Thursday, June 11, 2009

Greener Grass Conundrum: Psychology of habit

Now that the semester has concluded, I find myself with more unstructured time than I've had in a ages. Rather than "free" time, "unstructured" time, to me, means that I don't need to physically be anywhere so I have time to work on my research and clinical work. It's more like the free-lance life of my husband. The day is my blob of clay to mold. I can have leisurely mornings, productive afternoons, and relaxing evenings. Or so I thought I would.

All year, while hauling myself between campuses, doing neuropsychological assessments, seeing clients, fighting to stay awake in classes, and trying to pull together my research in stolen moments, I desperately held onto the hope that once the academic year was over, I would be relieved from this daily chaos. As each day closed, I thought to myself, "Hang in there kiddo, another one down." Each morning, as I woke up, I thought to myself, "Ugh, another day. Just get through it." Now, I'm through it. Thankfully, I won a summer fellowship that allows me to work on MY work, my research, and focus on my clients without the distractions of research assistant work or teaching courses. My time is finally mine.

The first week, of this new found freedom, I found myself feeling a little empty, finally feeling the cumulative damage the chronic stress left on my body and mind. It was really hard for me to unwind, as if I developed a bad habit of frantically working on something at all times. While watching a movie, I would read multiple online newspapers, play Spider solitaire, and mindlessly exploring Facebook. I couldn't simply sit and do nothing or focus on one thing. I've developed a sickening form of ADHD where I can't even talk to my husband and focus on what he's saying, instead, my mind races looking for stimulation. Ironically, I now have the time to breathe and truly get engaged in my work within a flexible time frame and I'm giving myself things to do, mental projects, that make me feel that my brain's motherboard is working at maximum capacity...when it doesn't need to be!

Now into the second week of unstructured schedule, I'm getting better at balancing my mental energy. It's hard to break habits, especially those that have been reinforced for years, like being a "workaholic." [I hate that term, workaholic. I makes me feel like I love working 24/7, when, in actuality, I hate it. Drug addicts like something about the drug. Much to my chagrin, I do not get high off of work.] It's as if I've trained myself to be constantly working all day long. If I don't, my feel an inner anxiety, like I'm slacking on something. Regardless of what I feel, I'm always slacking on something; that's the reality of grad school. Now, I'm slacking on slacking!! Anyway, I suppose the purpose of this post is to illustrate how easily we fall into maladaptive patterns of living, mindlessly developing habits that become indistinguishable from drug addictions. I'm withdrawing now, from chronic stress. It's getting better, but it's not easy. Finding balance when life actually allows it, is not as easy as Oprah and all of the spirit gurus would like us to believe it is. Sadly, relaxing often takes work. Get to work, then!

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