Tag Archives: mental health

I am mastering sleep

To continue along a theme I started yesterday on the power of internal thoughts and dialogue on your feelings and behavior, I decided to go into another personal example.

Some of you know that I have struggled in the past with getting enough sleep. But in the last couple of years I have truly started to understand the difference that getting good, consistent sleep makes for me. It allows me to be less distracted, more engaged, less triggered in terms of emotional volatility.

Good sleep allows me to be more creative, more flexible in my thinking, and more generous in spirit. It helps me keep my weight stable and gives me more consistent energy. Sleep allows me to make better decisions and to pause before responding to stimuli. It “cleans up” the toxic stuff that builds up during the day.

But for years I struggled with periodic insomnia. Notice how I define that in the past tense? In truth, I still struggle sometimes. But I was considering the difference in telling myself “I suffer from insomnia” and changing that thought too: “I am learning to master sleep.”

Sleep

It may seem like a subtle difference. But when I consider the feeling that results from “I suffer from…” it makes me feel bad. It makes me feel defeated. When I instead practice the thought, “I am mastering sleep” I start to feel hopeful, as though I am making progress. It means I have not yet figured it out, but that I am getting there. Actually, that is what is true for me.

Back when I started tracking all this stuff with the Wellbeing Finder about a year and a half ago, I really struggled. Knowing that getting better, more consistent sleep was the goal, I could see what factors led to better sleep. So I experimented with different things, like powering the devices down at least an hour before bed. I was shifting my drinking and eating patterns too. I quit alcohol and cut way back on sugar and flour.

It turned out some of those factors were much more relevant than I thought in getting a good night’s sleep. Now that I am used to receiving better quality and quantity of sleep, I am a total convert! But I need to realize this is a skill that can be mastered. Even though I suffered from insomnia in the past, I am gaining mastery over good sleep.

If you are mastering sleep, do consider what language you use as you learn to embrace this beautiful and restorative habit. Imagine if you used kinder language to describe the process of change, and describe the issues as relevant to the past but not the present. Perhaps that will help you, as it has for me, to let go of the need to be perfect. Mastery is an ongoing process but so very worthwhile.

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Re-learning to Play

Work is hard and play is easy, right?

Well… when you are young that is certainly true. Or if you are a cat or a dog. They pretty much have play and napping down pat. They have mastered it, and I probably ought to pay attention to these furry, wise teachers a bit more.

As an adult, I have not always valued PLAY enough. Brene Brown refers to her discovery of play when she was looking for the keys to living a wholehearted life. She was explaining to a friend this discovery and described it this way: “these people seem to fool around a lot” and she did not even know how to describe it.

Caught in a culture of always doing, striving, working, she could not even identify what these wholehearted people were doing, but it was PLAY.  It was engaging in something for the pure fun of it, for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose. Huh? Do people get to do that?!?

It turns out that it is quite healthy to do that, and those of us who have forgotten the art of play may want to spend some time joyfully re-educating ourselves. It is not just for kids! And it can involve some snuggle time with your honey, but that’s not a requirement.

For me, the best part of play, when I really do lose myself in it, is that I come back to my “grown up life” refreshed and relaxed. Vacation can be a great place to play and try new things just for the fun of it. I have a harder time getting into play mode during the work week, I admit. But I am willing to learn. Hey, if the science tells us it’s healthy, I am ON BOARD!

Occasionally, when I am on a really fun project or I am designing a workshop with my “partner in crime” at my job, work can actually feel like play. I love that. Some part of me strives toward that in terms of longer term career aspirations. I will get there. It is all about intention.

As we head toward the weekend, I am considering how hubby and I can get some play time. He has worked long hours this week after the snowfall and I know he will need extra rest. But I am using my creativity to brainstorm a few options. I am sure he will have some ideas as well.

How will you play this weekend? How will you take joy in this act of living and celebrate it in a way that is fun? Do you feel less guilt about it knowing it is part of living and healthy and fulfilling life to play?

 

Daily rituals

Today I will return to work after the holiday break. I also have an appointment this afternoon for post-op check-up following my appendectomy surgery a few weeks ago. Though I usually wake up around 5:30, this morning I was awake at 4, so I opted to roll out of bed at 4:30 to start my coffee pot.

It is again a chilly morning at zero degrees F with a windchill of -15F.  I plan to go to the gym in a bit for some exercise. I am not yet “cleared” to get back to yoga so I will go again for a walk on the treadmill.

This past weekend I went a little stir-crazy after no exercise for a few weeks, so I just had to work up a small sweat by walking on the ‘mill a couple of days. Typically I do yoga 3-4 times a week, and I like to run at least a couple of times a week. I have not run since my last trip to Mexico early in December, when I managed a few short treadmill workouts.

I exercise for my mental health as much as my physical health. As someone with an attention issue, it is a highly recommended natural intervention for this condition. It also helps prevent depression and anxiety, which I have contended with in the past. It has been at least 7 years since I had a true “episode” of depression as categorized by the DSM-5. It was minor, fortunately, and responded well to a few sessions of counseling, and addition of healthy fats and protein to my diet.

A few years ago, when I was racing many half marathons per year (and even one marathon) I felt such a sense of relief from previous depressive symptoms. I think this was for many reasons but here are the top ones:

1) Exercise is good for the brain and this is documented in the research.

2) The running community and the friends I met were so positive, supportive and uplifting (this is actually how I met my husband).

3) A regular routine and training goals for races kept me in touch with friends, getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine regularly. Nature is such a beautiful balm for all that ails us.

2018-calendar.jpgAs I consider goals for 2018, I know that there are some daily rituals I will keep, that serve me well and contribute to my health and well-being. Getting good sleep (and patience as I gain mastery over insomnia) is a non-negotiable one. I will aim for 8 hours regularly, because I feel better with adequate rest. It helps maintain my weight, gives me more consistent focus during the day, and adds better decision-making. If you have one thing you do for the next year to commit to your health and you get routinely less than 7 hours a night – try to get 30-60 minutes more sleep each night. Your body and brain will thank you. Trust me.

My other daily habits are: meditating (I’m on day 333), journaling in a hand-written journal in addition to this blog, and doing some yoga or walking/running. I also typically end my workday with taking 15 minutes to plan the next day or two, review what is on my schedule and prepare myself mentally for what is head.

I enjoy my coffee in the morning, so even though it is half caf these days, that one is not going to change. I avoid caffeine in the afternoon since it does tend to mess with my sleep when I am not careful.

Calvin on lap

Calvin napping as I write my blog

Sitting with a cat on my lap and reading at home is another wonderful ritual that makes me feel especially happy in winter. Having time with my husband to chat and catch up on the day is another ritual that keeps me connected. On the weekends I typically make breakfast for us, since he leaves so early for work on weekdays. I enjoy that also.

As I consider whether I should add anything, I believe I want to continue the work on the de-cluttering project I began last Spring. This has gone in fits and starts for me, usually when I get too annoyed by not being able to find things that I go all “KonMari” for a few days, in a frenzy. But this time I will follow through to the end, and really put things away at the end of every day, as she recommends once the big de-clutter is over.

The month of January for me is typically one of reflection and consideration of where my life is and where I want it to go. I know a lot of people use December for that, but really I find it too stressful between holiday hoopla and social obligations. There is no hurry to begin something new for me. When I commit, I like to go all the way. So I allow myself a few weeks to plan and dream while I get my daily routines back into place, and get my head back into work.

I have a new planner with monthly and weekly pages instead of a daily list. I am experimenting with that, making my daily rituals more routinized and still working with a to-do list but working to schedule that time in my electronic calendar instead of keeping the endless list. We will see how that goes. Really I am trying to take away, not add to all the obligations I create for myself.

What are your favorite daily routines, that keep you grounded and sane? I love hearing about what works well for others.

Go easy on yourself

This time of year can be difficult, especially for anyone dealing with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that may originate from the lack of light and lack of fresh air.

Symptoms I experience are typically insomnia, sometimes anxiety or changes in my mood or appetite. Many of us have increased cravings for carbohydrates, and we may feel sluggish or have difficulty concentrating.

For many years, I have used exercise, dietary strategies such as a vitamin D supplement in the morning, magnesium at night. I try to get enough vegetables for their anti-oxidant properties and fiber, but in Minnesota nothing is fresh this time of year, so it can be difficult.

Getting enough healthy fats in my diet more recently has been a wonderful benefit to my health overall. I have learned more and more on how balancing our brain chemistry with healthy fats is really important. Right now I am reading “The Chemistry of Calm” by Dr. Henry Emmons, and there is some wonderful advice there on how to overcome anxiety. Dr. Emmons presents the information from both Western and Eastern traditions and I strongly encourage you to check it out if you want more scientific background on drug-free ways to overcome anxiety.

I still struggle with insomnia periodically, usually when the seasons change and/or when I am under more stress. I know how important sleep can be for good healthy, so I try valiantly to get more, and sometimes it still eludes me.

Over the years, I have learned some strategies which help. It is a learning process, and I have to accept that it takes some time to change old habits. I am undoing a pattern that was established (and possibly reinforced) for 25-30 years. I may not unlearn it overnight. But due to the remarkable neuroplasticity of our brain, we are capable of training ourselves out of old patterns.

The biggest factor to remember is to have compassion for ourselves, and not to label ourselves as “anxious” or to consider ourselves flawed in any way. Instead of saying, “I am an anxious person” try instead: “right now I am struggling with anxiety and I am learning how to manage it.” Thus, the condition is temporary and not a part of our identity.

It is important not to identify too strongly with any label, as this may convince us we a permanent, unalterable condition. The truth is that we have far more capacity for change than any of us realize. And this learning how to manage our struggles is where wisdom is born. Nothing is wrong with us. This is the human condition.

About half of our life may be happy or joyful (or maybe slightly more). But about half of or life will be negative emotions. This contrast is what makes life so rich and interesting. If we can go easy on ourselves, realize that sadness and feeling down sometimes are a part of life, then we can truly appreciate the joyful moments.

Compassion for ourselves and for other people is really the engine that helps us live a good life. We sometimes have that inner critic that resists compassion, questioning if we deserve it, speculating that we do not. If we come from religious backgrounds where original sin was a big part of the emphasis, this may be harder for us.

It may take some time and practice to cultivate compassion for ourselves. But it is possible. And with this self-compassion comes the ability to have compassion for others as well. In this time of holiday festivities and dark, cold, weather, that can go a very long way.

If you are struggling with SAD, anxiety or depression, please get help from a trained mental health professional, and/or seek support from the people you love. It is not a time to “go it alone” when you are dealing with this stuff. Sometimes families are not as understanding, so try to find someone who can help you get the support you need.

 

Stillness and small movements

I was trying to imagine a class at the gym where one might advertise a course in “stillness and small movements” that would attract people. Certainly I would not sign up for a class like this expecting to “get fit” or lose weight. That is not what we are told. Eat Less, Move More is the mantra in the current ethos. I understand this is meant to get those of us who sit in office chairs for 8 (or more) hours a day, to get up, walk around, and generally become more active. I believe this is a wonderful idea, and taking breaks away from my desk regularly keeps me more focused when I do sit down.

Neurologists who study the effects of exercise on the brain tell us how much daily amounts of aerobic exercise boost our memory and thinking skills. I am a big proponent of taking a daily walk, or if you cannot spare 20-30 minutes doing this, then get it in micro-amounts instead. Take the stairs if you are just going up 1-2 flights. Or park further from the store when you get groceries, and walk a little more. Granted, in Minnesota during the winter, this takes some special discipline and when it is icy, I tend to skip it too.

Self care AHA News

Photo credit: American Heart Association News

I have been a runner for many years, and I knew that my regular doses of vigorous exercise helped me immensely with focus, memory, and just general anxiety. Running (and walking) clear the “mental cobwebs” that tend to build up during a sedentary day, and feels great when you work up to some baseline fitness level.

However, rest and renewal, on physical, mental and spiritual dimensions is at least as important as regular exercise. By rest, I do not mean sedentary sitting on the couch, consuming television, internet, or other passive entertainment. I mean allowing yourself stillness of mind and body and spirit. Stillness? Silence? Are you kidding me? This is how a person (like me) with a.d.d. and some anxiety react when you suggest this cultural heresy.

Are we not *supposed* to spend all our lives doing, in action, in perpetual motion? Have we not been conditioned to do this from the time of being young? In my youth, Sunday was sacred, a Sabbath, and we were not supposed to work. Of course, people still needed to be fed and so that meant that *someone* was working, maybe not all day, but at least for two meals to set food on the table. Typically that was Mom, as it is is most families. And the children perhaps had to set the table, but this was for the ritual of a eating a meal together, so I suppose technically not “work.” Of course, every Sunday night I always did homework, because, as a procrastinator, even if I did work on it on Saturday (which was actually my true sabbath, in all honesty), I tended to procrastinate.

The feminist in me objects to the discounting of the work that women do for families. It is sacred work then, this caring that takes place on Sundays (and pretty much every day of the week in so many households). In fact, whenever we care for our loved ones, this is sacred work. And how often do we care for ourselves? How often to we nurture the divine spark that lies within us? This is also sacred.

A body at rest tends to stay at rest, a body in motion tends to stay in motion (with the same speed and the same direction) unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. This is Newton’s First Law of motion, sometimes known as the law of inertia. I want to suggest that we apply this notion to human consciousness as well, since it is part of our common cultural understanding. We realize we must apply energy to change the current state, whether to stop if we are moving or to start if we are still. I would offer that our habits are a sort of Newtonian inertia – we tend to keep repeating them unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

What I love about this “unbalanced force” terminology is that is describes how I see my need for yoga and self-care. I tend to keep doing all the things exactly the way I have done them until my body says “no, you must get more of this (rest)” now. But ignoring the natural cycles for rest and renewal is something we train ourselves to ignore in this culture. We must keep pushing, our ego-driven internal monologues tell us. The hungry ghosts of our past rise up and tell us not to be lazy, we must keep going. Perhaps the voices we internalized as children chide us for wasting time, for not making use of every moment.

I would offer that this is very short-term thinking, and outdated at best. The industrial era brought us factories with 2-3 shifts, and cities that never sleep. We are taught that being in perpetual motion is the way we are in an ideal world. And yet, in the natural world, every living being sleeps or rests in some way. This is not wrong. It is natural. It is not something we have to fight. It is something that enriches us when we embrace it.

Cat on chest

Calvin loves to sleep on my husband while he is resting on the couch. We really are just pet furniture the humans in my household

My favorite set of yoga classes, taught one after another by Ruth Silva are a soma yoga class and then a yin yoga class. In soma, the movements are often very very small, almost frustratingly so if you are used to a vinyasa class, where the body tends to move constantly. It requires focus and discipline to pay attention to such small movements. Yin yoga can be even more difficult to the restless among us, the fidgety skeptics (thank you Dan Harris for the phrase). Years ago I first tried yin with Jan Johnson back when I lived in St. Paul (Highland neighborhood). I was astonished that we would hold these slightly uncomfortable poses for 5-7 minutes each!

Then when I moved to White Bear Lake, close to a Lifetime Fitness which also offered yin yoga, I rejoiced in joining a class or two each week. The first summer I was there, I told the front desk staff that if there were more yin classes, I would not put my membership on hold in the summer. Typically I did this because I ran outside 4-5 times a week in the summer, so paying for a gym membership felt like a waste to me. I really did not like vinyasa classes (at the time) which felt like “yogaerobics” to me. But in the summer of 2016, when I began to connect how much 3-4 weekly practices of yoga were changing not only my body, but also my over-active mind, I changed my tune.

As a runner, my upper body has always been a bit neglected particularly my arms, shoulders, back and core. Hatha yoga develops my strength and balance. Vinyasa classes usually left me feeling sore for 3-4 days afterward, until I realized that the sun salutation flows are voluntary. Yes, the teacher typically encourages them, but good teachers tell you that they are optional. Good teachers, like Kathy Barnes (another favorite), remind you that you must do what is right for your body today.

If you end up sitting in child’s pose for much of the practice, or laying flat on your mat in savasana because that is what your body needs today, listen. Do what it takes to be kind to yourself, to honor your body, to honor your need for internal re-connection and rest.

Savasana from The Yoga Garden

Photo credit: Your Yoga from The Yoga Garden

Stillness and small movements create increased awareness of the interconnected nature of your entire body, and the breath that flows within it. Stillness invites you to be with yourself, to reclaim your worthiness and to experience peace. To me, it has become a sacred practice, a way of bringing myself back when the outer demands of the world or the inner demands of my busy brain keep pulling me away from my inner knowing.

In reality our bodies are never truly still, even when we quiet the outer motion. Our cells still process oxygen, our mitochondria still produce energy, our lysosomes still clear waste from the cells. We simply allow, we surrender to our natures. We surrender to the beauty and wonder of being human. I cannot think of what is more sacred than this.