Pitch Perfect.

During my vacation, I got caught up in watching ‘Pitch Perfect’ on the bus. The opening scene is this: projectile vomiting while performing in a high stakes situation. I highly suggest you watch this clip and the movie. It is a lot of fun. It’s a modern day John Hughes movie- and pays homage to one in particular.

You might ask why I’m bringing this up. Pun intended. I’m not an acapella singer (though it is kind of a guilty pleasure to listen to it). I’m not a projectile vomiter most days- though I find it hilarious. What I do have, however, is holding onto tension and being so uptight that I could have the vomiting response. I feel it in the pit of my stomach on a lot of days; just the tension of anxiety and fear that I’m not doing life correctly, that I’ll choke in a big moment.

Of course, in the movie, the projectile vomiting is shown as a totally humiliating event; though it is the most exciting part of their performance. And I have to admit it’d be pretty embarrassing. But going through the pain often makes you stronger on the other side.

The other option, the one I choose more often than not is avoidance/internalization.

Spoiler alert! In the movie, that’s what the character Aubrey (played by Anna Camp) does for the majority of the movie. In another moment though, she just lets it all go…by projectile vomiting again. It’s pretty gross. But afterwards, she’s ready to perform and is much more relaxed and can get out on stage and rock.

I keep waiting for my habit to change- not to internalize/remain really tight all the time, but it’s a hard habit to change. I am not impulsive by nature. I get accused of being too serious all the time. ‘Just relax’ is a hated phrase (if I hear it, I will certainly not relax).

Any professional athlete will tell you that mental preparation is as important, if not more so than physical preparation. To perform well, it’s almost required that you’re in the right frame of mind. That’s not just true on the athletic field, either.

And of course, being anxious means almost by definition you’ve been taken out of experiencing the present moment. The ideal is to get into a state of ‘flow’, where you kind of lose track of time, but are engrossed in what you’re doing whole-heartedly. Tension is gone as is projectile vomiting (barring some sort of food poisoning).

I think many people experience the pattern of having some big project to do, to get done, some big deadline that they hold onto really tightly and obsess over and fret about. Then you’re suddenly done with it and your body releases all the pent up tension…and in my case, I get sick almost instantly. It’s not a healthy pattern. For one, it seems to isolate you from other people; you don’t put out a good vibe (believe me, I know). So you’re a less effective team member. And since almost all work is done in teams now- like an acapella group, that can matter a lot.

How do you subvert tension without projectile vomiting (I know, it’s gross, but it’s really funny to me for some reason)?  One thing is to acknowledge the tension- within yourself and with others…just saying that you’re feeling tense can help you let go of the feeling- breathing helps. It works sometimes. Longer term solutions include adopting habits of meditating, exercise, cultivating a resilient attitude, having a growth mindset and otherwise scientifically (and ancient) practices that really do work. They can all help get into a state of flow so you can perform at your best. Of course, practicing is important too- having healthy habits in practice is a good thing too.

Of course, I still am working towards these things myself (and have made very real progress). In writing the majority of this post I’m sitting in a coffee shop and it took me an hour or so to get into a state of being able to sit down and rapidly type this out. This isn’t a high-tension moment for me of course, so perhaps that’s another tip; find environments that don’t amp up the level of butterflies in your stomach (not always avoidable, but helpful for long peaceful work sessions).

I still get nervous putting my thoughts out into the world as myself; not an anonymous academic (as many do- I think probably wisely…since academia seems to look for any reason to discount people as employable (that might be true in other career areas too). So being open and vulnerable about some sensitive topcis (e.g. mental health) might well be hurting my career chances. But as I’ve written before, if my writing can help people not experience the long hard slog my brain has dragged me through, it’s worth it. I’m an educator first, after all. And I think this is something productive I can do for the world. I hope it highlights more that I am constantly seeking to always improve- to push my comfort zone- while trying to cultivate the feeling of being enough. And I haven’t projectile vomited because of it yet.

Hopefully that means I’m less tense than I used to be.

Ever on and on.



Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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