Fear(less) Atrophy

Published 22. September 2016.

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about resilience—specifically, the way one can exercise it, and make it stronger, becoming a toughened individual. I gve a few examples, but mostly the post was an intellectual reflection on the concept, meant to start a train of thought. I didn't realise how soon after that I'd get to examine my own resilience up close, outside of my typical context for improving my resilience.

This past weekend I took part in a film hackathon. I've helped on a couple of films in the past, and I've certainly worked under tight deadlines to create other things. In this case though it was the first time in a long time that I was not just helping someone else create their idea, but shipping a finished creative project that I had more of an emotional investment in—and all under an extremely tight deadline. We had Saturday morning to create a concept, the afternoon and evening to film, and then Sunday at 4pm to edit together the final film. In total that was, at most, twenty four hours to work on the film from concept to completion.

Saturday was fine. My team of three had come up with a solid concept that seemed simple enough to execute. I wasn't at all stressed about getting enough footage—in fact, we'd been successful at getting several longer interviews. Sunday was a different matter: it was time to edit, and as the one with the most experience in that area, I was going to be driving. At best I would have had seven hours to complete the edit. Now, a typical short video takes me a couple of hours to edit and polish, and my own videos are intentionally simple to cut, and I already have the storyline worked out before I sit down to edit. In this case we didn't know the storyline going into it, and we had more footage to weave together (over an hour of interviews), so I knew this edit was going to take longer than usual. By the time we finished collecting and reviewing all of our interview footage and getting the good bits on a timeline to edit, it was past noon. I had less than four hours to complete the edit, and we'd be creating and tweaking our narrative on the fly during that time.

I didn't immediately feel physically stressed, but by 2:00 we were still constructing and restructuring the narrative. The film was still very rough, with many places where the cuts and transitions felt awkward, and I was doing my best to make quick intuitive cuts to save time. By 3:30 we had only just finalized the overall structure, but hadn't included any cutaways to secondary footage, fine tuned edits, adjusted audio, or even touched the color. The mounting pressure from the deadline brought forth a notable, and steadily increasing, stress response: feeling warmer, narrowed focus, a palpable sense of the blood pumping, and a drop in fine motor control. It took extra care to keep my mouse hand steady and to click in the correct places. I had a fear of wasting any time on unnecessary mistakes, as correcting those would cut into the precious time we had left. 4:00 passed and we were still working. We reviewed the cut at 4:15, and I fixed a few obvious mistakes and cut out a section to get us under the five minute max. Ten minutes trying to balance audio as quickly as possible and prep for export. 4:30: exported! Finally, I could get up and move. I hadn't realise how long I'd been sitting there, intently focused on the work—high stress while sitting is a challenge, it feels more difficult to dissapate it, as the body much prefers dealing with stressful situations through movement (the fight, flight, or freeze responses). I left the small glass conference room we'd been working in to take a walk.

I was still feeling anxious—showing your work always feels fraught with conflicting emotions, and waiting for the response often feels the worst, especially when you know that with more time you could have polished it more. I wandered around the space for a bit, working the kinks out of my body, still feeling plenty of adrenaline, and decided to try a vault (in my defense, I was around interesting architecture and was probably a squirrel in a past life). But with the stress, scattered focus and intention, and significant height (four and a half feet high, I'd guess), I clipped my foot (similar to before and fell. It wasn't too bad, other than a few scrapes, and I immediately vaulted the next railing to keep that fall from locking the experience of pain as a block to future practice, but the point remained: my body was still stressed.

That stress didn't go away until after our film was screened, and not knowing where it'd be in the order added a layer of anticipatory jitters to the process—and of course it ended up being nearly the last one shown. But once that perceived threat was over, the stress and adrenal state finally began to fade.

I don't think feeling anxious or fearful are bad. Often they're the signposts that point you towards worthwhile experiences that push you to grow, regardless (or really, because of) of how discomforting they may be. It's when those fears impact your ability to excel or accurately judge risks that my issue with fear arises. Thus it's why I find training to be toughened to be necessary and important: to experience fear and stress without interfering with my physical skill, intuition, or capacity to make rational decisions.

In that vein, I'm reminded by this latest experience that I need to maintain a weekly, or even daily, practice of experiencing discomfort, fear and uncertainty, and performing under some type of pressure. The practices I've found in the past that have helped have been cold showers, parkour (of course), and making videos...regularly. I'm experimenting with and adding others to that list, including dance rehearsals (a demanding, if different challenge), writing these more personal posts, and publishing more creative work in general.

Maintaining any one of those practices isn't easy, but consistently dancing at your edge is worth it, and doing so with regularity maintains and develops your capacity to choose growth.