Trying to Think in a Time of Stress
I wrote a blog post over the weekend. Then, after it was published, I went back and reread it. And I noticed something startling. In half a dozen cases, I left out whole words. Not typos. Not the wrong word. Or even a missing letter. Simply no word at all.
And that’s not the all of it.
I’ve spent the last three months teaching myself to code. I’m at the point where I have a reasonable grasp on the basics and now need to put the isolated skills together in longer – and more difficult – projects.
And I just can’t do it.
The languages, which were starting to feel familiar, are now just swirling letters and punctuation on the screen.
I’ve had to take a step back and work on more bite-sized challenges, which luckily my brain seems able to digest. It’s pretty much the equivalent of baby rice cereal for the brain.
It’s been awhile since my brain has felt like this. Ten years to be exact.
My ex left in July 2009. We started school a couple weeks later.
It had been years since I had felt the need to work out problems ahead of time before giving them to the class. So it caught me off guard when I was trying to explain how to decode a word problem at the board and I got stuck.
My brain simply couldn’t handle a multi-step problem. There was limited retention. No attention span. Instead of problem-solving, my brain was simply returning the cognitive equivalent of the “spinning wheel of death.”
For the better part of a year, I had to make accommodations. I made notes to take to the board with me during lessons. Answer keys were prepared well in advance. I went back and re-taught myself things that I had known but was struggling to apply. Instead of reading my normal books, I gravitated towards young adult fiction with its easier-to-understand writing.
I was worried, afraid that this cognitive decline would be permanent.
But it wasn’t. In time, it returned to its original level.
And so I’m currently holding onto hope that the world – and my brain – will return to sanity again.
All over Twitter this week, I’ve seen people timidly admit that they’re struggling to focus. To think. To problem-solve.
They’re worried. That their reaction is abnormal. That they may never be able to think again. That something is wrong with them.
There’s nothing wrong with struggling to think while your brain is busy attending to other (and often scary) things.
Here’s a way to think about it. For the sake of argument, pretend that you’re a skilled knitter. In fact, you can normally knit a scarf automatically and you don’t struggle to follow a complex new pattern.
But now is not a normal time.
Because now, at least as far as your brain is concerned, you’re treading water in an attempt to stay afloat. And knitting has suddenly become a whole lot more difficult.
So if you’re struggling to think right now, know that you are having a perfectly normal response to an abnormal situation.
While you’re waiting for your stress to decline and your cognitive to ramp back up, here are a few tips:
- Adjust your expectations. Don’t base them on what you can “normally” do. Remember, your brain is treading water right now.
- Your attention span is shorter. Schedule breaks.
- Chunk information into smaller pieces.
- Provide support for your lack of retention. Get used to writing more things down than you had to before.
- Give yourself opportunities to feel successful. Otherwise, frustration can easily get the best of you.
- Intentionally reteach yourself things. It may feel silly to go back to 101 when you’re a professor in it, but that sequential feeding of information will help your brain learn how to function again.
- Pay attention to the basics – sleeping, nutrition, exercise. They’re important.
- And finally, be patient. You can’t force this.
You’re not broken.