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Overcoming the Plateau

In whatever endeavor, you undertake, you will always hit the plateau. The plateau is that state where you feel like you are no longer making progress with whatever process you had started undertaking in the first place.

Although many people dread the plateau, if they understood what was really going on they would know that it was not such a bad place after all and that if they kept on going, they would reach another period of saturation after which improvement will become obvious once again.

This cycle of feeling improvement, then loosing that feeling and then feeling it again at a later time is the cycle of life. Understanding what goes on during a plateau will help us to continue striving when we inevitably reach that point of no progress.

So, what is really going on when we start any new undertaking? Let’s pick a concrete example like exercise. When I start a program, I am usually elated and feel all kind of joys of the process. I wake up every day thinking of no other thing than doing my first rep. After every rep and set, I feel better and even more so when I conclude my daily regimen. I retire to other activities with the burning desire in my mind that tomorrow is another day to hit it up again.

But after a while, the program that once brought me so much joy and elation becomes boring. I find it painful to even think of it. And when I talk myself to pushing along and just getting the job done, I can seem to see any benefit. Nothing annoys me than seeing myself struggle with a particular rep range that I once hit without problem on previous sessions. Well, I complete my session sometimes with so much mental pain and determination and I get on with my day.

Day after day, the sensations get worse, the exercise becomes a burden and it seems like I am going nowhere and finally it is just so much mental burden to think of even starting a rep that I finally quit that program. Most of the time, I had not achieved the goal that I set out in the beginning to achieve. But something funny happens, if I immediately start a new exercise program then just like an addiction, I feel all the elation I feel when starting something new like that. Although at the back of my mind I have this eerie feeling that this is my brain playing tricks on me, I just go with the flow like every other addict and begin the cycle again.

Then one day, rumbling mentally through all I have read about the plateau and the brain-body system I discovered what has finally made it possible for me to survive the plateau and discover that same feeling of elation that I feel only when starting a new program, but this time it came to me while I kept on practicing a program no matter how bad I felt.

Saturation and Habituation are your frenemies:

Saturation occurs when you repeat the same source of stimuli over and over until the nervous system saturates and then it mentally desensitizes you from that stimuli even though it is still present. Think of this like when you breath-in some odor constantly in your environment, the nerves in your nose will saturate and desensitize you from that smell if the smell is constant within a certain range for a certain period of time. This happens so that you don’t waste your attention on something that might not be interesting in your current environment and focus on some other interesting stuff. Although saturation prevents us from wasting our attention, it is the same process that desensitizes you from the effects of your exercise, especially when the effects have been constant for a while, especially when you have been following a specific training routine for some time.

Habituation is the process that enables us function in daily life without paying too much attention to what we have to do. When we do certain things regularly, it because a habit, and the next time we need to do it, it is automatic and our bodies remind us that we need to perform certain actions, and then we get to doing them. Although habituation is our enemy when it ties us to a dangerous habit, it can be the friend we seek when we are going through any improvement program.

So, my mantra now is to go beyond saturation till the process of habituation kicks in and helps cement the new process as a habit. These are the two processes one has to overcome when breaking the plateau, staying through the process even when you have been saturated to the point that you are totally desensitized from training further. Even if you do not feel motivated, keep pushing at what you are doing because this is only your brain playing the tricks of saturation on you. If you stay on long enough, then habituation will kick in. This does not mean that you might have broken the plateau and grown stronger, or better or even felt that process of elation, it means that you have set up the circuitry that will keep you going for a very long time. And In my own experience, the moments at which you break the plateau will come on their own spontaneously when you never expect them. Becoming familiar with the processes of habituation and saturation will enable you stay on the path long enough so that you can experience those rare in the beginning but increasingly regular as we go along moments of elevation that can power our practice for many years to come.

So stay on and practice.


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