Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Breaking the Cycle

This past week has been extremely stressful at work.  Deadlines, reports, people yelling and obstructing, demanding more information before agreeing to pieces of a project that have already been agreed to.

I have hopped through first one flaming poop-hoop and then dived through another. For a solid week.

And that is fine.  I like the pace of that kind of stress, but at a certain point, I cease to be productive.  What's more, I can't seem to break the cycle of stress; the stress from one interaction influences the next.  A high-tension public meeting, coming back immediately to a high-stress yelling match with a coworker over the wording of a change request, followed by...

I end up carrying the stress from one into the stress of another.

My next-door neighbor and I talk daily, and this has been a topic of conversation between us for the past few days.  How, exactly, do you break the stress cycle between events?  How do you keep the stresses from cross-pollinating and becoming more powerful for the cumulative effect?

How do you hit that emotional reset button?

I am reading about meditation, and I know people who use it as a mechanism for defusing these cumulative stressors.  (Note that I said I am READING about meditation.  I am not meditating.  So I cannot speak to whether it works.  For that matter, I have never heard of reading about meditation being a suitable substitute for meditation itself.)

But I also know my own mind, and external quiet seems to amplify the conflict within me, rather than quieting my mind.  My brain is a pretty loud place under the best of circumstances, with continual arguments and debates taking place. (The book I am reading also addresses that I need to quiet those voices...).  So although deep breathing exercises and meditation are powerful tools, they are not what help me.

I also know people for whom physical exercise is the best outlet.  A colleague walked by me today, muttering about the dire need for a punching bag to alleviate the tension in the office. The weight room is packed during the lunch hour, and those using the walking lanes around the building are constantly providing traffic hazards for those of us who don't.

I simply don't have enough shirts to work out, change shirts, sweat through the clean shirt, and change again. My workouts either have to come early in the morning, or after work.  Neither venue helps break the workday chain-reaction stress.

My go-to is different.  What it is will come as no surprise.

Today I realized that my cumulative stress was out of control, and I walked over to a friend's cubicle, and started talking.  We walked through some common frustrations, in a really good kvetching session.  And then suddenly, I followed the logic of the absurd situation we were dealing with to its conclusion, and remarked on how ridiculous it was.

And I laughed.

Suddenly, my chain of tension building from one stressful event to another was interrupted.  The cumulative effect of the stressors was broken.

Two things happened at that moment.  One is that I was forced to look at something from a different perspective, because of the unexpected consequence.  The other is that I took control the narrative of what happens to me. 

And I thought I was stressed...
The first key for me is that humor requires lateral thinking.  The essence of the humor is the change of perspective.  Whether it is language that provides the unexpected overlap (a pun, upon) or the disruption of an expected narrative (the tortoise gets flipped over on his back and can't compete in the well-known slow-and-steady race), it is the deviation from the expected that creates humor.

It is also the source of outside of the box thinking.  When I change perspective, I can see solutions that were not available to me in my 'flow chart mode'.  My job, as part of a military organization, and as part of an engineering organization, gets a little fixated on process, on direct, follow-the-template thinking.

And what happens to me when I inject humor into the situation, is that I provide access to lateral thinking - that change in perspective that is so critical to 'getting' humor.    But also for problem solving.

More importantly, perhaps, is that by creating humor out of the situation, I control my story.  As long as I am jumping directly from one by-the-books crisis to the next, I get to feeling increasingly out of control.

But once I make fun of the ridiculousness of it, then I regain control.  And in doing so, I can function perfectly well.

Then I take a deep breath, and dive back in.

Interestingly, the source of the laugh itself is amazingly ephemeral.  I carry a notepad so that I can jot down interesting ideas.  And twice in the past three days I have turned away from a relief laugh and gone to jot it down, only to discover that it is gone.  Completely erased from my memory.  Like a dream, it has served its purpose to my subconscious, and is no longer needed.

So I want to thank my 'laugh partners'.  You make it possible for me to survive every day.  You provide me with relief, and allow me to do my work.

Much more effective than a punching bag.

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