Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Teenagers – out of control in a neuro-physiological cauldron?

Do you have teenagers around you? Children? Employees? Does their behaviour annoy, startle, shock, even frighten you at times?

Do you get frustrated by their short attention spans, their risk taking, their inability to see things rationally or to appreciate the consequences of their actions?

Research shows that our brain reaches about 95 percent of its final size by the time we are age 6. But the development of higher functions - including judgement and the ability to control impulses - is not complete until around age 25.

Horror car crash 

In November 2012 a 12 year old boy and 2 teenage girls died in a stolen car crash in North Melbourne. When I first started writing about this issue I was prompted by a car crash in October 2006 where four young men, aged 16 and 17, from Lismore in Northern New South Wales died in a horrendous car crash. The 17 year old driver walked away with minor physical injuries but no doubt with massive long-term psychological and emotional damage.

Every year in every country there are catastrophic car accidents involving young people. Speed, alcohol and/or drugs are key factors. Often an unlicensed driver is behind the wheel. Death and/or permanent mental and physical disability are the outcomes.

The accident sparked another round of the ongoing debate about what can be done to reduce crash and death rates of young people in cars. Various statistics are cited that show that younger drivers and their passengers are at greatest risk of being killed or seriously injured in car accidents.

What’s the answer? 

Is it to legislate? There are arguments that tougher restrictions on new (P-plate) drivers would lower the crash rates and resulting carnage. Some of the restrictions being discussed include curfews and a limit on the number of passengers in the car.

And, of course, for all the arguments in favour of these steps, there are contrary views – some based in research and evidence and some no doubt based in politics.

Where does the answer lie? Is it in restrictions? Is it graphic advertisements showing the consequences of speeding and/or alcohol? Is it in having compulsory courses on road safety that include talks by paralysed accident victims?

It’s the amygdala again

I wish I had the answer. However what I do believe is that an important component is to understand that the teenage brain is not a fully developed brain. It does not yet have the same levels of cognitive reasoning as fully grown adults.

Researcher Deborah Yurgelun-Todd at McLean Belmont Hospital near Boston, Mass., did a series of functional MRIs which showed a neurological basis for the emotionality of teens.

"Kids and young adolescents rely heavily on the amygdala, a structure in the temporal lobes associated with emotional and gut reactions," she reported.
This is different from adults, who rely on other parts of the brain associated with planning and judgment.

More fMRI work done by Dr. Jay Giedd at the National Institute of Mental Health shows that in fact, contrary to what many have believed, the pre-frontal cortex does not fully develop until we are around 25. This means that the ability to anticipate and understand consequences of our actions and controlling impulses is not generally in full operation until our mid-twenties.

So when we yell at our kids: "just grow up" – it’s not as simple as that.

Then there’s the hormones and the ‘pack’

Add in some more biology. At the same time that the amygdala is playing a huge role in determining young people’s behaviour, teenage boys are also being flooded with testosterone as part of the normal development of their reproductive systems. Some researchers associate testosterone with aggression although other studies warn that the link is not clear cut.

Next add in some group dynamics. Researchers have also shown that young people will take on more risks and unsocial behaviours when they are in a group. Peer pressure spurs the young people on. And as the amygdala is dominating and the pre-frontal cortex is still forming, it seems to me to make sense that all this contributes to the teenage bundles of emotional Molotov cocktails we live and work with.

Controlling our own reactions

I write none of this to say that because of physiology we should not hold young people responsible for their behaviours. Experts continue their research to work out ways to deal with these challenges which are a natural part of growing up.

But perhaps this explanation may help adults dealing with young people to remember to keep their own amygdalae in check and avoid The Almond Effect®.

If adults also react emotionally in difficult situations with teenagers that may simply exacerbate the challenges of an already heated situation. And this could have potentially devastating long-term consequences on relationships in families and at work.

Of course this discussion also opens up huge questions about the age at which we hand over our cars, give the right to vote, the legal right to drink alcohol, the licence to get married, the order to go to war. Watch the film Jarhead for insights on the latter.

I’d be really interested in your comments and stories about the role of the amygdala and young people in family life and at work. Look forward to hearing from you.

In the meantime my heart goes out to families where their teenagers have been killed or injured in car crashes. And to those also who have to support their young ones through other potentially life changing scenarios such as drug overdoses or violent brawls. It is amazing how complex a mass weighing about 1.5kg is and what complexity it brings.

Monday, January 07, 2013

How to stop procrastinating

Do you procrastinate? Or would you like to answer that later :)

At a workshop I attended recently, I got some interesting surprises from some of the participants.

There was one guy (let’s call him Dan) who quickly, though not deliberately, drew attention to himself because he was so smart, really low key, gentle, not arrogant – and, as I said, smart.

Have you come across this sort of person in your life? Their brains are so logical and considered. You (if you’re like me) could be getting swept up in a new idea, a fabulous insight, a moment of clarity when suddenly, out of left field, comes this rational, logical, thoughtful, challenging question that makes you bolt upright and stop dead in your tracks thinking: ‘Why didn’t I think of that? Good point’ causing you to reconsider and evaluate and hopefully get even more out of the moment.

Dan asked those kinds of questions.

Smart people procrastinate

Later he and I were paired in an activity – and here came my surprise. Dan told me his biggest challenge was procrastination. He wanted to write on a subject that was a bit ‘out there’; a new approach to science fiction but he couldn’t quite get around to it. He’d start then walk away. He couldn’t stick at it.

He’d go to his study to write but then get side tracked into checking his email, following up a query from someone else, remember that he needed to do something else in the office, create a list of things to do, deviate off into checking something on a website etc etc and then suddenly the day was over and he’d got no further with his writing. And this had been going on - not for months, but years.

I was really surprised. I had make this sub-conscious assumption that because Dan was smart, he was confident in his own abilities and would just go ahead and ‘put it out there’.

But as he talked about his situation, it became clear that Dan was concerned about putting ideas down on paper that he wasn’t convinced were 100% right. So rather than go with a 90% conviction that his ideas were good, he didn’t do anything at all towards his dream goal.

Confident people procrastinate

Surprise number two was similar. Again paired up in an activity, another participant, someone who I knew as a confident successful colleague (let’s call him Liu), asked me to help him work through an issue – again it was procrastination.

In this case, Liu was completing some media work, creating three sets of CDs. Although he’d made several CDs before, he thought these were the best he’d done. They were all recorded and edited. The contents listed, the artwork almost completed but Liu couldn’t get around to finalizing the production details for the duplicator to generate the finished product.

He told me there was probably only about another 4 hours work in the project. But instead of completing it, he found himself watching replays of the rugby, working on other projects, playing with his son, simply finding plenty of other things to do rather than the very thing that he most wanted to do – or so he said.

Neurotic Perfectionism 

The problem with these conversations were that they were too close for comfort! I recalled speaking with a friend from Western Australia many years ago about this very subject and she described it as neurotic perfectionism. And so I confess: I am a sufferer.

The conversations with Dan and Liu got me wondering again: what is it that holds us back from starting or finishing certain things? What is it that makes us knowingly procrastinate – and then, and here’s the worst part, beat ourselves up for doing it?

And why is it that so many people seem to share this predicament? The more people I talk to about my growing interest in this topic – the more people say to me: when you find the answer – let me know!

Is it perfect? 

Well I wonder if no matter what excuses or reasons we use, the real answer comes down to this...fear of failure. If we set ourselves really high standards, a state of perfectionism, then if what we produce is not ‘perfect’ by our standards, then we see this as failure. And rather than risk failure and disappointment, we don’t do it at all.

Or perhaps we don’t know when to finish, to say that what we’ve been doing really is good enough now. We don’t have the courage to draw a line in the sand and say: OK that’s 85% of total perfection – it’s enough; I’ll now complete the project, tick the box and move on to the next one.

It’s our 'almond' again

A wonderful friend and a gifted speaker recently gave me a book by Lafferty and Lafferty called “Perfectionism: A Sure Cure for Happiness” (1996 Human Synergistics, Inc). It’s an easy read and an insightful book on the subject. I recommend it.

Here’s one sentence that made me sit up and take notice:

“Perfectionism is a personal defense system that originates in overcompensation for an overall deep sense of not being worthwhile.

And another:

“The origins of perfectionism rest in the perceived inability of the child to ever do well enough: to be acceptable, and to be seen as loved and important. Perfectionists believed they could not please some important figure in their life, and are symbolically still trying.”

Does this sound like The Almond Effect® to you? It did to me.

I don’t know what might have caused the proclivity for procrastination for Dan. But when Liu and I talked, he reflected on his early childhood as a “new Australian” in the days of the White Australia policy and people whispering about the ‘Yellow Peril”. (My grandmother spoke like that. She would never eat Chinese food and sadly, even rejected a gift from my brother when he was 10 years old because it had “Made in China’ stamped on the bottom.)

Liu recalled that as a young boy and even as a young man, he never felt he would be good enough, would never get the blond blue-eyed girl of his dreams (he did!) and always felt like a second class citizen.

I asked him whether this made him as afraid of success as he was of failure? His answer: "If the CDs are as successful as I believe they could be, I’ll probably feel like a fraud!”

This certainly got me thinking that procrastination could be as much about the fear of achievement, about feeling not worthy as about fear of failure.

I wish I’d said something then

And I wondered if the fear of looking stupid, looking foolish, not living up to someone else’s expectations, not being good enough carried through into our reluctance to speak up at work, to challenge our colleagues, our bosses, to ask questions in meetings, to put our hands up for projects and new roles?

I’ve come to the view that procrastination (if it’s not simply laziness and I doubt that it is for most people I’ve spoken with) really must stem from fear. And if we do procrastinate, then the one thing we mustn’t put off is trying to understand what we are afraid of, and assess whether the fear is warranted or not.

Beat Procrastination - Be a STAR 

I’m applying my STAR technique to unravel what’s going on.

Stop and catch yourself allowing fear (new or old and habitual) preventing you from doing what it is to want to start, say or complete. Notice when it happens and what you do when it does. What do you feel when you ‘walk’ away, at the time? Later in the day?

Think about where it’s coming from? Where did it all begin? What are and have been the consequences? Does the degree of fear and the consequences warrant the outcomes so far? Is this what you want to continue to do going forward? What’s the worst thing that could happen if you put your fear on hold, turn your almonds (amygdalae) down (because you can’t turn them off), feel the fear and do it anyway? What’s the best thing that could happen?

Act Just do it. Choose something you have been procrastinating about – and don’t put off deciding to do this

Choose just one thing: for example writing that article, having the conversation about your workload with your manager, facing up to a difficult situation with a team member about the progress of a project, talking to your partner about something they say to the children, even a task as painful as sorting out the belongings of someone you’ve lost to cancer. It doesn’t matter whether it’s major or a minor thing – just choose something that you beat yourself up for not doing.

Then set yourself a deadline, decide on your reward for doing what you are going to do – and just do it. No more planning, no more being sidetracked, no more worrying about carrying out a little more research, consulting with another person, doing the ironing, preparing for next weekends BBQ, just do it.

Rewire When you’ve achieved even one step closer to your goal, give yourself a pat on the back. Well done. One less step to go. Let it sink into your brain that you have made progress and that it went OK. Rewire your brain to the feeling of achievement rather than the fear of failure.

They don’t have to be big steps – just one at a time. Work out who has been holding you back. Thank them for helping you to achieve your best but let them know you can do it without them now and do even better things that they will (or would be) proud of.

And when you achieve that outcome that you have been procrastinating about – make sure you collect that reward you promised yourself. It’s not an indulgence – it’s the way the brain’s neurons learn that the new pathways are the better ones.

PS Help me with my research on this 

If you have any examples of procrastination that you think may be due to fear of failure or fear of success or indeed some other reason, then I would love to hear from you. Happy to offer some thoughts about how to deal with it if I can - especially if you're not sure where it's coming from. Confidentiality 100% guaranteed. Click here.