Sunday, March 6, 2011

Lacking training and qualifications: procrastination, anxiety, stress and meditation

I recently had a student come to me fairly distraught. He's stressed out, he can't sleep, he can't stop procrastinating, which makes him more stressed and sleepless in the end, all of which adds up to make him very unhappy. My heart goes out to this young man, and I wish there was more I could do for him. He's already receiving help from psychologists, psychiatrists, and pharmacists, so there's no easy referral here. In a very real sense, I'm not professionally trained or qualified to help him... except in fairly anecdotal ways, essentially "here's what's work for me (or someone I know)" or "here's what I'd try if I was in your shoes." Somehow, in the face of such difficulties, that seems insufficient.

Attacking the problems individually, I started with procrastination. Part of me thinks that there must be some very excellent book out there about procrastination, because I don't think I've known very many students--going all the way back to my own student days--who didn't struggle with procrastination. Most adults I know struggle with procrastination; so do I. I'm not sure whether that makes me well-qualified or poorly qualified to give advice, but that's how it goes. Although I have previously (not to students!) defined excessive alcohol consumption the same way, I compared procrastination to a a loan on future happiness at a high rate of interest. It's probably a bad metaphor for a high school student, since they haven't really dealt with debt yet, but whatever. The point is that as good as it may feel in the moment to avoid his homework in the moment on Friday and Saturday and Sunday morning and afternoon, it's going to feel far worse when he's stressed out Sunday night, when he can't sleep because he has to stay up late or ends up feeling overwhelmed, than it would have felt to bite the bullet and do the work earlier (and yes, I realize that procrastination doesn't always or for all people come to such a bad end--for many of us most of the time it's more of an inconvenience, but I was speaking to his experience, after all).

He acknowledged that all of this made sense, but said he "just couldn't" stop procrastinating. So we talked about strategies for minimizing distractions. I suggested that procrastination isn't a state of being, it's an action. I do understand the feeling of "can't," but at the same time, in most cases, I don't think it's as hopeless as all that. Procrastination is an action and a habit, and I suspect the key is to replace it with a different, more positive habit--which gets us back to minimizing distractions, setting a schedule for yourself to spend time working earlier rather than later, and then just doing it. Sometimes easier said than done, but there it is.

And I also recommended to him to look into meditation. He said to me that the only time he can relax is when he is asleep--a state that he can't actually reach that easily without pharmaceutical help, which has its own problems. So we talked about meditation, not because I'm an expert on meditation or can scientifically justify it (though I do know there's been some positive research around meditation), but because I think it works. Honestly, I can't really remember being as emotionally volatile as all that, but then I've been practicing meditation to a greater or lesser degree for a long, long time. We talked about focusing on the breath, about how meditation ultimately isn't, at least to start, about not thinking but about focusing on something that's basically neutral. You count your breathing, say for instance inhale on a four count and exhale on an eight count. The mind, for most people, is always focused on something, so the focus we demand of it is on repetitive numbers and the sensations of breathing.

And I told him that it very well may not work for him, but he should give it a try and then try it again and again and again. Because ultimately I guess I believe less that "meditation only works for some people" and more that "meditation works, but it takes practice to become any good at it." And let me be the first to admit that I'm no Zen master. I don't meditate for hours--or even half hours!--every day or even every week, but even without that level of doing it, I've still found it to be helpful. So, lacking professional training or qualifications, I offered him what I've seen work, because that's what I had to offer. Ultimately, I'm not sure that's much different than what the professionals do, at least in the sense that there's not one "right" way to help someone work things out for himself (which is what is ultimately needed), and so they, too, try to help the person gain some insights and to acquire some tools for managing the stresses they face. As long as I don't claim to be some kind of guru with the answers and as long as I don't recommend anything way out, I guess I'm safe enough, though whether I'm actually helping is another question. Obviously, I hope the answer is yes, but the best any of us can do is a good-faith effort.


  1. Good sound advice. What works for one may not work for another, and it never hurts to try.

    I've had some relief from meditation, sunlight, exercise, a change in diet with alcohol taken out of the equation. Sometimes I try rewarding myself like, do your 1040 and you can play a half hour of computer games, or finishing the dishes gets you two chapters in your book.

    I hope the young man finds his way.

  2. I think there's value in letting a kid know that someone else--someone grownup and functioning and whom he trusts, has dealt with a survived similar experiences.

  3. Meditation is a good place to start, especially to ease the stress.

    Making a list of tasks (like an outline) and then writing the subsections smaller and smaller into easily do-able tasks, helps too.

    But I think meditation was the best advice you could have given him.

    Oh, and I use catty's trick of rewarding myself after accomplishing each of the easily do-able sections, too. It's amazing how a carrot works better than a stick.