Interpreters’ brains are extraordinary. When he or she is hard at work, their brain is carrying out multiple processes simultaneously, in demanding bursts of mental gymnastics that are impossible for the ordinary person. We also use our short-term memory in more complex ways than other people do. We have first to listen and understand the speaker’s words and their context, then process and render the precise, same message in another language, under great pressure to be accurate and clear, in the right register. We like to say, and deservedly so, that this is our Super Power. And it is true, we’re very proud of our cognitive prowess.
Sometimes, the brain just wants to stop. It desperately needs a reset. Most likely it has been overused and hasn’t received enough TLC. Certain symptoms of this can be sluggishness, brain fog – when you just feel so tired that you feel you need to vegetate for a few days at least. Other times you can experience your brain as lukewarm mashed potatoes: mushy, mixed up, confused, heavy. Sleepy but cannot sleep. It becomes so hard to find the right words, to utter even simple sentences, that you feel stupid. You can tell it’s had enough. The thing is, for some people, by the time you CAN TELL that their brain has had enough, it can already be too late. The damage caused by ignoring some (or all) of the body and brain’s needs can have consequences that take a long time to remedy and can cause more serious unwanted conditions.
Mostly high “in our head”
Have you ever heard that “interpreting is like a drug”? Or maybe you realised that it has similar effects to some extreme sports? The way the stress hormone cocktails are secreted and circulate in the body during a demanding interpreting job is very similar to what happens in extreme sports.
No wonder we’re “in our head”; first, we’re rubbing shoulders with decisions makers, politicians, or other similarly high-flying professionals. We get to be immersed in their worlds, learn about their latest innovations or their most delicate secrets; confidential information that reinforces our sense of importance.
Second, the multiple simultaneous cognitive efforts and mental operations that our brains perform, together with the efforts to hear and the use of our voice concentrates all our available energy way up in our head and neck, with just enough energy left for breathing. Eating and drinking are necessary and good opportunities for some form of socialising or support. But our digestion does not work at its optimum capacity when we are under such pressure, because there are not enough resources left. Have you noticed how, even if you eat your fruit and veg, you often experience constipation or a slowed-down intestinal transit? It all has to do with the lack of homeostasis, caused by the stress cocktails circulating in our bodies. You can learn all about these in my Masterclass.
And third, we are naturally curious and avid learners, which often translates to leading a sedentary lifestyle.
And so, my dear friends, interpreters tend to have high IQs, some EQ, and low EmQ. Embodied intelligence. Poor levels of self-awareness and self-regulation. We live mostly high up in our heads, hardly ever with literal feet on the ground. Familiar with thinking, analysing, and solving linguistic problems, but not so much into sensing and feeling the body, understanding the stress it’s under, and admitting what it is that you feel.
In the last two years, we have had more stress because our cognitive load has gone through the roof. We have had to adapt and learn to work with multiple layers of technology between ourselves and our end users. We are not co-located, which creates a sense of isolation. We have to deal with toxic sound or generally poor sound quality that strains our ears and hearing. And this adds to the cognitive overload. Obviously, the brain needs to rest more to compensate. A different kind of rest
Some of us have insomnia. And at the same time, we need to step up our self-care and our brain relaxation practices. We need to learn more mindfulness techniques and we need to practice these self-care exercises more often. We need to have more embodied awareness of what is going on with the brain.
The brain, of course, lives in the body. And we know that we hear with the whole body, not just with our inner ear. Listening and hearing are whole body experiences!
I have been studying these stresses and how people react to themin such different way.: There is anxiety, there is pain; some people become triggered by difficult situations when they working, for example when they have to interpret a speaker who is going too fast (particulary when they are reading a very technical document at the speed of light!). Of course, different people react differently to these pressures. For example, I remember once, at a medical conference that was particularly difficult because we didn’t receive any documents to help us prepare beforehand; a colleague just froze. They just froze. So I had to carry on until the break, then I had to calm them down. And then in the second part of the morning, they could contribute, they could work much better because I made sure that they were alright.
You may not know this, but freezing is the third step in a traumatic experience. You may have heard about the “fight or flight” response, and freezing is a step up from fight or flight. It happens in nature, for example when an antelope is hunted down by a predator like a cheetah or a lion in the wild: there, the antelope’s nervous system just shuts down and they freeze to avoid all the pain of being eaten up by the lion.
Of course, we humans are not hunted by predators. However, for the nervous system and for the body, being in a overwhelming situation is similar to being hunted by a large predator. So, we can freeze totally; our brain goes blank, we feel blocked, and we cannot find the words. Obviously, it is very unfortunate when something like that happens on an interpreting assignment.
Other people react with anxiety, and can come across in an aggressive way. At another conference, I witnessed a colleague just burst into another booth, where the two other colleagues were working, and this very stressed and slightly younger colleague accused them of not doing a good job, of not providing the proper relay, when it was not really the case. So there are lots of ways in which I have observed stress being played out in highly-strained situations.
Dealing effectively with these stressors is why I always speak about holistic health, about brain-friendly nutrients, adequate levels of rest, and proper, deep rest – not only superficial sleep, which is not restful. The brain cannot benefit from us just sleeping superficially, nor from a lack of quality sleep.
This is why I’m offering a masterclass called “Caring for the interpreter’s brain” with lots of brain-friendly practices, and ways in which you can learn to self-regulate to stay in brain-friendly levels of rest, and regenerate. Because I think it is necessary, even imperative in these difficult times. We have to double up our efforts and multiply our restful practices as well as our mindful practices. Otherwise, our health is being endangered in the long run.
I am passionate about teaching interpreters the best ways in which you can become more self-aware. You will be more knowledgeable about what is trully going on, what your body and your brain really need. So, my presentation will be very practical, rooted in the latest science, interactive, and as usual, with lots of opportunities to clarify and to ask questions. One of the outcomes for you is to become more aware and to have that increased sense of self-awareness, which we’ll explore and develop during the masterclass.
Because we have such a cognitively demanding job, we interpreters live a lot in our head, which is great for when we are on the job, but not so great for our general health, for resting and finding that crucial balance in life.
This is why the mindful practices and breath awareness exercises that I teach are so important because they can increase interpreters’ proprioception and interoception. What those words really mean is your self-awareness, the awareness of the body, in other words, the close relationship between what your brain is doing on the one hand, and how you feel what your body needs and feels at all times on the other hand. This is very important because if you don’t know what’s going on in your body, if you cannot tell because you’re only in your head, then you can misinterpret signals.
For example, you can think that you’re hungry when you in reality you are not. You may also think you are active and going for it when in reality you have anxiety and you can even become panicky at times. All these things can lead to unwanted consequences. Let’s say you’re below energy, you think a sugary snack would do the trick when really there are better solutions at hand. You might rely on caffeine to keep you awake and alert, when in reality in the long term, it could wreak havoc in your system. You may think that working from home, you can do multiple jobs a day. And so you cram in as many jobs as possible at different times of the day sacrificing your sleep and ignoring your circadian rhythms. This too has consequences. And money won’t buy you good health later on in life.