Beyond ups and downs

Are you regulated?

I recently wrote about the challenges of self-discipline and getting into a daily routine. As I near the end of a work week that has been full of changes and additions to my schedule, I’m feeling those challenges to a degree that can’t be encompassed by time management alone.

The phrases “overstimulated” and “understimulated” are main ingredients to people with neuro-divergent experiences and the people who support them. When I first began working as an in-home support person for children with autism who were heavily affected by sensory input these phrases became the lens through which I understood being in the world. It’s not the same as, for example, mindfulness which advises us to be ultra-present and aware to our surroundings. Rather, finding relationships between our body’s energy state and the stimuli in our surroundings is a way of organizing ourselves so that we can effectively participate in life.

If you walk into any college class or professional meeting it’s likely that the cure-all prescribed for work flow is “time management”. But this explanation is incomplete and, well, completely ignorant. Even in these times when schools are embracing meditation and leadership trainings are increasing their value on compassion, we’ve yet to fully invite somatic and relational practices into our methods for getting shit done. We meditate in hopes that we can focus on our tests and get better scores. We work on our compassion so that we can gain more trust from the people we depend on to reach a company’s goals. While perhaps these statements don’t apply to everyone, and they certainly aren’t totally negative aims to have, they skip over the root importance of somatic and emotional skills and jump straight back into the better, faster, stronger framework of a world that got us into trouble in the first place.

Let me bring it back down to the ground and describe what motivated me to begin writing about this. Before this week I was working mostly from my computer and interacting with people either as mostly strangers or with only 1–3 people in meetings and conversations. My work was conceptual, big-picture, and remote. This week, I re-started my work coaching figure skating with groups of 10–15 girls both on and off the ice. Some days (between transportation and teacher) this work is about 4–5 hours and others it’s only 2. But as I sit here on a Thursday knowing each task I need to get done and having made numerous organizational plans for how to do it, I’m not freaking out about a lack of time. I’m freaking out because my body and mind are freaking out.

What changed this past week wasn’t just added hours of work. In fact, compared to my previous workload I’m really just reaching typical full-time hours. What changed was my physical, emotional, and mental participation in the world. And while I was watching the clock and tracking my time I was not keeping track of how it felt to suddenly be a facilitator of physical learning and an influencer in the life of adolescent girls. I noticed that I’ve started to lose my voice but not how different it is energetically to be speaking to and with so many various people each day.

I’ve been through this before, but in reverse (with much more challenging results). When I transitioned from intensive direct-care work in a crisis hospital to working behind a computer with activist-driven organizations, I struggled intensely with not being in physical and present connection with the people I was talking to and about. I think this model of self-regulation is not recognized or considered enough when people engage in conversations of awareness, advocacy, social change, and justice. We might become more intellectually aware, we might even get ourselves onto the “front lines” and take more “direct action”, but this is not the same thing as forming direct relationship.

And this isn’t to bring a mark of shame or criticism to the important work that many, myself included, are involved in. Instead, it’s a challenge for all of us to try on some new lenses for seeing the results of the work that we do. To bring it back to the phrases “overstimulated” and “understimulated” we might reflect on what energies have the most impact on us in our day to day action. When we’re overwhelmed to the point of dysregulation, is it because of obvious things such as time limitations or information overload, or is it because we’ve taken on an event or project with stimuli much different from out typical days? For example, are we tracking our energetic state when we move from the office to a protest? When we feel immobilized is it confusion about how to sort our tasks into time slots and distribution or is it a feeling of disconnect from the physical events that those tasks represent?

Translating this perspective into words for an audience that might not have a background in daily direct care work is confusing. So here are two ways that we all can try it on no matter where we find our “office”:

  1. Make a list of your day-to-day work tasks. Then, make a list of your occasional work duties or events. Using myself as an example (without the skating work) it might be a list of emails and social media tasks in contrast to “attend X protest” and “go to X conference”. After you’ve made these lists, make two more where one represents the people you interact with directly as a part of your job and the other represents the people you interact with or influence indirectly as a result of the work that you do. Make note of the differences between these sets of lists. How energetically different is your day-to-day from the major events that represent your work? How is your sensory system affected? How distant are your relationships? Finding ways to decrease the gaps between these lists are where we can bring more regulation into our lives. For example, if we notice that there’s a certain demographic of people we indirectly influence but we only engage with them at spontaneously planned events, find ways to connect with people on their day-to-day. Or, if you realize that your daily work requires low levels of physical and emotional energy but your periodic events require big levels of output, see if you can add more small-scale events into your workflow. Don’t wait for a conference or a march, go to a show or celebration put on by that same demographic.
  2. Make a list of all of the things you do in a week: both personally and professionally. Do the same thing of making a note of the changes in energy levels. Are you coasting through hours of computer work and reading? Writing emails and watching Netflix? Having intense meetings with 4–5 people then intense social conversations with 4–5 other people? Or, are you reading endless news cycles and transcribing information at a desk then raving at max volume until 4am? Regulation isn’t just about sameness or balance. It’s about how we flow from one thing to the next and shake up our lives. When you look at this list see if you’re drastically changing what your participation in society looks like from the work week to the weekend (overstimulated). Notice if the energetic levels between your work and free time are indistinguishable (understimulated). Through a time management lens we might realize that raving all weekend causes us to be late every Monday or how boredom causes us to forget something in our schedule. Through a sensory lens we might instead realize that throwing our desk-selves into a fury of noise and motion is too drastic a shift for our minds and bodies to process before a new week begins. We might see that keeping a stagnant energetic routine leads us to be disengaged and disconnected to physical life.