CIRCUS UNLIMITED! Circus Stories:  Juggling & Stress
Circus Stories

Juggling & Stress

There are various ways to define stress, such as the medical definition:
"A stressful circumstance is one with which you cannot cope successfully, or believe you cannot cope successfully and which leads to unwanted physical, mental or emotional reactions."

The vague definition:
Stress is a response made by people to demands made upon them."

The metaphorical definition:
"Stress is like the grit in an engine.  The machine may go on working but at a much greater cost in wear and tear."

The critical definition:
Stress is the inability of someone to cope with things that wouldn't cause anyone a second thought."

The humorous definition:
Going to the loo in someone else's house and finding it doesn't flush properly."

Whatever is YOUR definition of stress....that's the one that's important.  After all, its your definition that you have to deal with.  Never mind what the books or experts say!

Quite often, if we are suffering from stress, our first thought is to take a break from the situation, person or activity concerned.  Unless we go away and do something really unhealthy (like have a cigarette, a valium or a stiff gin) we are pursuing an effective short term solution to stress.  It's short term because we are dealing with the effects of the stress and not the cause.  And it might not be totally effective because the original problem (or at least our perception of the problem) is still churning away in our hearts and minds....we can't turn it off.

That's where the value of "attention switching" comes in.  If we can switch our attention away from the thing that's causing us pressure and/or stress then this provides some valuable "time out" for ourselves.  During this time out we can recharge our internal batteries and then return to the original situation ready to deal with it perhaps from an alternative perspective.  Perspective, incidentally, is for me the key to managing stress but this is not the right time or place to go into it further!

A traditional method of attention switching has always been counting the number of acoustic tiles on the ceiling!  Unfortunately this method has become bonded to inmates of mental institutions and immortalised in more than one rock song.  Juggling as a method of attention switching is much more effective (and much much more effective when you are a proficient juggler).

Its not so much that you have to concentrate on juggling to the exclusion of all else.  Otherwise passing patterns would be impossible!  Its more about which parts of your mind are engaged when you juggle.

Left brain on left;  right brain on right....or is it the other way around?

When you learn to juggle, it is the left hand side of your brain that has to do all the work.  For it is this part that deals with procedures, logic, numbers, mathematics and so on.  You are very much concerned with where the ball is, where its coming from and where it has to go next.  Sometimes your left brain panics (remember the sensation?) when a ball is heading for a hand that is already holding a ball.  Instinct can easily take over and the hand throws the ball anywhere anyhow in order to make room for the next one.

At this stage in your development as a juggler anything can put you off....and you drop a lot.  "Mills Mess" casts a long shadow from the future and "Rubinstein's Revenge" resides in another dimension (as it still does for me)!

Then one day, something happens.  Its hard to describe.  You suddenly realise that you're doing the "Cascade" juggling pattern and not really thinking so hard about it.  And then....there's a sort of mental flexing....and you can look through the Cascade and keep it going with (almost) no drops!  The mental flexing is when the neural process of juggling switches between the left and right hand sides of your brain and you are now a right brain juggler!

The right brain is the creative, imaginative part.  It deals with pictures, patterns, abstracts and concepts.  Its the right brain that allows you to be innovative with those three (or four, or five) balls without worrying so much about the procedure and which ball is going where.  Its the right brain that allows you to do a complex sequence of tricks and maintain an appropriate facial expression rather than an involuntary look of concentration and/or horror.  Spotting new (left brain) jugglers is easy....they look so serious and worried.

When you learn a new trick, the whole process begins again.  It starts as a left brain exercise in working out what is happening when and to what.  When you can do it (and do it well) there's a mental flex and the new move is locked into your right brain for evermore (in theory anyway).  Sometimes a new trick can become so much a right brain experience that you forget that you can do it.  Often another juggler comes up to me and demonstrates a new move.  "Great!"  I say,  "Show me how to do it".  After much effort and unpicking - on their part and mine - the new trick is mentally laid out in my left brain.  All the moves;  the throws, the catches, the timings.  And hey!  I'm getting quite good at it already!  Then the awful truth dawns:  I have done this before!  I've been able to do it for some time!  I've actually done it several times tonight already before that guy came up with the new trick....  What's happened is that my left brain hasn't recognised something that is familiar to my right brain.  And my right brain hasn't recognised it because it perceives the new move in a totally different way from my left brain.  Confused?  Exactly!  Can you remember what we started out with in this article without peeking? neither.  I rest my case.

Two brains in one....that's handy!

And there's more....  Another part of your left brain controls the motor functions of the right hand side of your body.  And another part of your right brain controls the functions of the left hand side of your body.

When you are juggling the balls (or clubs or rubber chickens or whatever) are constantly crossing your centre line.  Your brain is sparking: left/right/left/right/left/right.  And all this whilst the moves themselves are either procedural (left brain) or automatic (right brain).

Now whilst all this flexing, sparking and changing sides is going on it is close to impossible to worry about whatever was causing you stress in the first place.  You may be generating new pressures and/or stresses for yourself by juggling....but a change, remember, is as good as a rest!  Hence attention switching as a technique to manage stress.

Finally, never forget that (apart from jugglers) most adults forget how to play.  Witness the ham-fisted or ham-footed attempts of some adults to involve themselves in children's games.  Play is a very effective way to dissipate the energy created by our stress response which might otherwise lead to muscle tension.  Juggling is a rich source of play and for that reason alone it is immeasurably valuable.

(This article was first published in "Kaskade" magazine, number 39).

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CIRCUS UNLIMITED! Circus Stories:  Juggling & Stress
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