Chapter Six – Distraction: On stress and what I learned

The stress hit me, no matter how prepared I was for it. I may tell myself not to get stressed and that there’s no need for it, but there’s always some tiny hole for it to gush in.

As I mentioned last time, I’ve had a lot to do over the past weeks. Most people have been witnesses to this — how everything seems to accumulate towards the end of a semester. Deadline yesterday, tomorrow and the next week, not to mention preparing for all the upcoming exams. Ahead of the exam period, I made a deliberate decision not to write here during that time, as I wanted to give my complete focus to school work. I also knew that if I did force myself to write, the end result would not be something that I would be comfortable with.

The end of the semester did turn out quite good! I gave it my best shot, but to be honest, there were times when I took time off of studying and enjoyed the awesome start of the summer. Those were times when I could have forced myself to be productive, but instead I felt lazy, and also allowed myself to be lazy. I spent time with friends (I wish I had a bit more time for this) and tried to spend as much time outdoors as possible. However many times the time off was not intentional, as I got lost browsing the internet or procrastinating some other way. It’s amazing how insidiously it always happens!

During these weeks of being stressed I made a discovery. I’ve noticed the phenomenon earlier, but this time, due to my new endeavours, I really felt the effect. I’ve always thought that I’m fairly good at handling stress, and actually I didn’t feel too stressed this time either, but this thing made me realise what really was going on.

Towards the end of the exam period I came to think of writing again. “What would I write if I was to write right now?” Earlier the topics like the environment, personal development and other things would have automatically popped out, but this dreadful moment I realised that I didn’t feel passionate about things that I used to. They felt rather meaningless and the bit of creativity I used to have was nowhere to be found too. Somehow I felt I had lost myself.

Why was this happening to me? What had changed?

Yes, I was being smothered by the stress. The short “times off” I had, just weren’t enough to recover from all the studying. As you may know, I am a slow kind of thinker – a dreamer, if you will. The introvert I am, I need time on my own to clear my mind of clutter and to give my consciousness a chance to speak up. I see this thinking process as my mind taking a walk. Given a chance, it steps outside and takes off for a nice stroll without a destination. Hitherto this had happened very naturally, without an effort, as my mind was free to roam whenever I had a break from ‘life’s duties’.

However, stress stepping in the game seemed to change everything. I couldn’t think. I wasn’t allowed to calm down and breathe, as all my energy was going to studies, even on the time off. Because of the stress, there was no chance for my mind to “take a walk”. It had to stay put and keep memorising all the new things, or plan for future project stuff. Meanwhile, I couldn’t just force the thinking process and expect the results of a free mind.

I’ve heard people talk of mental clutter, but I don’t think we’re speaking of the same thing here. Something’s different. It could be that over the exam period my brain was just vastly more cluttered than normally, and thus I didn’t have time to clear it out before the next wave hit. I couldn’t find myself in all that clutter, which I can under normal circumstances. On the other hand, it could also be that the stress just increases the effect of the clutter and makes the brain prioritise the clutter over the other things. Stress is extra weight holding your mind down as your mind tries to climb over obstacles.

The brain and the consciousness are powerful prioritisers. When you are in the middle of a stressful period, your brain will put most of it’s focus on the cause. Essentially, isn’t this the evolutionary explanation for stress? In my case, the stress must have made my brain prioritise studies over the other, not so urgent things, that would have slowed down the learning process. The breaks taken weren’t enough to bring these things back to the top.

So I’m not sure if mental clutter means stress, or do they just come hand-in-hand. Either way, now I know how important it is to learn how to manage with them. Now that the spring semester is finally over, I can already feel things getting back to normal (phew, I was a bit worried there). Perhaps with more practise it might be possible to avoid getting lost in stress in the first place.

Have you experienced anything like this?

We are living in a state of quite constant stress and clutter, and they are not necessarily the typical work or study related kind. We are somehow programmed to find distraction for our minds even on the rare occasions we have some free time. TV and the internet make this really easy.

Normal stress isn’t something one can completely avoid, so the free moments you have. Those moments should be the clutter free moments – time for you to discover yourself. Do not immediately seek a way to escape your own head, as so many people have a tendency to do. However, don’t feel guilty watching a movie or such, because it is only when you habitually drown out your thoughts with them, that you will lose yourself.

Even for an extreme extrovert, taking a couple of days avoiding excess distraction can do miracles. Spending a couple of days without any will start rewiring your brain. This facilitates a deeper connection with your consciousness and the current moment. If you don’t allow yourself to get to know how your mind works, and to freely ponder sometimes, how else are you going to find yourself?

So here I am – writing. I don’t believe it! Due to the before mentioned experiences, and this being my first post in what feels like ages, it’s taken a long time to put this together. But it certainly feels good to be back. *wink*

I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts!