Saturday, April 6, 2013

Procrastination: A Concept I Should Probably Get Around To Discussing Someday

I've been thinking about procrastination a lot lately. 

(Before I go any further, I should say that I typed that sentence above about 20 minutes ago, and since then, I have gone to the bathroom, checked my email, fiddled around with my phone, stared off into space, and a few other things. Correlation or causation? You be the judge.)

I do it, of course. Most people do, at some point in their lives. Long before my car accident, I was quite adept at putting things off to egregious extents. I mean, why do now what you can do in a panic at the last minute?

There's been a lot of scholarship on the topic over the last few decades. Everybody wants to get underneath the behavior and discover the cause. Like we do with many behavioral patterns, it seems that our culture vacillates between blaming the victim ("Procrastinators are lazy, impulsive losers!") and cultivating victimhood ("I can't help it-- my prefrontal cortex has a mind of its own!").

As you may remember, I used to coach college students toward academic success, and procrastination came up all the time. We mostly talked about it as a symptom of perfectionism, where people unwilling to allow themselves to make mistakes tend to avoid starting difficult tasks to postpone feelings of helplessness or failure.

That makes sense. I think it's true, a lot of the time.

It also makes sense, then, that perfectionism of this type is just as much a product of anxiety as perfectionism-- which are pretty closely related, themselves. We feel anxious about our performance, so we try to put it off as long as we can, even though putting it off usually causes even more anxiety. We'd rather face the devil we know than the devil we don't, apparently.

A more recent theory suggests-- rightly, I think-- that since anxiety is just as likely to cause people to start a task early than late (ever done something unpleasant first, just to "get it out of the way?"), procrastination is more strongly linked with impulsiveness. If we have less control over the areas of our brains that filter out distractions and aid us in impulse-control-- the pre-frontal cortex, which affects premotor functions-- we're a lot more likely to let things come between us and a successfully-completed task.

The thing about procrastination, though, is that it looks (and feels) a lot like laziness, or lack of ambition or willpower. Of course it does. Motivations aside, in effect, it's often indistinguishable.  This one rings a familiar bell for me: shame. There is shame associated with this behavior.   

Oh, hello

All of a sudden, I'm seeing some really weird, interesting connections between procrastination and PTSR.

Or my PTSR, at least.

Here's why I'm talking about this: as I indicated last week, I notice The Fog coming in all the time now, and I've begun to realize that The Fog has been a key factor in what has basically amounted to procrastination, on my part. Anything that threatens my narrow little boundaries of tolerable experience (most things, in other words) causes overwhelm, and then gets swallowed or at least shrouded by The Fog.

From a distance, this looks like procrastination. It is procrastination, conscious or not. Something causes me anxiety, so I push it away and don't do it. It fits that criteria perfectly. 

What I notice, though, when I look at all the theories together, is that there are more parallels to my particular state of being than I expected to find:

  • I have always been a perfectionist, an avoider, a procrastinator. I have always been shame-prone. The PTSR has only increased those tendencies. As I've mentioned before, there is evidence that PTSR occurs more strongly in some people than in others precisely because of those tendencies. It fits more easily into a pre-established framework.
  • Procrastination, like PTSR, is also associated with depression. And depression is a stigmatized condition. And stigma = shame.
  • Procrastination is strongly linked to impulse control, which is linked to the premotor  cortex, which-- as I understand it from my limited research-- projects directly to the spinal cord and is involved in instinctive, pre-cognitive movement. Not quite the lizard brain, but close. 

And get this: my pre-frontal cortex, where the premotor cortex is located, was the part of my brain that suffered the TBI in the accident.

Basically, what I'm seeing is a pretty strong connection between my increasingly unconscious procrastination behavior and the PTSR.

Because, here's the thing: I was actually, for a long time, one of those people for whom anxiety triggered the desire to get things done early, rather than late. I picked up that habit in grad school, where I realized that the torture of having something hanging over my head was worse than the torture of confronting my performance anxiety. I learned to spare myself additional stress by getting the difficult stuff out of the way as soon as possible.

The Fog has become increasingly aggressive only in the past few years, as my PTSR has become more severe in general. I went from having mild, normal bouts of procrastination-- the kind everyone tends to have from time to time-- to losing whole conversations, whole days to The Fog, and becoming a person who hardly ever did anything because everything seemed like too much to bear.

I'm implying a few things here. One is that I think my brain and body have compelled me to new heights of procrastination without my permission or conscious involvement as a symptom and side effect of PTSR. I'm not beyond accepting a bit of victim status, there.

But also, as with everything PTSR-related, I think I have the power to to regain control over the psychosomatic effects and take the power back. A victim no longer. That's my plan.

Once again, I have discovered this week that awareness of my previously-unconscious behavior a) makes the behavior seem much worse, and b) feels like a very positive first step toward getting control of it.

As I hinted last week, there are some things going on in my real life that are a bit monumental and stressful (but positive!), so I've had the chance to observe my PTSR in action.

(I still can't tell you about what's happening, but I may be able to by next week. Fun, exciting stuff!)

I already told you about The Fog. It's been keeping me floating above it all, really. I've managed to avoid the panic and anxiety that would--and should-- otherwise be making me a bit uncomfortable throughout the experience. Which is its job, of course.

Well done, Lizard Brain! Now lay off a little, will you?

Because Fog aside, there are things that need to get done, and I need to be the one to do them, and I've had to be very, very deliberate about keeping my head in the game and not letting the fog sweep everything away from me before I am able to act.

It's so hard to describe this feeling. Things slip away from me, and it's not because of a lack of attention or care, or because I'm absent-minded, or because I'm irresponsible, or lazy, or unmotivated, or even because I don't consciously want to keep track of them and get them done (although I have accused myself-- and likely been accused-- of these things in the past). 

It's like a physical inaccessibility. It's like a door that shouldn't be there gets closed. Sometimes, I can feel it-- feel it-- happening, and can't stop it. Like the words are written in sand, and as I am trying to read them, the waves come in and wash them away before my eyes.

So for the past two weeks, I've been really conscious about taking notes, making lists, repeating facts and plans back to my husband over and over, to be sure I've got everything in my head that belongs there.

It's been working, for the most part. Even as The Fog has been keeping me emotionally detached, I've been counteracting the other stuff by keeping hard records.

So far, so good.

But this week, it also became really clear to me that The Fog is a response to a trigger-- the threat of overwhelming emotions-- and that this trigger is still getting pulled, even though I've learned some ways to avoid its typical effect.

So the ol' Lizard Brain is relying on other tricks. 

One of those tricks, usually encompassed by The Fog but apparently not exclusive to it, is procrastination. Despite my lists, despite what I knew, without really realizing it, I was still avoiding a whole lot of action.

It makes perfect sense to me that this would be a response to the trigger. Avoiding the phone calls, the conversations, the checklist items = avoiding acknowledging the thing that necessitates those actions, which is the thing that is threatening my equilibrium and triggering the protective response.

OMG, obvious: procrastination is a defense mechanism of the Lizard Brain, pushing those triggering events away so that the body can restore its boundaries and its safety. It's not only a conscious coping mechanism. In my case, it's also an instinctive response.


So yesterday, I grabbed that particular bull by the horns and knocked a bunch of items off my  action list. Ran errands, had meetings, made phone calls, engaged services, got shit done.

Last night, I was jumping-out-of-my-skin triggered by it all, for a while, and then I was just-ran-headlong-into-a-brick-wall exhausted after spending the day with various parts of my brain literally at war with each other (which consumes so much more energy than I could possibly have imagined).

Taking a step back and looking at yesterday objectively, I'd say that it probably approached about a "2" on what I would once have considered a normal 1-10 scale of busy days, where 10 = "busy as fuck." It was practically nothing, really, what I did, especially compared to what I see my husband accomplishing in his professional life on a daily basis. But I was completely done in by it, and am currently fighting the migraine to prove it.

But the way I see it, most of what I did yesterday wasn't about the phone calls or the meetings or the items on the checklist. It was about digging in my heels and refusing to let the path in front of me get swept away.

Nothing I did was difficult or challenging. Even in the aggregate. But the impact of having fought off The Fog and the procrastination is still unfolding, if this migraine is any evidence, and the more physical it feels, the more I think I'm getting at the true heart of it. The emotional stuff all still needs to be worked on, of course, but the physical stuff seems most connected to my unconscious self, to my Lizard Brain, and it has always been true that the road to recovery needs to go through that place first.

It sucks the most, this part, this physical, visceral response, because it seems-- and probably is-- most beyond my conscious control. 

But that's the whole point, I guess.

I'm not sure if this post has made much sense-- I've come to most of these conclusions while typing them out on the screen-- but I feel like I'm on to something, here. And I feel like these battles, now that I've finally gotten around to having them, will get easier and easier. 

I think that if I keep working on it, I'll be able to replace one instinct with another. I think action will eventually replace inaction as the most natural way to relieve stress. I think moving will eventually feel better than standing still.

I think doing and knowing won't always seem so separate and distinct, so mutually exclusive; even as I implied last week that they were. 

That belief, above all, makes me feel like my faith in myself has not been misplaced.

I'm hoping to be able to share some cool news next week. Until then, I'm going to try to keep doing what I need to do--proactively!-- to help make it happen. Wish me luck!

0 insightful comments:

Post a Comment