiology and psychology, between science and daily living, between thinking and doing. Over the last few months, thanks to her abilities, passion and hard work , I've learned more about how we humans operate than I have my whole life. In particular, I've learned more about how I operate.

Sensory Systems and ADD
For example, I now have a clue about my Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Over the years, I've discovered that I can stay focused and keep my ADD in check if I workout vigorously a couple hours per day, drink a lot of caffeinated beverages, play loud beat-laden music and while playing an action movie on the TV. I could never understand how all this worked. Much to the chagrin of anyone living with me, neither could they.

Now, thanks to Kat, I understand it all has to do with the physiology of my sensory systems (sight, hearing, touch, sense of balance) and their state of arousal (the level of input that is required get them up and running). It turns out that my sensory systems nominally operate at a low state of arousal craving stimulation and input.

In the absence of a lot of sensory stimuli, when I haven't regulated myself with workouts or caffeine or Adderall, I tend to get distracted, fidget and fly from thought to thought to thought. Much to the annoyance of others, I tend to focus on the most provocative aspects of what has been said as it increases the energy level, rate and volume of the conversation. It's as though my mind were a big hydro-electric dam that overheats when there's not enough water passing through it. In lieu of the water flow provided by my sensory systems, my mind starts to manufacturer its own water.

(By the way, in a sort of cosmic joke, Iris operates at the opposite end of the sensory spectrum. All the stuff I do to focus get's her totally distracted.)

Under Control
For years, I tried to manage all this simply by controlling myself and how I acted, e.g. forcing myself to sit in a library and concentrate for hours at a time. Slowly I discovered ways of regulating my systems, not knowing that that was what I was doing (Faith I guess this would be an example of Unconscious Competence). I'd work out religiously, I'd drink espresso late at night to calm down, I'd fill my time with the most challenging and engaging activities I could find, I'd flood my environment with stimuli.

When I discovered the philosophy of happiness, I listened to recorded teachings repeatedly often playing it in the background as I worked. I studied the form of talk therapy so much that I could recite many of the example from memory. Through all this and lots of practice, I learned to manage my ADD in the moment by taking a snapshot of my current beliefs, analyzing them, and then deciding what to do with them.

At one point, I started playing with creating the effect of Adderall by thinking about it. I'd get up early in the morning and slip downstairs before anyone else woke up, sit down on the couch, pop an Adderall, close my eyes and then become completely aware of how my body responded. Later in the day after the Adderall wore off, I'd see if I could give my body the same experience by imagining it. I slowly learned to recreate the same experience without the Adderall. For me, it was similar to how I play piano. If I can hear something, I can play it, no written music required. So, I listened to my body on Adderall and learned to play it.

So Many Options
The beauty in this is that I've learned not one, but hundreds of things that work. However, I used to have a lot of judgments about good ways to manage ADD and bad ones. I would put things like changing my beliefs, playing Adderall by ear, working out, and doing challenging work into the good category, and things like loud music, medication, provoking others in conversation into the bad category.

As a result of judging some methods as good and others as bad, I would often deny myself the most useful and beneficial alternatives. All because I should be able to do it some other way. Nowadays, I go with what I know in the moment. If working out is an option, cool. If the easiest thing to do right now is pop a pill, then pop I will. If I have the time and space to meditate myself into a non-ADD state, that's great. The wonderful part is that, by opening myself to all the options, I almost never experience ADD. It's really nice.

Missing the Obvious
I have so many wonderful people in my life who struggle with their own versions of ADD and who often deny themselves the most useful solution because they should be able to... do it themselves... do it without medication... do it cold turkey... do it some other way... do it by changing their beliefs... and so on.

For example, Iris has a rather volatile blood sugar system that can lead to commensurately volatile behaviors. I've gotten so I can spot the early warning signs before things get completely out of hand. As Iris' blood sugar dips and she morphs from sweet, talkative and engaged to distracted and less talkative, to quiet and unfocused, to short and pissy to downright angry. We used to address all this by Dialoguing. How are you feeling? Why are you feeling that? And so on. It could get, well, dangerous.

Now, we rather than Dialoguing our way through it, we just get her something to eat.

You Know What to Do!
I believe that oftentimes, when we feel stuck in a situation (depression, fear and anxiety, self-doubt, excess weight, poor condition), it's because we're overlooking, ignoring or pushing aside the most obvious solutions. We do this because we decide that obvious solutions are not good or they're too simple, or because we don't like them, or they're to difficult, or because there's got to be a better way.

For example, let's say you're an overworked, overweight parent flirting with depression. A really amazing solution would be taking your child out for a walk everyday. Pushing a stroller, walking hand-in-hand, observing the world around you, talking. It simultaneously solves gazillions of challenges: spending time together, sharing experiences, firing up your cardiovascular system, increasing your serotonin levels.

And yet, I can hear the litany of reasons why mom or dad might not do it. It's too hot. It's too cold. If I'm going to exercise, I want to really exercise. My child's schedule is too full already. I'm in no shape to walk that far. The list is as long as we are creative. And yet, were mom or dad simply to start walking with their child every day, for whatever time or distance they could go, remarkable changes would start to happen.

What simple solutions are sitting right in front of you staring you in the face? Why do you dismiss them? Are you ready to do what you know to do?


  1. Mark!! I could scream! I LOVE the thought that I "could give my body the same experience (as as some solution that isn't accessible in the moment) by imagining it". So many times, I get myself stuck by deciding that the useful, helpful thing that I want to do isn't possible right now so nothing else can be done. I forgot that I could create the experience of that useful thing just by imagining it! I already have a rich repertoire of helpful tools/experiences to pull from.

  2. Faith, Isn't it great! All the tools that we have at our beck and call, and we never beckon!

  3. Very very neat, Teflon; thanks!


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