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Grief, fear, stress, anxiety and brain bandwidth

One of the favourite things I talk about, and will shoehorn into pretty much any talk I do, is brain bandwidth. (I explain it here.) It’s a brilliant way of understanding so many things we experience in our minds.

Although fascinating in lots of contexts, the main reason I mention it in my talks or training is that one of the biggest occupiers of brain bandwidth is worry/upset/mental preoccupation, and many teenagers will at various times have something big, bad and worrying occupying their minds, risking:

  • failure to focus on what a teacher is saying
  • failure to concentrate on work
  • failure to regulate emotions and emotional responses
  • snappiness, saying the wrong thing
  • inability to look after friends
  • difficulty enjoying the fun things in life

There’s something you need to know

Over the last five months, every time I’ve said this in a talk, I’ve had something massive occupying my own brain bandwidth, dominating my thoughts and challenging my ability to function: the knowledge that my younger sister was terminally ill with cancer. I’ve been living a fairly extreme version of what I’ve been talking about.

The moment I got this news was a good example of the challenge. I was in Dubai, speaking at the Emirates LitFest. At the time, my sister had what was supposed to be pneumonia but was having tests because her ‘pneumonia’ wasn’t responding to antibiotics. I woke to my alarm at 7 to get ready for a school event. And there was her message to me and my other sister. “It’s cancer and it’s in lots of places,” which she listed. I had no one with me and no choice: I had to get on with my school visit to the Horizon International School. That is a picture of me a few hours after I heard the news. I’d told no one but my husband, back home.

I couldn’t block it from my mind, of course, but I could – because I had to – keep it in the background. If I brought it forward, if I told anyone, if I let it intrude, there would have been too many consequences, not least breaking down in front of strangers while trying to do my job. The easiest – only – way I could cope was to carry on. But it was a massive act of effort to manage my brain bandwidth. Especially at the moment in my talk when I said the words, “And if you have something really big and difficult on your mind…” It would have been easy to be overwhelmed at that point.

Point of information: the part of the brain you need when performing the act of pushing something away and carrying on regardless is the prefrontal cortex. This part doesn’t fully develop until your mid to late twenties. Teenagers, therefore, typically find this act much harder than most adults.

Let me share a little more of the experience of dealing with too much occupying my mind

That was a Thursday. On Saturday I would have my final and public (not school) book festival event, which I somehow had to prepare for during the rest of

My Saturday talk – see: brain bandwidth features!

Thursday and Friday. There were various radio and to-camera interviews to do, too. Still, I’d told no one at the festival, though I had told a couple of other authors. My husband was coming out in the middle of Friday night because we’d planned a short break. We hadn’t had any break for ages and hadn’t seen each other much recently because he works away from home during the week and I travel a lot. Should we cancel? But it was too complicated and probably impossible.

Saturday was intense in every way although somehow I did one of my best events; and my signing queue was far longer than I really had energy for.(By chance the one photo I have of me during that talk is the one where I’m talking about bandwidth and concentration.) My husband and I then had a couple of sight-seeing things booked and we did our best to enjoy them. We did but I can’t forget how my brain seemed split into two: how do you find pleasure when there’s such pain? I learnt the answer to that over the next months but I didn’t learn it in those days. The answer is that sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t but even when you do it’s shadowed and blunted. It’s not possible properly to enjoy something at such times, but I think it’s important to try, for self-protection.

It’s the Sunday to Tuesday that sticks in my mind as the hardest, most extreme example of this. The festival had weeks previously told me that I’d been selected to have a completely free, super-luxury two nights, with my husband, at an extraordinarily gorgeous and relaxing/pampering desert conservation/spa place, the Al Maha: like a safari but without dangerous animals. (That gazelle is trotting past our private pool.) The lovely festival staff were so excited for me, and kept saying how much I deserved it because of how hard I’d been working etc. They still didn’t know, of course.

We couldn’t pull out, because we’d have been letting everyone down, and also been stuck in Dubai with nothing to do but mope. I asked a couple of friends and my other sister back home. They all said I had to go. My agent said I needed to use it to build my strength for what was to come. Good advice.

So we went. And I simply don’t have words for how amazing and yet how awful it was. We were in the most beautiful, relaxing, indulgent, luxurious, fascinating place, surrounded by people who wanted only one thing: for us to be super-relaxed and have the best time in the world. And it was impossible to appreciate it on an emotional level, only on a rational and intellectual level: ‘This is a beautiful place and we are so lucky to be here.’ But emotionally I was detached, alongside another emotion that I was to feel many times but have now, strangely, stopped feeling: guilty.

Note: we must not feel guilty for being alive.

So, that was five months ago. I’ve learnt a lot in that time and have undoubtedly changed as a person, for the better. My garden has kept me well – I wrote about that yesterday in ‘Gardening for Mental Health’ on my new gardening blog – along with family, friends, work and running.

I’ll tell you a surprising bandwidth-related thing I’ve learnt

Contrary to what I’ve thought and previously experienced, and contrary to what I’d have advised in the past based on my knowledge of the learning brain and concentration, it is possible to develop and improve the skill of continuing to work despite having the concentration of a gnat.

It’s what people call ‘compartmentalising’. It’s something I thought I was terrible at. But it seems that it’s like any other skill: you get better by trying.

It wasn’t possible on the worst days, and certainly on the final days, but only very few days later and my brain is efficiently flitting between emotion and reason, work and personal, and I have had an unusual-for-me work rate for the last two days. It’s not supposed to be a good or healthy way of working but it’s working for me: 5-10 minutes of intense writing followed by 5-10 minutes responding to a lovely message or just mind-wandering.

I think work is being a bit like medicine, to be honest. Note to self: be careful about that. It only works up to a point.

Of course, how each person will experience bandwidth overload after and during an intensely emotional and horrible experience will depend on many individual factors. For one thing, there are many people whose losses are far harder to process and whose daily lives are altered dramatically by their loss. After all, I wasn’t married to Jo; I’m not her too-young daughters. It will be so much harder for them.

But, as The Teenage Brain Woman, what I’d like parents and teachers to know is that, whatever the exact circumstances, bandwidth control is always likely to be harder for a few groups of people:

  • Young people, with not-fully-developed prefrontal cortices – so people into and throughout their twenties
  • People whose bandwidth is already occupied, by anxiety, by illness (physical or mental), by other life events
  • People who don’t have good support networks or ways to express their feelings
  • People with less good well-being – with less in what I call their ‘well of well-being’

I’ll stop now. I see the sun coming out and a garden beckoning. There are tomatoes to pick and a caterpillar invasion to prevent. And, later, books to write. (Of which more later – I have news.)

Meanwhile, spare a thought for my amazing sister and her husband and daughters and for everyone out there who has lost someone they care about. Every loss is different but it’s a loss and needs to be recognised.

And spare a thought for every teenager struggling to direct a weak prefrontal cortex onto their teacher’s voice or the words on the page while dealing with bandwidth invasion from grief, fear, stress or anxiety.

 

 

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