Stress sensitivity, and abolishing taxes

I am highly stress sensitive, and also what Elaine Aaron calls a Highly Sensitive Person. (Without going into detail about the latter, I take in lots of data, process it well, and tend to grow a very high-res understanding of things I take an interest in. You’ll get the flavour from the rest of this post.) I’m likely also bipolar type II.

I am pretty sure that this kryptonite trait, reaction and self-awareness topic that together makes me the pretty good developer I am today – largely from how easily I get taxed. At least taxing easily, as I see it; coarse people sometimes believe I don’t – since I have found strong coping mechanisms, which to the naked eye can mask the effects. Managing the weakness, by compensating handsomely for it in other ways can of course make up for it, so the net result is kind of a win. (Coarse, in the sense that they have no clue about what is going on at all, just seeing speed, quality, et cetera, where I experience the scarcity of cope.)

I think smart people with disabilities (be those cognitive, emotional, biochemical, et c) often manage to balance their problem in such a way, that it ends up a different shape from what is obviously a problem, and as a result, often end up missing out on what good help is around to be found, for people less versed with reshaping circumstances to good effect. Pattern matching someone that seems functional or even much above functional for outside observers, as someone in need of support, is tricky. Maybe more tricky still for the person hirself, knowing just their own world, and how to jive with it for optimal effect.

For a couple of weeks, I have taken on the bipolar II hypothesis, after observing that lots of stuff that applies to my own world matches what people with the diagnosis describe about their own experience. I haven’t been through any testing or screening yet; being on the last month or so of a year abroad, the prospects of chasing up something temporary in a foreign bureaucracy seem less than tempting, and I do know the fu of adopting a stance of patience, by bucketing some problem into a very long timeframe; a mere expectations management trick, but it works for me.

Back to the stress sensitivity. I know from experience that I lock up and get nothing done if I’m overwhelmed, and I get overwhelmed if too much stuff is in a state of on-going and needing (or stealing, whether it needs to or not) my attention, so this is kind of a zero-sum game for attention, to maintain cope levels in the green zone. Lots of other life stuff factors in to make the green vs red zone larger or smaller; a working sleep, food, sex and social life feeds more stability into the green zone, and attacking those, or other needs like having introvert time with myself alone, drains it and makes overwhelm happen sooner and from fewer on-going things. (Each of these have higher-res zoomed-in views where food works better when regular, in my case paleo style high-fat/low-carb fare, but I don’t mean to make this into an exposé on the whole human condition; my topic of interest here is stress and coping.)

In all, this paints a picture of a couple of separate but intertwined optimization problems. As will-power and cognitive processing draw from the same pool of resources, I tend towards attacking as few of them at a time as possible, and work instead more in the long view, towards iteratively building and carrying forwards good habits from all fields and sub problems I have studied. A small piece at a time, I try to learn basic essentials of life like how to eat, sleep, take time I need and so on, while trying not to regress the others, and surround myself with good role models for the important stuff, to whatever extent is practical.

Managing the stress, and sources of cognitive overload in general (poor aesthetics are more draining than beauty and elegance, for instance; less code has lower cognitive weight than more code, and so on) is my everyday life of coding, and being pretty ruthless against everything that worsens the stress climate in general turns out to make my output a lot better than if I’d, say, write large, complex, hairy nests of logic that require a big working set to digest, understand or even overview, and not care about cognitive overload.

For short, by assuming great scarcity of cognitive power, on behalf of the reader / maintainer / user of a piece of code or software, I go to great lengths to shorten code, document it well, structure it to strong conventions, make it fault tolerant, cover all cases and so on, so a slightly tipsy, tired or overwhelmed person can use it safely, without effort or much risk breaking something. And in processes or places where cruft and bugs find safe hiding places, I tend to place spotlights, or repave the place, adding scrutiny, peer review or what might be missing.

A lot of this is instinctive habits built up over time as I noted earlier, half unaware of the greater picture, but I today see it all as centered on the inability to handle stress well, and it then also happens to coincide with how humanity at large actually kind of sucks at anything that is difficult. We can do it, but by doing it, we drain our resources, and start sucking more at everything else that got proportionally less cognitive power left for it. It’s a zero-sum problem where expending some effort at something unimportant shifted your assets away from where they were needed for something important.

In a work context, overwhelm is useless, and accomplishing stuff is important. So it’s the balance act of setting up environmental supports for the latter and combating stress that amounts to good energy hygiene, and I can look at almost everything I do in terms of this dynamic. (Or maybe I am having a hypomaniac episode, and just got that crack-pot curiosity about seeing everything in terms of stress rather than something else, say, creativity. Only the reader can tell.)

Looking closer at some of my life choices and patterns, I observe that I also go to great lengths to keep the number of things in an “open, on-going” state to a stern minimum, as I find those types of things draining. Sometimes even fun things consume some amount of cope to maintain in an active state for periods of time. Examples of things that tax: bureaucratic processes (I’m pretty much allergic), unprocessed interesting ideas (that I don’t either expel, or attack and work my way through, like writing this post), grudges or other things people tend to brood on, tasks (in direct proportion to how many of them I try to juggle), plans (calendared stuff I can expel from working memory is okay, as it will resurface later without my direct aid – remembering to buy X next time I go shopping, not so much).

It’s as if I have a very limited input buffer or set of registers, so I have almost no space to spare for anything, and need to write everything to disk. A side effect of this is I very often don’t have real-time access to on-going feelings of various sorts – I sort of need to commit them to some medium as they go by, if I want to report on them, as I otherwise intuitively just transact them into some permanent state change of something, rather than keep a bunch of them around in my head (heart, wherever). I realized that bit fully only tonight, on getting some bad news from a legal aide on a long-winded visa process, that just grew by a year. Bummer, and I captured the reaction in an email – but by and large, it was an expectations adjustment on behalf of a draining slow process (years.count += 1), and a similar expectations adjustment of trust in the predictive power of same person (trust -= something fuzzier, as the fast-track option presented earlier had seemed moot to me, and now had turned out moot for foreseeable reasons), and without writing that down, I’m pretty sure I’d be entirely indifferent to the whole affair in a few days, to the point of not having much idea of it having even happened, if asked to search for how I feel in general.

For this reason, I find scheduled check-ins somewhat useless, on behalf of being overdue (or being synchronous in general, which just means they statistically won’t happen when I have access to anything that just surfaces briefly, at some point, before I instantly evaporate it again). Unless I take notes to go through during such meetings, and do a fair amount of book-keeping at all times, instead, if I know in advance that’s profitable, in the sense “worth doing”.

I know this is a long rambly post, and kind of open-ended too, but I’d be pretty interested in hearing of whether this type of compartmentalization is common among bipolars, or more of a random trait I’ve latched on to, or other stuff that came up while reading about it. Having recently read up a lot about traits of the bipolar condition, I’m having fun spotting self-aggrandizing things in what I write, or “rules don’t apply to me” tendencies (I tend to have the a bit broader view that rules don’t necessarily apply to anyone, unless they are largely useful and obviously beneficial), and so on; it’s still interesting to just speculate on whether bipolarity is part of my complexion or not. At least from my vantage point, it seems it sometimes is more of a “condition” than “disorder”, even if I’m sure it’s treatable and something I’d love to try to (not) experience, from losing the effect for a while to compare, just as much as I know it is something it can pretty royally suck experiencing.

I’d also appreciate responses with something like my lead-in attempt at picking a few words to self-categorize a bit – not knowing anyone, it’s hard to have a feel for who’s what.