Category Archives: Upsets

Reducing Suffering On Way to Airport

Recently I had a chance to use my Quantified Self work in a way that was very effective at reducing suffering from my overreaction to a situation. I was in Ojai, CA and had to drive to LAX for a long haul flight. On getting in the car I saw that I had left myself 2 hours travel time. After a quick estimate of the drive and rental car drop off, I realized that any traffic delay at all would result in me missing my long haul flight. And I was driving through LA which has notoriously bad traffic. Thus the suffering began.

reducing suffering

This suffering was imagination induced. There was no physical pain. I saw images in my head of traffic jams, rental car buses moving slowly and my flight taking off in the sky with me watching it from the ground. I saw images of me on the phone to my wife explaining I would not be joining her on time.  Though I did not measure it my heart rate variability, it was likely low and my prefrontal cortex probably offline. I was in full fight/flight mode.

I knew that enduring two hours of anxiety and worry about whether or not I would make the flight would do nothing to change the outcome. It would just be misery for the sake of misery, so I pulled some techniques from my Quantified Self kitbag.

First, I reversed the thoughts as I had done in a previous study. When I took the thought “I am going to miss the flight” and reversed it, I got “I am going to make the flight.” Looking at the thought and its reversal, I knew that both outcomes were possible. With increased possibilities I calmed down a bit.

I was travelling to a wedding in the UK, but it was not for several days. As I continued to think I realized that I would be able to attend the wedding if I made the flight or missed the flight. I relaxed even further.

I then looked at the opportunity embedded in the situation if I missed the flight, mirroring a study I had done on “glass half full” thinking. I had spent the weekend with friends in Ojai and it happened they were in LA that night. I could have connected with them for dinner. Or called my hilarious cousin in LA and visited her. Both were good outcomes. I now knew that any outcome was going to be positive. I was a pretty happy guy by that point.

reducing suffering

This whole reframing process took about ten minutes. As I drove recalled the many, many times I had not unscrewed myself while travelling. My very first QS post about a Stress Trigger Personal Survey identified travel as a huge source of Upsets. In my quest to measure the change myself and chip away at the bedrock of that stressful self, it seems I had made progress.

In a calm and balanced state, I decided to drive no more than five miles per hour over the speed limit, remain focused on getting to the airport, and see what happened. I was alert, but no longer suffering. The mechanism that decreased my suffering was the reframing the belief that making that specific flight was the only positive outcome possible.

As it happened, I was quite lucky. Traffic was unusually light, and only twice did I have to slow below the speed limit. The drive took an hour and a half and I arrived in plenty of time. I ended up standing at the gate 20 minutes prior to boarding with bags checked and being all ready to go. And I had done it without two hours of unnecessary stress.

These techniques work in reducing or eliminating imagination driven suffering. When the imagination pictures how things should be and that image clashes with what is actually happening, we suffer. With reframing simply how we see our possibilities, we eliminate this type of suffering. 

For me this is a great example of how pragmatic these techniques can be. Looking at a reversal and the opportunities in the situation allowed me to move from fight/flight to an action which put me in an alert, action-oriented state. I had several good outcomes available to me and I let things play out, using my planning for a useful outcome or potential outcomes. And that is the definition of not suffering.

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Reversing Thought Reverses Upsets

I was inspired by Josh Waitzman’s concept of building a mental trigger that he described in his book “The Art of Learning.” He describes how a repeated mental process can create calm before competing in martial arts competition.

Reversing Thoughts Reverses Upsets

The concept was easy but I had never built one. For my trigger, I wanted to see if reversing thought reverses upsets.

I had made progress finding a technique to restore a calm state of mind once I had detected an Upset with my Glass Half Full work. I decided to try and adapt the reversal technique I had learned from The Work of Byron Katie in this test.

The Work has as a central tenet that all stories we use to upset ourselves can be reversed and found to be equally true. For example, if another driver on the highway comes close to me and I think “He is driving too fast,” reversing the thought to “I am driving too fast” or “He is not driving fast enough” is found to be equally true. As my judgement about the position of our cars is entirely relative a lesson is delivered about how mutable thought and story can be.

My Question

Would reversing a thought improve my outlook reliably following an Upset?

What I Did

Over the period of almost two weeks, I measured the change in my disposition after using the Reversal protocol each time I knew I was Upset. I compared these results with the Sensations and Glass Half Full protocols I had used in earlier studies.

How I Did It

I created a short survey using Google Forms and placed a shortcut to it on my iPhone home screen. The survey was a structured set of questions that walked me through the process of reversing the thought behind an Upset once I felt one coming on.

For the protocol, I would walk through survey when I felt that I was Upset. The first question would capture my mood on a scale of 1 to 5. For the next two questions, I would write out the thought that was the source of the Upset, then write its opposite. In the final question, I would again do the mood capture. This way I could see how much my state of mind improved as a result doing the Reversal protocol.

As another example of how the reversal works, I had the story that a person I was interacting with was overreacting and creating an unnecessary emergency. When I reversed the thought I wrote that I was creating the emergency. When I did that I realized that I had called the meeting and was the source of the discussion. When I saw this reversal as true the Upset evaporated. My first mood score was 2. My second score was 4. That incident has a 2 point improvement in mood.

What I Learned

Reversing a thought was as effective as Glass Half Full thinking and significantly more effective than regrounding in Sensations. Here is a graph of the improvements delivered by the Sensation versus the Reversal protocols:

Reversing Thoughts Reverses Upsets

The average improvement in mental state when resetting to sensations was .94, when doing a reversal protocol 1.64. Doing a Student’s TTest between the two data sets gave a p value of .0034. Anything under .05 is considered a statistically significant difference. Doing the reversal protocol gave a significantly better results in the improvement of my mental state.

Looking at these results and the results of the Glass Half Full study, we see that engaging with and altering the source thought that lies beneath an Upset reduces its energy. Both finding a positive in the situation and reversing the thought’s content work successfully.

When Upset trying to divert attention to a thought not associated with the Upset or sensations, the offending thought seems to remain “stuck” in the mind and continues to source Upset state. So these protocols that do not address the underlying thought are not as effective.

When you are Upset or feeling down, addressing the underlying thought using a variety of methods will likely unwind the source of the emotion.

Glass Half Full Succeeds in Unwinding Upsets

I became interested in what mental technique could most effectively reverse an Upset. If meditation and understanding the nature of how our thoughts shape our experience is the “long game,” then having good habits around how to react at the moment of becoming upset would be the “short game.”

Defining an Upset as the moment of feeling irritation or concern about something, I compared two techniques of how to react. The first was to reground myself in my sensations in that moment. The second was to identify what was the source of the Upset and finding the opportunity in that source. I wanted to see if Glass Half Full Succeeds.

glass-half-full-succeeds

My Question

Which technique is superior, regrounding in Sensation or finding the Glass Half Full?

What I Did

I measured my mood multiple times a day for a two-week period while using a Sensations protocol each time I felt an Upset. I then measured my mood multiple times a day for a second two-week period while using Glass Half Full protocol for Upsets. When completed, I compared the two periods for mood and the results of both techniques.

How I Did It

I created two short surveys using Google Forms. I placed a shortcut to each on my iPhone home screen. One was a simple mood capture. The second was a structured set of questions that walked me through either regrounding in Sensations or finding the Glass Half Full.

For the mood capture, I set alarms on my iPhone for nine notifications a day. At each notification I would capture my state of mind on a scale of 1 (angry or worried) to 5 (very happy).

For the structured protocols, I would walk through survey steps when I felt that I had entered a state of Upset. The first question was the same mood capture scale of 1 to 5. For the next questions, I would either capture my current body sensations in a text box or write out the opportunity in the situation. The intent for this section was to move my attention to the protocol. In the final question, I would again do the mood capture. This way I could see how much my state of mind improved as a result doing the protocol.

At the end of the two capture periods I had two types of data I could compare. I had my daily mood captured up to nine times a day during the period I was using the different protocols. And I had the improvement in my state of mind for each protocol.

What I Learned

Using a Glass Half Full thought process in an Upset situation far outperformed regrounding in Sensations.

During the periods I used the different protocols my overall daily moods were not significantly different.

glass-half-full-succeeds

My average daily mood while using the Sensation protocol was 3.34. and the average using Glass Half Full was 3.52. Using a Student’s TTest to compare the two data sets, p = .18. We would want to see p less than .05 for the difference in the data sets to be statistically significant. So my overall mood was not different during the two periods.

The improvement in my state of mind during Upset incidents was higher using the Glass Half Full approach.

glass-half-full-succeeds

The average improvement using the Sensations protocol was .81 and the average using Glass Half Full was 1.54. Using a Student’s TTest to compare the two data sets, p value is .002. This means the difference in approach was statistically significant.

The potential implication in this first test is that it takes thought to offset thought. Simply moving attention to sensations does not appear to rewrite the thought. Moving attention to a positive thought works much more effectively. So when irritated or worried in the future make your glass half full.

Tracking Upsets Yields Insight

I find tracking Upsets yields insight as it tells me about the events that trigger negative reactions in me. These things can be immediate dangers or just imaginings I might have. With this insight I can understand some of my behavior. In my first quantified self study I tracked Upsets and learned a lot. I wanted to repeat the study eighteen months later.

Tracking Upsets Yields Insight

I have explored many techniques to reduce the number and duration of my Upsets. I wanted to see if I could measure changes in the source of Upsets based on the work I had done. And I wanted to see if the proportion of Direct and Self Induced Upsets had changed.

A Direct Upset is the result of something happening in the moment like a car nearly hitting me in the crosswalk. Some element of actual danger is occurring in that moment. An Upset is Self Induced when I am sitting in a quiet room worrying about whether my insurance policy is properly paid up. There is no environmental reason for the worry. I am creating that disaster scenario from pure thought.

My Question

Had my Upsets changed source and type in the last eighteen months?

What I Did 

I logged Upsets for 27 days. There were two conditions for me to log an Upset as occurring. The first was if I had a repeated negative thought. The second was I felt a heat in my body that I associated with being irritated or worried.

How I Did It

I set up my DIY Tracker on an iPhone. The entry was a text box in which I would write the source of the Upset. In a spreadsheet I added three categories to each Upset which were Self Induced/Direct, past/present/future, and source.

What I Learned

Work, other people’s actions, a move to a new house and travel were the leading topics that triggered Upsets in this study:

Tracking Upsets Yields Insight

Eighteen months ago the source profile was similar. Adjusting for different category names, I was thoughtful about work and other people’s actions 50% of the time versus 46% in this study. Technology malfunctions moved from 5% to 10% due to a house move that put me in the position of having to set up a lot of new gadgets. I was on the road much less so the percent for travel dropped from 11% to 6%. Overall the categories had not changed much and where they had the reasons were understandable.

The majority of Upsets were Self Induced. For most of the logged events I was sitting in a comfortable environment dreaming up disaster scenarios:

Tracking Upsets Yields Insight

In the first study I had done the percentage of Self Induced had been much higher. Here are the percentages from the three studies:

Apr-14 May-14 Oct-15
Self Induced 77% 62% 66%
Direct 23% 38% 34%

Tracking Upsets yields insight and the awareness that results seems to reduce the amount of time spent dreaming up disaster scenarios which is a good thing.

As in the earlier studies I was more concerned for the future than regretful of the past.

Tracking Upsets Yields Insight

Looking at only Self Induced Upsets shows that the vast majority of my disaster scenarios are anticipating something bad in the future.

Tracking Upsets Yields Insight

Eighteen months ago my Upsets about the past were 16%. I’m pleased that the past Upsets remain a small percent. There is nothing I can do about a meeting I screwed up in the past. Regret is a fruitless exercise.

Scientists may dislike this type of tracking as it is self reported and completely subjective. Data points about thoughts and emotion are difficult to control for and make statistical validity nearly impossible. Wearables companies are wise to avoid it as they would have no market making potential. Measuring thought is very distant from step counts.  I, however,  find this type of tracking hugely useful as it gives me insight about myself. And that is what quantified self is all about.

Five Meeting Heart Rate Variability Compared

I had an opportunity to compare five meetings that had similar content and the same attendees over a one month period. My colleagues and I were preparing a big launch and we were looking at the plan in a series of review meetings. In the first meeting I had created a first draft plan and had to present to executives I was meeting for the first time. I was not sure of how they liked to consume information and was on edge. So the first meeting looked like this:

Slide1

What you see here is that I was in “overdrive” 33.8% of the meeting time.Overdrive means I my parasympathetic nervous system had stepped aside and my sympathetic nervous system had me in fight/flight mode. The blue lines in the chart are those heartbeats where the difference in time between beats was under 17 milliseconds for at least 10 consecutive beats. This meeting was almost two hours long, I was answering a lot of detail and we were finding our way together so I was in overdrive for one third the time.

We returned to review the progress from the first meeting a week later. In this I had my materials memorized and I knew how the executives consumed information. The meeting went very well, and we still had a lot of work to do. Using the same definition of Overdrive here is the chart:

Slide2

This second meeting was almost two hours long and because I was so prepared I was in Overdrive only 10.8% of the time. As you can see from the chart there were only periodic physiological accelerations. Big difference. In the next meeting, the executive I was supporting and I did not have a lot of time to prepare for the meeting. We went in without synchronizing. You can see the chart here:

Slide3

I was in Overdrive 15.2% of the meeting. You can see that my physiological fight/flight lines are concentrated early in the meeting as the executive that I was supporting and I were synching up. We found our way pretty quickly and you can see the blue lines even out.

In the fourth meeting we had taken another week to make progress on the launch. A lot of the details were worked out and we were in pretty good shape. When we got together the same executives were in the room and my supervising executive and I had a chance to coordinate. You can see the results in this chart:
Slide4

Overdrive was only 4.4% of the time and the meeting was smooth. I felt good in the meeting and the readings show things went smoothly. We had one last meeting to get final check off an approval. I would through this data out because the environmentals of the meeting completely threw things off. You can see the data is very different:

Slide5

Here you see a complete physiological meltdown as I was in Overdrive 87.2% of the time. Turns out the office I was taking the meeting from was extremely hot. I was perspiring and uncomfortable. It was a distracting situation. The meeting went well. We got approval and the communications afterward were universally positive. I believe the physical discomfort overrode the comfort with the materials.

So it appeared that reviews of familiar material with the same team of people did results in less time in Overdrive. Comfort with the material and people improved my performance. The last meeting is odd and I can’t definitively explain it with the hot temperature. But the first four seem to indicate improvements.

Using the Parasympathetic Flatline

Using the Parasympathetic Flatline I analyzed a discussion with a colleague. I was following up on a topic that was not controversial. We had discussed this topic about a month prior. The colleague and I get along in a positive way.  So this should have been a relatively stress free and short meeting.

I used Marco Altini’s Heart Rate Variability Logger and a Polar H7 heart rate monitor to gather the base data while recording the meeting with my smart phone. Pulling that data into a spreadsheet I used my Parasympathetic Flatline model to determine at what point in the meeting I was experiencing physiological stress. I pulled the recording, the heart rate variability readings and the transcript into a timeline graph.

Slide1

What we see here is when I talked (green), when my colleague talked (blue) and when I was experiencing a physiological event of what I call Parasympathetic Flatline (red), or stress. There are specific points in the discussion when I was amped up, but they were not what I expected.

I had a hypothesis that I was entering these states when I was putting myself “out there,” however I had one moment about 3/4 of the way through the meeting where I really pushed the boundary of a sensitive topic but I did not experience stress. I was synched with my colleague and the discussion did not trigger stress at that point.

There were four points in the discussion, however, that I entered a heightened state when I wanted the conversation to go in a different direction. My agenda was not being followed. In the first two, early in the conversation, I wanted to hear the answer to the question more directly. I was impatient. In the second two, I had the information I needed and wanted to wrap up.

It appears that difficult topics are not stress inducing when discussing them with a colleague when we are in synch, but my overall judgements about the progress of the discussion seem to trigger an aroused state. It is our judgements about the situation that may be the source of stress.

Finding the Parasympathetic Flat Line

From the start I have wanted to pinpoint the moment I was stressing out and identify the causes. I started with logging Upsets, then moved to using different devices to read Heart Rate Variability (HRV). I was always bothered by the lack of precision in how the devices give insight into HRV. They never said “you were stressed from the 15th to the 45th second.” Rather, they gave an average score over a longer and generalized period of time. I want to nail down the specific time my physiology starts and stops going berserk. To understand precisely when this is happening I have to look at  RR Interbeat intervals (pictured below) and find those periods in the readings where I have multiple consecutive intervals with very little variability.

Slide1

When in stress mode the distance between successive beats for multiple beats remains very nearly the same. This occurs when the Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest & digest) flat lines and lets the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight) run the show. Here are graphs of my RR Intervals for a similar time period using slow breathing to create a calm state described in last week’s blog post and a session on an elliptical where I was exercising and my heart rate was 145 beats per minute.

Slide2

You can see that the RR Intervals vary while calm, and there is no variability at all while exercising. While running the Sympathetic Nervous System has the hammer down. In relaxation the Parasympathetic Nervous Systems is braking the machine and providing periodic slowdown. That means that even while resting and digesting our RR interbeat intervals are close to the same values for 32% of the time (red circled areas).

Slide4

When reading HRV the fundamental output is the RR interval. All analysis is derived from that one string of numbers which are simply the number of milliseconds between beats. So it is straightforward to find periods in readings where those intervals are close together. Looking at the raw data I hypothesized that the Parasympathetic Nervous System is flat lined when the variance is small for 10 consecutive beat to beat intervals.

Slide5

I then looked at how a rule of 10 consecutive intervals would work for my readings of the calm state and while exercising. The maximum number of low variance intervals in the calm session reading was 7 consecutive beats, and while exercising there was no variance in more that 5 beats. So if I gave each interval a value of “1” if it was in a group of of 10 ore more intervals with low variance and a value of “0” if it was not in such a group, the graphs of the calm and exercising sessions would be as seen below. No intervals are in a group of 10 low variance readings in the calme state, all intervals in are a group of 10 or more for exercising.

Slide6

The second half of the calculation is the definition of “low variance.” I proposed in my post on HRV and Stress Free State that 25 milliseconds was low. So I took the rule set that the I was in berserk status when 10 consecutive intervals were under 25 ms and graphed if for a meeting I participated in last week. That graph shows more of the meeting in high vibration than I remember and didn’t quite look right to me. I lowered the number to 15 milliseconds and the amount of unrestrained Sympathetic activity seemed to get too small. Not a very rigorous sensitivity analysis I realize, but I have to pick a start point that seems to somewhat resemble what I remember happening.

Slide7

 

I set the calculation for 17 seconds and the graph started to look like general stress cadence of the meeting as I remembered it. Fortunately, I had audio recorded the meeting!  So I went back and listened to those portions where it looked like my Parasympathetic Nervous System had stepped aside.

Slide8

 

In those three portions of the recording I could hear in my voice that I was in a state of high vibration. In the first case I was presenting something and I sounded unsure of myself. In the second I sounded confident, but my cadence was noticeably slower and it sounded like I was searching for words at times. In the final case I actually said “I don’t understand your question” and there was a bit of confusion.

So I have a base that I am now going to start running data through to see if I can validate the 10 consecutive beat, 17 millisecond ruleset. If it starts identifying points of stress with precision I will have a framework that can help me start creating preparation regimes for 1:1 interactions based on precise knowledge of stressor that flatline my Parasympathetic Nervous System.

 

Managing Imagination

Since April of 2014 I have been posting my findings here as part of a systematic way to understand and mitigate Upsets. I logged Upsets as they occurred, measured my heart rate variability during periods of stress and connected types of Upsets to different types of thought.

The first real insight that came from self reporting Upsets was that the majority of them were Self Induced and of those the majority were anticipating future negative events. The fundamental tool we have which is the ability to imagine a future scenario is the source of most of the stress – thoughts that anticipate a negative future outcome.

Another insight is the volume of thought. Thinking I was capturing a high number of Upsets in my reporting was completely blown apart by watching how often my physiology altered based on thought. Was looked at the beginning to be a 5 to 8 time a day volume was actually up to 450 thoughts a day that could potentially cause Upset. And that volume is constant. So any plan that includes eliminating thought is irrelevant. The plan must be based in how I respond to Upsets.

Looking at the lessons learned the core skill to develop is managing imagination. Imagination is our engine of progress, it shows us what is possible. It is also the source of what we believe are our misfires, misalignments and Upsets. Believing too much in imagination immerses us in our miserable misfires. Completely eradicating imagination robs us of our ability to be motivated, plan and progress. Somehow we have to find a middle ground of practical imagination, a place where we see what is inspiring and possible while knowing when to discount those scenarios that are impossibly negative and exaggerated.