Brian Lackey


Mood Swing Amplitude Trends: Lima, Peru

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.

Buenas noches, señor sol

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 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!

PeruBrian Lackey