I’m so tired I can’t think straight!

I remember a particularly tough time with my kids.  We’d had gastro go through the house.  For about a week my husband and I had been up in the middle of the night comforting vomiting children, changing bed sheets, while taking turns racing to the toilet ourselves.  We were both exhausted. My youngest wasn’t getting any better so I was off to the doctor with him. Because my husband works for himself, he couldn’t afford any more time off, so I was home alone trying to wrangle the three of them to the doctors.  I decided to make myself a cup of coffee before leaving.  I made the coffee but it was too hot to drink. I looked at the clock. I didn’t have time to wait for it to cool down so that I could drink it. Frustrated, exhausted, I burst into tears.  I bundled up the kids and went to the doctors.

That night, while I was telling my husband about my morning, I got to the part where I said, “But my coffee was too hot to drink and I didn’t have time to wait for it to cool…” he piped up with, “Why didn’t you just add more milk?”

I stared at him in disbelief.

“Well, thank you Captain Obvious!”

If you were to ask me NOW, “How do you cool down a cup of coffee that’s too hot?” I could come up with a dozen solutions. I could have added more milk. I could have chucked in an ice-cube.  I could have tipped in into a travel mug and taken it with me.  Hell, we are not THAT hard up for money that I couldn’t have just tipped it out and made a fresh one!

But in THAT moment, through the haze of sleepless nights and crying children, the solution I had was COFFEE + TIME = COLD COFFEE, and because I was exhausted, the front part of my brain – my flexible, problem-solving bit – was off-line.  I had a solution, and if that solution wasn’t going to work, I had no solution.

The reason I couldn’t problem-solve isn’t because I’m an idiot, or a terrible person. I’m not stupid. In fact, one of my strengths is that I’m a pretty great flexible thinker. But I’m a human, and as a human, I’m stuck with my human brain and human limitations.

Have you ever found yourself (or heard someone else) saying “I’m just so angry/tired/upset, I can’t even think straight!”?  Well, they were right.  When we are under high levels of stress – or when we are experiencing very strong emotions – our brain shifts focus away from the  problem-solving, decision-making, perspective-taking, flexible-thinking part of our brain and slips into survival mode.  When we are operating in this mode, it IS harder to think flexibly or to see another’s point of view.

From an evolutionary perspective, this is actually really functional.  When we are in a true flight-or-fight threat situation, you don’t WANT to be able to take on alternate perspectives, or be overwhelmed by possible alternatives.  It’s the shutting down of that system that allows us to stay calm when we witness a terrible accident so we can provide first aid. It’s what allows us to make clear, snap decisions in a crisis rather than being paralysed by conflicting options.

The design flaw in this ability is that it is designed to deal with crisis situations, not chronic, ongoing stress.  And unfortunately, our brains can’t tell the difference.  It also means that at times when what we need to be able to cope is the ability to think flexibly, or shift perspectives, we can get a bit stuck. At those times, one of the simplest tools we can rely is simple mindfulness and acknowledging our emotions.  As Dan Siegel puts it, “name it to tame it”. By acknowledging our emotional experience, and tuning in to what is going on in our bodies, we can help to settle ourselves enough to allow us to shift back out of flight-or-fight mode and help us bring some of those other skills back online.

This is why I bang on so much about mindfulness, being present, and practicing shifting our attention to the present moment.  And the key to using these skills in times of high stress is in practicing them when we AREN’T under load.  Because the speeches we remember are the ones that we rehearse.