Sleep Strategies from an Insomniac

So true. If you know who drew this, please let me know so I can provide credit!
So true. If you know who drew this, please let me know so I can provide credit!

I suppose at some point I was a good sleeper but I don’t really remember it.

Like my first day of school or my first kiss, remembered only in brief snatches of a corduroy skirt or a racing heart, my ability to sleep deeply and wake rested has become a distant memory.

I started to have issues with sleep in my early 20s. I remember being uncomfortable if someone else was in the room – sleepovers or hotels, for example – and rarely feeling rested when I woke up. As I got older, and stress and anxiety grew, my sleep troubles also increased (I’m sure there’s a correlation between my decreasing sleep quality and my growing issues with anxiety and depression) so that now I’m at the point where I’ve developed stress and anxiety about sleep itself.

My issues with sleep reached a peak after my ex-husband and I separated and I became a full-blown insomniac. I rarely slept more than three hours at a time and would wake up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep for hours. As my exhaustion grew, it affected every aspect of my life. I was unable to concentrate for prolonged periods. I’d doze off in meetings and waiting rooms. I’d struggle to stop myself from yawning in conversations with co-workers and friends. I didn’t want to drive for long because I was at risk of falling asleep at the wheel. I was so tired that I couldn’t force myself to overcome my innate procrastination tendencies and all my usual strategies for productivity failed.

Sometimes I felt so tired that I simply wanted to curl up and cry, and other times I was too exhausted for even that.

I know I’m not alone. Various studies over the past decade suggest that a third of Canadians are sleep deprived, affecting everything from moods and personality to productivity and overall health. It’s a serious health concern as chronic sleep deprivation affects your immune system and cognitive function and has the potential to pose severe long-term health problems.

(Click here and here for some relevant articles.)

I still have issues with sleep but nearly three years after my divorce, I feel the worst of my insomnia has passed. I’ve also developed some insights and sleep strategies that I thought I’d share for those of you who also have challenges with getting a good night’s sleep.

Routine – Above all else, routine seems to be key. Go to bed at the same time every night, even on weekends (or if you can’t do that, try to minimize the variations in your bedtimes). Have a pre-bed routine that signals to your body that it’s time to slow down and get ready for sleep.

Limit screen time – DO NOT take your phone to bed with you. I even try to avoid it for an hour before bedtime. Not only does having your phone within reach encourage you to continue scrolling long past your bedtime but the light from smartphone screens suppresses a sleep hormone called melatonin. In short, your phone is telling your brain it’s time to wake up when it’s actually trying to do the opposite.

Stay active (but not at night) – I exercise for many reasons but one of them it to beat myself out. If I’m physically tired, I’m more likely to welcome crawling into bed and stress less about whether I will be able to sleep.

However, exercising at night has the opposite effect. Exercise gives you energy and therefore, I need to minimize my activity levels in the evening. I walk the dogs and occasionally do yoga in the evenings but avoid anything high impact or high energy. This has meant some sacrifices as I’ve had to give up my favourite sport in the fall and winter due to late game times but given the misery of chronic sleep deprivation, it’s a sacrifice I’ve decided is worth it.

Avoid caffeine – I’m not a coffee drinker but I love a cup of tea so I’m careful to only drink caffeine-free varieties in the late afternoon and evening. Other common sources of caffeine include chocolate, sodas, some flavours of ice cream, some pain relievers, and energy water and other energy drinks.

Don’t eat a large amount before bed – A big meal, particularly one high in carbs and fat, can leave you feeling overly full and uncomfortable, which can affect your ability to get into sleep mode.

Do a brain dump – Call it whatever you want (“brain dump” works for me) but give yourself five or 10 minutes to get rid of everything that’s in your brain. Set an alarm, grab a pen and paper and write, paying no attention to structure, grammar or punctuation. Anything that pops into your head goes onto the paper. This is a strategy I also use when I start to feel overwhelmed or like my to do list is getting out of control.

Journaling – You can tie this into your brain dump or use your journal in other ways. I like to take a few moments to write down the things I was grateful for that day. I find this helps shine a positive light on my day and can put me in a better and more relaxed mood before trying to sleep.

Relax – Spend some time in the evening trying to relax. For me, getting outside has the effect of calming my mind and soothing my spirit, and watching my dogs run around makes me happy. For others, a good book or a warm bath may do the same.

Read (but not a page-turner) – Don’t start reading a book you can’t put down right before bed! Save that for the weekend. If you must read, have it be something lighter that doesn’t engage strong emotions or stimulate your brain with learning activities.

Use technology in a helpful way – Although I’ve said above not to bring your phone to bed, there are some cases in which it can be useful. I don’t recommend this unless you’ve developed the self-control to avoid social media! There are some sleep-friendly apps I’ve used that can help you get a good night’s sleep.

  • Sleep Cycle lets you set an alarm and a timed wake-up period. It begins gently waking you up during that period so that you wake at a time when you’re naturally coming out of sleep. The idea is that you wake feeling more rested than if you’re jolted out of deep sleep by a blaring alarm.
  • Meditation apps – I’m just beginning to incorporate these before I go to bed. I listen to a guided meditation as I lie in bed and it’s helping me to relax. There are many options out there but a crowd-sourcing question on my Facebook page recommended Insight Timer, Calm, Omvana, and Relax and Rest. Try them out and figure out what works best for you!

White noise – Get a fan or a white noise machine to create just enough background noise that it blocks out other disturbances such as traffic, pets or other people in the house.

Have you struggled with insomnia or other sleep issues? What sleep strategies have helped you get a better rest at night? Tell me in the comments (I may use them!).

Advertisements

Managing Anxiety

Since learning that I have an anxiety disorder, managing it and learning to recognize its symptoms has become an important part of my life.

I take medication daily, which I feel is the right choice for me at this time. That may change in the future but it also may not, and I’m OK with that. For now, I find it gives me the breathing space I need to manage my anxiety without being overtaken by it.

Aside from that, I’ve slowly developed techniques and practices to help me cope with anxiety and depression. Some have come with professional help; others I’ve discovered on my own.

Physical exercise – For me, taking good care of my physical health is central to everything else. I beat myself out so I can sleep better. I exercise so that I feel better about myself (yes, that includes my physical appearance but it’s not the sole, or most important, factor). I play sports because they are fun and I can socialize with friends and other like-minded people. Exercise is also an excellent distraction. Whatever I have going on in my life, whatever stress or cloud I’m under, it provides short periods of time in my day when I’m not thinking about anything other than what my body is doing at that specific moment.

Being in nature – Studies show that even looking at green space outside of an office window can have a significant positive impact on mood. Being outside is always a mood enhancer for me, and you will frequently find me on the East Coast Trail with my dogs. The fresh air calms my mind, the chance to chat with a friend provides a sense of connection to others, and hiking with my dogs amuses me. Their joy at being outside, running free, becomes my joy. When I’m in the woods or near the ocean, I’m instantly calmer.

I’m lucky that I live in a city that has easy access to hiking trails and beautiful, wild coastlines that are just minutes away from my house by car. Get outside: fresh air will cure what ails ya! (Still not convinced? Read this.)

Questioning negative thoughts –Cognitive behavioural therapy is an important tool for anyone who suffers from anxiety, and it’s one that I learned from a counsellor. There are several facets to it but the ones that help me the most are challenging negative thoughts and looking at the evidence for what’s probable versus what’s possible.

For people with anxiety disorders, worst-case scenario thinking is common.  It doesn’t take much for me to jump quickly from a disagreement with a friend to believing that I have no friends, for example, and my brain often tells me that I’m a burden to others. Is it possible? Sure. But does the evidence show that either of these beliefs are probable? I simply have to look at the actions of my friends and family to recognize that no, they are not probable.

Good nutrition – In order to feel well, I have to eat well. I definitely indulge sometimes and my sweet tooth occasionally gets out of hand but I also put a lot of effort into fueling my body with healthy and nutritious food that supports the active lifestyle that I love.

Looking for joy – Call this whatever you want: taking pleasure in the little things, practicing gratitude, counting your blessings, etc. For me, actively looking for joy often means that I find it, even if it’s just for a brief moment in my day.

Anxiety isn’t a pleasant feeling, and being consumed by it is downright damaging. And although I still struggle, often on a daily basis, I’m learning how to live a more mindful, authentic and grounded life in which I look forward to what it will bring me next.

What helps you manage anxiety or mental illness? What strategies do you use to get through your day? Tell me in the comments below.

Fight or Flight

Have you ever almost been hit by a car?

Maybe you’ve been attempting to cross the road and out of the corner of your eye, you realize the approaching car isn’t slowing down. Before you know it, breaks are squealing as the driver spots you but maybe it’s close enough to reach out and touch the hood before the car finally comes to a halt.

Remember that moment? In those few seconds, as the car is getting closer and closer, what happens? What do you feel?

Most likely, you freeze. Your mind races as it tries to grasp a course of action: do I need to jump out of the way? Will the driver see me in time? Your heart leaps into your throat and you can feels its pulse as it rapidly thumps in your chest, echoing in your ears, pounding through your body.

As your mind processes the danger, perhaps you break out into a sweat and your breathing quickens. The hair on your head and arms may stand on end. Your muscles tense, preparing your body to leap out of the path of the speeding car in order to save your life.

This is what’s known as fight or flight response. It’s a primordial physiological response that prepares your body to fight an imminent danger or flee from potential harm. It’s what our early ancestors used to stay alive.

It’s also what anyone who has an anxiety disorder lives with day in, day out, every day of their lives.

I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in the summer of 2015, which means I had lived most of my then-35 years undiagnosed and in this constant state of fight or flight.

I’ll get into the whys of my diagnosis and other related topics (I think I have elements of social anxiety as well, for example) in subsequent blog posts but today I want to talk about the physical reality of living with this mental illness.

One of the biggest misconceptions about mental illnesses is that because it originates in your brain, that’s where it stays.

This is simply not true.

Think about it: as you’re reading this, your mind is directing your eyes to follow these words from left to right. Maybe your neck is stiff so your brain instructs your arm to reach up and your fingers to massage the tender spot. These are physical responses to neurological directions, and mental illnesses work the same way.

I’m here to tell you that anxiety BEGINS in your brain but it manifests throughout your entire body.

I only began to understand the physical symptoms in the weeks leading up to my diagnosis. I was attempting to wean myself off anti-depressants (read more about why I was on them here) but what I didn’t understand was that these tiny pills that had helped me climb out of a dark place were also treating my anxiety disorder.

So as I began taking less medication, the symptoms starting coming back.

The first thing I noticed was the tension. The muscles throughout my body were clenched all the time. Even when I tried relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing, my body still remained in a state of tension.

Then my heart rate sped up until it was racing all the time. When it wasn’t trying to pound itself out of my chest, it skipped beats, making me realize that I hadn’t felt this fluttering sensation in my chest for a couple of years.

I became really physically exhausted and mentally drained at all times.

I feel compelled to point out that these physical responses were not in response to any discernible threat. My life was never in danger and my stress levels hadn’t noticeably changed.

Then, I started to get angry.

I lost my temper when I didn’t understand a play at a Frisbee practice and yelled at my captain. I wanted to throttle the cashier at the supermarket who had to look up the code for every vegetable I placed on the conveyer belt. I restrained myself from flipping off the driver who cut me off in traffic.

I was over-reacting to everyday situations that normally I would shrug off.

Then I began to withdraw. I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t want to talk about it. I made excuses not to see people. When I was in a social situation, I felt like I was hiding. I lied to my dad on his birthday when he asked how I was and I answered, “I’m fine.” I felt horrible but I had no idea where to begin and, in my head, burdening him with my troubles on a day that was supposed to be about him would have made me selfish, perhaps even a bad daughter.

It culminated when, after a football game in which I played about two minutes, I walked home, crawled into bed still in uniform, and couldn’t get out.

Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot in the past few years and have developed some strong relationships in my life. I knew that something was happening to me that wasn’t normal, and that people loved me in spite of my brain telling me that my troubles were burdensome.

So even though I didn’t want to, even though I was scared, and even though I felt like a burden to everyone around me, I forced myself to reach out. I texted a friend three words: “I need help.”

The next day, I called a counsellor and made an appointment.

It took the positive experience of being on medication for a few years to realize that something was seriously wrong when my body wasn’t getting what it needed to function properly.

The result was that, for the first time, I was able to identify physical symptoms of depression (and eventually, when I received a proper diagnosis, of anxiety) and it shocked me. Now, it astounds me that I lived like that for so long, thinking it was normal.

I’m beyond grateful to have had this experience of living with a managed anxiety disorder so that, when it became unmanageable again, I was able to remember that there is another way and I don’t have to live like that.

Kintsukuroi

“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen

If you look up the word “broken” in a dictionary, you’ll get definitions that imply finality. A plate is broken because it has been separated into pieces. A microwave is broken because it doesn’t work properly. A family is broken because its members reside in separate homes. A person is broken because they’ve been damaged by a traumatic event. In each case, something is considered broken when it is no longer whole.

When thinking about that which is broken, we tend to mentally add “beyond repair” to our consideration. Perhaps it’s a sign that we give up too easily but regardless, the implication is that something that is broken isn’t worth fixing.

I disagree.

A photo of a blue pottery bowl with a crack filled with golden lacquer.
Golden lacquer gives a broken bowl new life.

The Japanese have an art form known as kintsukuroi, which translates as “golden repair.” It’s the art of repairing broken pottery with a lacquer that has been infused with a precious metal such as gold or silver. As an art form, it once again makes beautiful that which was broken. As a philosophy, it embraces flaws as part of an object’s story, and it celebrates them as a source of beauty. Indeed, kintsukuroi treats an object as more beautiful for having been broken.

I first heard about kintsukuroi in a yin yoga class led by Helena Butler at Nova Yoga. At the time, I had been on medication for a few months to treat chronic depression. I was feeling vulnerable but also introspective and looking for ways to move forward. As Helena spoke about embracing the flaws in ourselves, of recognizing our cracks and letting our scars be seen as part of our whole selves rather than something we should hide, I began to contemplate my own cracks and scars. I began to think of the ways in which I felt broken and more importantly, the ways in which those cracks could begin to let in the light.

It’s a truly beautiful concept; one that gives me hope.

I think I am a better person because of my challenging times, and though some of my scars may show and others may not, I am proud of them. They are proof that while I may have been damaged, I’ve also been repaired and my whole is more beautiful as a result.

Incidentally, Tim Baker, lead singer of Hey Rosetta, was also in that class with Helena and later wrote a song called “Kintsukuroi,” which became the first single off the band’s latest album. Coincidence?

Concussions are the Worst

I promised myself when I started writing this blog that I would always be honest.

So far I’ve been able to do that while focusing primarily on aspects of my life that I’ve had time to reflect on and for the most part, deal with and move past.

This post is a little different.

I’ve got a list of dozens of topics I want to write about but they all feel dishonest because at the moment, I‘m in a pretty bad place known as Week Five of Concussion No. 2.

I started 2016 full of inspiration and excitement. I had started a new business venture that I believe in and know I can do well at given some time. I was on my way to being in the best shape of my life. I hadn’t been sick in months due to a renewed focus on my health and improved nutrition. I was feeling pretty darn good about life.

But then I made a split-second stupid decision and wound up with my second concussion in a year. The first one lasted a month. Now into week five, there is no end in sight.

Instead of daily workouts and getting stronger, I’m faced with deciding whether I’m up to walking my dogs each day. I did well on the nutritional front for the first month – still cooking, meal planning and staying focused – but I’m increasingly losing the will. Instead of feeling inspired, I feel isolated and withdrawn.

Physically, concussions are not fun. Mentally, they’re even worse. My brain is injured and I can’t tell whether it’s the injury that has me teetering on the edge or if it’s the cumulative impact of a lack of exercise and social life.

After five weeks, I’m also beginning to consider whether some tough decisions are ahead of me much sooner than I wanted or anticipated. Will I be physically too far behind my team to rejoin them when this finally does go away? Will I have to give up sports? Even the thought of this is devastating to me. I love sports. It’s a huge part of how I define myself and comprises the majority of my social life. But what happens if I don’t stop and I get another concussion? How will that impact my life, my ability to earn a livelihood and my physical and mental health?

There is no way of knowing the answers to these questions for sure but right now I have nothing else to do but ponder them while feeling like I’m going to throw up.

Did I mention that concussions aren’t fun?

So that’s my honest post about what’s going on with me. I really didn’t need another reminder of how quickly life can change – or maybe I did to keep me from making another stupid split-second decision in the future.

Do you have any tips for managing concussion (or other long-term injury) recovery? Share them in the comments!

Built to be Happy

I used to believe I wasn’t built to be happy.

I had happy moments. I laughed with people at a party. I enjoyed a hockey game or a night spent with my then-boyfriend. But most of the time, I just existed, filled with deep loneliness and feeling disconnected from everyone around me, neither of which I could begin to explain.

In the fall of 2012, I ran out of excuses. I had been married for a year to a man I loved and who loved me. We had bought our first home that summer. We had a dog. I had finally gotten a job at a place I had been trying to work at for years. Life should have been good.

But I was angry, irrationally so. I remember being out for dinner with my husband and a couple of friends who were in town for the weekend and acting like such a bitch to hide the fact that I was about to burst into tears at any moment. I felt so alone as they carried on around me, the three of them laughing and having a good time and ignoring my poor behaviour. I was ashamed of myself but I couldn’t stop it, and I didn’t know why.

Perhaps it was coincidence, perhaps it was fate, but within a few days of that evening I read this blog post by actor Wil Wheaton and for some reason, it clicked. I began to wonder if maybe, like him, something was wrong with me and whether, like him, it could be treated and I could begin to enjoy my life. Maybe, I thought, I didn’t have to live like this.

I went to my doctor and was diagnosed with dysthymia, a mild, chronic depression that is thought to be caused by abnormally functioning brain circuits, or perhaps nerve cell pathways that help regulate mood. Genetics may be a factor as well as major life stressors. Who knows?

All I knew was that I was trying to hold back tears in the doctor’s office as I explained that I didn’t think I was built to be happy because I had no apparent reason to feel the way I did.

That same day, I worked up the courage to tell my husband what was going on with me and that I had decided to take medication to treat this disorder. It was the first truly honest conversation we’d had in what felt like a very long time.

I didn’t know it then but that was the start of me learning to be honest and open with the people in my life and more importantly, with myself. It was the start of me beginning to believe that happiness is worth fighting for and that this belief I’d had – that I wasn’t built to be happy – was absolute bullshit.

People, like me, who struggle with dysthymia, are great actors. You won’t know we’re depressed unless we tell you. We may not even know it ourselves and will likely shut down any talk of depression. We’re not suicidal. We get out of the bed every day and go through the motions of our lives. Outwardly, we look fine. Inwardly, we may not be ready to have those tough conversations with ourselves.

Until one day, if we’re lucky, something clicks.

If you’re reading this and what I’ve written resonates with you, know that you’re not alone. There is hope, and there is help if you ask for it, even though asking may seem like the hardest road you can choose.

But I urge you to choose that road because believing that you’re not built for happiness is bullshit. And happiness, my friends, is worth fighting for.

The Post That Started It All

On Jan. 26, 2016 I wrote a Facebook post. It was deeply personal, something that I don’t normally do, and I published it with a gulp and said, “Oh shit.”

Immediately terrified of what I had done, I sat and waited for the response. Within minutes, people began commenting. And sending messages. And liking and sharing. I was overwhelmed, I was touched by people’s support, and I was in tears. I had opened myself up, people responded positively, and it convinced me that it was time to write again.

Here is the post that started it all:

Have you ever felt completely unmoored? Utterly adrift and not sure where to look for help or what to do next?About a…

Posted by Susan White on Tuesday, 26 January 2016