Hey – we may as well have fun as we go sliding into old age, right?

Posts tagged ‘brain’

Where Did My Brain Go?

As long as I’m on the subject of hormones…  I find the second-most irritating symptom of menopause (after the raging emotions) to be the loss of mental function in general.  This is more than being absent-minded – I’ve been absent-minded all my life. 

But lately, it’s like I just go into a “brain-fog” with no warning.  I’ll be driving home from work and suddenly realize that I don’t remember getting off the highway exit, and yet here I am, driving down the side street to my home.  Apparently I drove it safely and legally, as I heard no honking horns or blaring sirens.  But I don’t remember doing it.  It’s not that I was thinking about something else – I wasn’t thinking at all. 

I’ve been in conversations recently, and I’ll suddenly realize that I’ve “tuned out” and I have no idea what I’ve missed.  I’ve become good at using my “interested” face and appearing to be listening – nodding, smiling, jotting a few notes.  But I didn’t hear an entire block of speaking.  Well, I heard it, since my hearing isn’t gone, but I didn’t process it.  Again, it’s not that I’m daydreaming, which I’ve always been very good at – my mind is just blank. 

It’s pretty creepy, actually, to realize you’re losing time (without the assistance of alcohol!).

And even when I’m not losing time, there are moments when I just can’t kick my brain into gear.  I’ll pick up a new bag of (low-fat) chips, start to pull it open, and then just stop.  What was I doing again?  Do I need the scissors?  No, I just have pull it open – and still my hands aren’t moving.  What the hell?  Do I want these chips?  Is there something else I’d rather have?  Is it too close to dinner?  Oh, for crying out loud – open the damn bag!

And choosing clothes for work?  There are days when it’s agony, because I can’t make a freakin’ decision.  Do I want the black pinstripe pants?  Did I wear black pants yesterday?  What shirt should I wear?  Does that pattern go with the pinstripe?  Will it be warm enough?  Maybe not…  But this brown sweater would do.  But then I have to pick different pants.  Do these need to be ironed?  What shoes would I wear?  Do I have trouser socks that match?  No, no – I already had my black shoes pulled out to wear.  I should wear the pinstripes.  Maybe add a jacket over a short-sleeved shirt?  But which jacket?  Does this match??  A-r-r-g-g-h-h!  By now, I’m late for work. 

Never good with names, I now meet people and forget their names within seconds of meeting them.  Even when I’m trying to remember – even when I made up a word-association to remember.  Or I mix up the word associations in an embarrassing way.  For example, I use word association to remember the name of a consultant our company is working with.  He’s tall, good-looking and conservative, and his first name is Don.  So I’ve associated him with Don Draper of Mad Men, and it helps me remember his first name.  But twice recently I’ve referred to him as “Don Draper” to colleagues, who then look at me as if I’ve lost my mind.  And perhaps I have.

So I did a little research, and sure enough, one of the symptoms of menopause is “foggy thinking”, absent-mindedness, short-term memory loss, lack of cognitive ability, etc., etc., etc.  Something to do with hormones (of course), and probably stress.  It can be a vicious cycle, actually.  Get frustrated at the brain-fog, stress out, which makes the brain function more poorly, which cause more stress, which makes the brain function even more poorly, and pretty soon, you’re driving home without remembering the trip, and wearing blue socks with black shoes. 

It’s not all the time – it comes and goes.  Some days, even weeks, I’m perfectly fine (or at least as good as I was before menopause arrived).   And then one day, or string of days, I’m just out of it.  I have to struggle to maintain any kind of focus and momentum.  It’s scary.

The good news is that it’s temporary – once menopause goes along its merry way and finishes with me, my cognitive ability should improve again.  How long will that take?  One article tossed around 3 – 12 years…..  3 – 12 YEARS??????  Oh, come on!!  I have a life to lead in the meantime. 

My husband thinks I’m just careless and should “try harder”, my co-workers wonder what’s happening, my boss thinks I’m not paying attention, my friends and family think I’m losing it and wonder why I let weeks go by without calling or emailing.  How do I tell them I sometimes have trouble remembering just how much time has gone by.  Did I call my mom yesterday?  Or was it last Friday?  Did I talk to her at all this week?  Maybe…but maybe not.   Damn it.

So how do I get better (other than waiting YEARS for menopause to pass me by)?  Most articles agree that three things can help – moderate exercise (oh crap, I hate exercise), a diet that includes many small meals during the day to keep the brain “fed”, and easing up on the stress load. 

Okay – so today I threw new batteries in the Wii and will try to get back on board with morning workouts.  My diet’s been better lately, but can certainly still improve.  And I’m trying to lose the same 20 pounds I’ve been trying to lose for more than a year (down 4 in two weeks), so I’m trying to limit snacking, which now may not be helping my brain.  And stress.  Ah, stress.  Let’s see – major system conversion going on at work, just finished a traumatic and exhausting move, trying to lose that damn 20 pounds that have settled into a happy “meno-pot” in my belly which makes all my clothes uncomfortable, and can’t remember anything.  What stress???  I guess I can get some “down-time” in there somewhere, between work, marriage and church activities.  Maybe get up between 3 and 4 AM to do some journaling?  Try to squeeze a yoga class into my hectic schedule?  A little more prayer? 

Somehow, I have to figure out how to get through these brain-fog spells without losing my job, my marriage, my friends and my sanity.  So I guess I’d better find the time to relax, eat better and exercise.  If I can only remember to do it….and why….and…what was I saying again??

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I’ll Get Around To It…Later…Maybe Tomorrow…

Do I know people who are worse procrastinators than me?  Yes, but only a handful.  I’m pretty extreme.  Example?  I started writing this post more than a week ago, and had to absolutely FORCE myself to sit down and finish it today (and who knows – I still may not get it done).

The April issue of Real Simple magazine has a terrific article on procrastination, written by Amy Spencer (FYI – it’s accompanied in print by the best illustration on the topic I’ve ever seen, by Paula Scher).  This article wasn’t the usual blame game.  You know – those articles that basically make you feel like a lazy schlub who wouldn’t be a procrastinator if only you tried harder.  Write a list, break big jobs into little jobs, reward small accomplishments….yeah, yeah, yeah – I’ve heard it all before.

Spencer’s article focuses on the science behind procrastination, and explains that those of us who wait are not just being lazy.  Our brains are actually wired for procrastination.  It turns out everyone’s brain has two main sections. 

The limbic system works without us really being aware.  It makes us pull our hand away from a hot stove, sidestep a big patch of ice in front of us, come indoors from the rain.  The limbic system protects us from pain and turns us toward something pleasurable.  Like a puppy determined to please you, it directs you away from the “pain” of doing a boring or difficult task because it knows you might be unhappy, and will distract you with pleasurable alternatives. 

The prefrontal cortex is the taskmaster – it figures out how to do things and keeps us on track.  It measures a situation and helps us make decisions.  But it is not automatic or intuitive like the limbic system.  It turns out the prefrontal cortex is a relatively new part of the brain, and is even considered by some to be what separates us from other animals.  It’s not as strong as other parts of the brain.  It needs direction.  I’d sum it up this way – the prefrontal cortex plans, while the limbic system reacts.   

Our prefrontal cortex says “you should clean the kitchen,” and the limbic responds by saying “Wouldn’t you rather read that new magazine?”  “Fix a sandwich?”  “Check your Facebook page?”  “Watch a movie?”  “Oh, look! A squirrel!”

My limbic system and prefrontal cortex have apparently developed a close partnership over the years, so I use my whole brain to procrastinate.  My limbic system pulls me off task, and when I realize what’s happening, I put my prefrontal cortex to work thinking up excuses of why it’s a good thing to do.  “I won’t be so tired tomorrow.”  “I’ll dive into it tomorrow right after work, and that still gives me plenty of time (if nothing goes wrong).”  “I really do need to do some more research/preparation/practicing first.”  “I work better under pressure anyway.”  “What could possibly go wrong?”

The hopeful part of the Real Simple article is that our prefrontal cortex can be strengthened.  It will never become an unconscious response to situations (at least not for me), but we can control when to put it to work.  We can force our mental planner to take charge for a while and help us get things done. 

And that brings us back to those tricks and tips that I hate.  My prefrontal cortex is very, very good at making excuses (it’s had plenty of practice), and it is also very good at seeing through a to-do list and “rewards”.  I think rewards are the funniest approach to procrastination.  Gee, I’m going to let myself have an ice cream after I get this blog done.  Really?  There’s ice cream in the ‘fridge?  Why don’t you just take a little break right now and enjoy it, and then you can finish the blog as soon as you’re done…

The article suggests doing the worst thing first.  Well, duh.  That’s way too logical.  If I decide to do the worst thing first, I’m dooming myself to an entire day of excuse-making and time-wasting.  A related tip is to make the job smaller.  Yeah, it works, but my limbic system is on to me.  It will allow me to get three of four little jobs done, and then it lies in wait for the fourth.  And the battle is on – one hour to get three tasks accomplished, and a day and a half to get through the last one. 

But there were a couple of good tips mentioned that I’ve tried with some success in the past.  The tried and true is to make a commitment to a third party.  Ask a friend to hold your feet to the fire because you have a job that needs to get done this weekend.  Ask them to call and check in to make sure you’re staying on task.  Give your boss a due date for a project, even if he/she didn’t set one.  Guilt is a powerful motivator, and you won’t want to let your friend or boss down, or have them think poorly of you.

Another good tip is timing yourself.  I used to do this, and I’ve gotten out of the habit. Instead of telling myself “I’m going to organize my closet today” (a monumental and painful task that will surely keep my limbic system busy), I can set my cell phone alarm to go off in 30 minutes, and tell myself “when the alarm goes off, I’m done.”  The idea is that the concept of perpetual motion will keep you going forward after the alarm rings, and even if it doesn’t, at least you got 30 minutes of work done.  It works.

And the primary suggestion is to avoid interruptions.  When you have a limbic system as strong as mine (have you noticed how proud I am of my procrastination skills?), avoiding interruptions is nearly impossible.  But the article does suggest a few intriguing online tools to help control web surfing, or at least track it and get a realistic perspective on how much time we’re truly wasting.  I think I’ll give them a try.  I should probably do that right now. 

But first I have to proofread this post and publish it.  And then I should reward myself with some raspberries and yogurt.  And I have to finish the laundry.  And then I might watch my favorite TV shows.   And I should call Mom.  I can check out the sites tomorrow night.  But I’m meeting a friend for dinner tomorrow and won’t be home until late, so it will probably be Tuesday.  I have a church meeting Tuesday night, but I should be home in time to go online.  And if not, there’s always Wednesday………….right?

Losing My Mind, and My Keys, and My Cell Phone, and…

A NORMAL DAY

This was the path I took one typical June Sunday afternoon.  After enjoying a beer (hey – it was only 55 calories!), I stood to take the empty bottle out to the garage to the bin for returnables.  As I stood, I remembered that I needed to iron clothes for work on Monday.  I carried the beer bottle into the bedroom and set it down (just for a minute).  I set up the ironing board, and got the iron from the walk-in closet.  While in the closet, I stopped to organize some of my shoes.  Back in the bedroom, I noticed the steam iron was low on water.  So I headed to the kitchen for the little measuring pitcher I use for the iron.  While there, I remembered the dishes in the dishwasher were clean, so I started unloading it.  The coffee pot was sitting right there, so I got that set up for the next morning.   I grabbed the empty beer bottle from the counter and took it out to the garage.  While in the garage, I grabbed a fresh roll of paper towels for the kitchen.  When I finally got back to the bedroom, I had the iron in my hand before I realized that I’d never gotten the water for it.  On my way back to the kitchen, I figured I may as well fire up the computer as I was walking by.  I got to the kitchen, and stood there for a few seconds before I remembered what I was there for – water for the iron.  I filled the pitcher, went back to the bedroom, filled the iron, then decided I should pull the bedspread off the bed and fold it up.  Once that was done, I ironed pants and a shirt for Monday.  After hanging them up and turning off the iron, I closed the blinds in the bedroom and headed out to the computer.  About 20 minutes later, I needed to use the master bathroom.  Walking back through the bedroom, I noticed something shiny on the nightstand.  It was my empty beer bottle (the one I’d removed from the kitchen was my husband’s).  The item I originally wanted to put into the returnable bin hadn’t made it past my first pit stop.  I’d never completed my original mission, although I finished a number of unrelated odd jobs in the meantime. 

A remarkable story?  Hardly.  Outrageously funny?  Not so much.  But this type of scattered, fractured journey happens to me all the time.  Every. Single. Day. 

I can have keys in my hand one minute, and literally lose them the next.  I’ve become a master at retracing my steps – out of necessity.  When I reach for something and it’s not where it belongs, I automatically reverse my steps and check everywhere I’ve been.  When the logical places don’t pan out, I start looking in the stupid places.  Did I set the keys under the sink while looking for dishwashing liquid?  Did I drop them in the trash when I threw away that tissue?  Are they still in the door?  In the car?  It’s absolutely maddening.

THE WILD SEARCH

Just a few weeks ago, I lost my leather cell phone case, within no more than an hour of removing my Blackberry from it.  I’d already been looking for my favorite Red Sox ball cap, so now I was hunting for two items that seemingly vanished off the face of the earth while inside our home.  I brought my husband into the hunt, and we tore the place apart.  Logical places.  Silly places.  Under the bed.  Under the sofa.  Behind the cushions.  Dresser drawers.  Bookcases.  Suitcases.  Cars.  Basement.  I was seriously wondering if some mad man was breaking into our home and stealing stupid things just to drive me crazy.  After an hour, I suspended the search in frustration (and the firm belief that if you stop looking for something, you’ll usually find it).

Days went by, and I really wanted that ball cap (the cell phone case was replaceable if necessary).  Wondering if maybe I’d rolled the hat up and stuffed it in a jacket pocket (not something I normally do, but I was getting desperate), I started working my way through the coat closet.  On my fifth or sixth jacket…SUCCESS!  I found it!  Well, not exactly.  It wasn’t the ball cap I discovered in a pocket.  It was the missing cell phone case.  The hat was still nowhere to be found.  But the next day, the errant ball cap showed up.  At the bottom of the dirty clothes hamper, located as I went to do laundry.  Don’t ask.  Oh, okay, I’ll tell you – I’d set it on top of the washer, and apparently a vigorous spin cycle vibrated it off and into the hamper.

You know the dogs in the movie “UP!”?  Well, that’s me.  Deep in thought or conversation, and then, Look!  A squirrel! 

Think I’m exaggerating?  I’ve left this page twice since I started typing an hour ago.  Once to check my email and Facebook, and once to change the TV channel, grab a snack, and then look for the TV remote, which I’d left in the kitchen. 

I’ve always been a bit forgetful and addled (at least three different times in my life I’ve put the milk away in the pantry instead of the refrigerator), but lately it is getting out of control.  As the hormones start doing their 50’s dance, my brain cells are dysfunctioning  at an alarming rate.  Yeah, yeah, I should focus more.  I need to pay attention, write lists, concentrate, avoid distraction, etc., etc., etc.  As if I could remember to do all of that. 

WHY IT’S HAPPENING

A recent fact-filled article in Newsweek by Cynthia Cline (“This is Your Brain.  Aging.”) gave me at least some consolation.  It’s not just me.  We really do lose short term memory as we age.  Scientists have proven that the long, graceful neurons (okay, they didn’t use the word “graceful”…)  are lost as we age – as much as a 45% decrease in short-term memory and the ability to learn and remember new things.  The good news is that we continue to grow the short stubby neurons that control long-term memory.  Funny how everything that happens as we age involves the words short and fat.  That’s why I can remember the red dress I wore to my neighbor’s wedding when I was ten years old, but I can’t remember what I did with the TV remote five minutes ago.  It’s a medical thing.  It’s not my fault!  I wish that made me feel better, but the truth is, I’ll probably forget all about it by sometime next week….

And the worst part of the whole thing?  The remedy.  New studies suggest the best way to improve brain function is not the brain teaser games or crossword puzzles (although they certainly don’t hurt).  No, the best way to improve brain function is the same thing that improves all our other functions – good old-fashioned exercise.  EXERCISE!  Walking, running, working out – vigorous aerobic exercise stimulates the growth of new brain neurons.  No quiet reading and problem-solving for my mind.  No.  I need more exercise to improve my brain.  Terrific.

That’s just perfect.  I’m already battling my body and exercising in my frustrated efforts to lose weight.  Now I have to do even more of it to keep my brain from getting any foggier than it already is.  So fine.  Tomorrow morning I’ll be back at it with the Wii and walking at lunch and Zumba in the evening.  Even if the pounds won’t leave, I can at least be adding something to my body that’s good for me, like some sexy brain neurons.

Now if I could just find the Wii remote.  I’m pretty sure it’s here next to the sofa.  Hey, is that the book I’ve been looking for?  I should sit down and finish reading that, right after I get a drink of water, and then I’ll look for the…wait, what was it I was looking for?   Look!  A squirrel!

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