Mood Swing Amplitude Trends

File under: nerdiest blog post title ever.


15 days ago exactly, my plane touched down in Lima. It feels like such a long time ago, but at the same time I can’t believe I’ve already been here for 2 weeks. One of those paradoxes that everyone knows so well and deserves a name of its own. But I digress.

A fourth of my brief time in Lima already behind me, I couldn’t help but reflect on these first few weeks south of the equator on my commute home from work today. So, how am I enjoying Lima? For the first week, my answer would have been remarkably unpredictable.

Quite possibly I would have had one of those unquenchable grins on my face, having just re-realized how cool it was to be in Peru. Maybe I would have just had an outstanding multi-course lunch for $3.50, seen an otherworldly sunset over the Pacific, or successfully navigated a conversation with a taxi driver en Español about his wife and kids. I might have just found an excellent espresso bar with an American, English-speaking owner; helped celebrate the Mom’s birthday of the family I’m staying with; or heard Sting’s “Kissed by a Rose” played on the panpipes in a local grocery store.

Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 8.31.17 PM

Buenas noches, señor sol

Equally likely (whether or not I would have admitted it at the time), I might have been feeling quite homesick, overwhelmed by the complete newness of everything and lack of any sort of routine, or flat out pissed about my inability to have a simple conversation in the local language. I had quite a few “what the hell am I doing here?” moments in the first few days. Maybe I had just woken up for the second day in a row without clean socks or underwear because the laundromats (and everything else) were closed on Sundays and the one I went to on Saturday wouldn’t have an opening until Tuesday. Maybe I had just nearly avoided being hit by a bus. Probably I was feeling lonely, not really knowing anyone for thousands of miles in any direction.

Hundreds of little things added up to the point that life overwhelmingly felt really hard. Of course, in retrospect, nothing bad had happened and I was usually overreacting. That doesn’t change the fact that at the time, the fluctuations in my mood were quite like those of the weather in Texas, frequent and unpredictable. Ecstatic to depressed to awestruck to lonely to impressed happened in the span of an hour. It was weird and I felt like I had some sort of schizophrenia.

Interestingly, these mood swings of sorts quickly flattened out as life in Lima became the new norm. I figured out the bus system, had clean clothes that didn’t require hanging from a shoelace to dry, and got in a routine at work. I learned my way around the neighborhood, got a local cell phone, and realized that crosswalks gave pedestrians exactly zero right-of-way while crossing the street. I started to meet people here and there, figured out another setting in the shower besides icy, and found a way to feed my morning caffeine habit without my normal coffee maker.

Sure, shit still happens. Today, in trying to take an express route to work, I accidentally got on a bus that didn’t stop until 7 stations past the University. No big deal, just hop on the A or B going south and get off at Honorio Delgado, only 10 minutes late. What would have overwhelmed me in the first week was simply a minor inconvenience today.

At the same time, some of the initial “holy shit I’m in Lima, this is so freaking awesome!” feeling has worn off a bit too. As I form routines, the highs are dampened as much as the lows. Exploring a new area is still exciting – I enjoyed strolling through the Bohemian streets of Barranco this weekend – though a bit less so than in the first few days. A graph of my mood would look much like the following, with mood swing amplitude decreasing over time, though still present. Yes, this is the nerdiest way to talk about feelings. I do statistics all day. I’m sorry.

The units on the Y-axis are “feelings points”

The P90X workout program is famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) for introducing the concept of muscle confusion to the exercise world. The idea is that after a few weeks of the same workout, we plateau and stop getting stronger as our bodies adapt to the new moves and lifts. The program counters this by inserting different routines every few weeks or so to move past the plateaus. Changing up the routines frequently makes the workouts harder in the short-run, but allows the participant to grow stronger than he or she would have been able to otherwise.

This plateau-prevention method works well in other areas of life as well. By changing up routines, forcing yourself into difficult situations, we adapt and grow stronger. Playing the guitar is like taking a belt sander to your finger tips for the first few times until the calluses begin to develop. Nothing about the guitar-playing changes, but you adapt to the situation and become stronger for submitting yourself to the initial discomfort. The first few weeks in a new city or country might be uncomfortable, but you’ll become stronger for being able to adapt to the initially uncomfortable situations.

Or at the very least you’ll have some good stories to tell when you get back!


5 thoughts on “Mood Swing Amplitude Trends

  1. Lauren David says:

    Brian I love hearing your thoughts while you’re on this journey! As they told us before I studied abroad, mood swings are quite normal haha. You’re doing great!

  2. Kathryn Alexander says:

    Sounds familiar! On the other side of that, I think when you’ve lived abroad long enough in situations like this, life without these highs and lows feels a bit lacking. There’s lots of Peace Corps talk about how much harder it is to readjust back to your American life, and I think a large part of that stems from becoming so accustomed to these extremes. Will I ever feel this alive again? How can so many Americans be satisfied in their everyday monotony? Thinking over my time in Tanzania, I realize that I have spent at least one moment of every day for nearly three years being completely uncomfortable and having to push myself to do something that seems terrifying and impossible. But then you do it and it becomes normal and in the end you come out of it laughing at some of the things you were initially terrified to try and realizing that you can really do and cope with anything. So hang in there and relish in all of that intensity because I imagine you will miss it when it’s gone!

    • “Do one thing every day that scares you” is an over-used Eleanor Roosevelt quote, but I think by expanding our comfort zones, we become stronger people overall. I can’t imagine the reverse culture shock after Peace Corps, I’m sure living in the United States again will be fairly tough, at least for a while.

      Do you know what you’re going to want to do after you finish your third year in TZ? I think I’ve heard rumors of grad school applications, but wasn’t sure for what, where, when, etc.

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