Rules for a Happy Life: Sleep

My dog is a sleeping champion.

My dog is a sleeping champion.

I still need to work on how much I sleep. I average around 7 hours per night and that number is skewed by the occasional sleeping I do on the weekends to “catch up.” I need to be better with this part of my health because sleep and all around well-being are intimately connected. The body heals in every which way during a sleep cycle whether it is a sore knee to stress or feelings of melancholy.

You will find conflicting information on sleep. Some will say that sleeping 8 hours a night of unbroken sleep is a myth. Others argue that there is no such thing as “sleep debt” or that sleeping in is unhealthy. Still others will argue about sleep cycles and how deep your sleep is. By the end of an investigation about sleep you will probably feel guilty because you are apparently doing it all wrong no matter what your habits are.

So this is what works for me. My exercise is directly proportional to the quality of my sleep. I need to exhaust my body physically in order for me to sleep well. The time I spend on electronic screens affects when I actually fall asleep. I have no TV in my room and do not read in bed. But I will do that final online Internet surf before sleep. It does not help me relax and prevents me from falling asleep. I probably do it from an inherent fear of missing out (FOMO) problem I have always had. What I would actually miss is beyond me.

What it might tell me is that if FOMO is my biggest barrier to sleep, the problem I really have is my relationship to social connectedness. I have been divorced for over 4 years and live alone so perhaps it is the subconscious neurosis of aloneness even if I do not feel particularly lonely. Who knows what it is. The reason is essentially irrelevant at this point.

This goes back to brain messages that I can still fix. I am good about getting out of bed and getting into bed when I am on my regular work schedule. I get in bed no later than 10 and get out no later than 6:50. With that said, I need to leave the technology alone and ignore the urge to grab onto it at night. I have white noise to block the sounds from outside and to silence the nasty tinnitus I have in my left ear from drumming for several years. That is enough.

My mornings began to improve last year. I started to wake up at 6:15, have a cup of coffee, read the news in The Economist, do some sort of exercising (right now it’s pushups), and then get going with the other morning stuff. It has helped a lot. I just need to be a bit better at night. Right now I am nursing a painful kneecap so I am not running all that much and my goal of reading has helped because I am not turning on a TV. I know that when I run, I sleep much better.

What I need is better sleep to get my knee fixed so I can run so I can sleep better.

It’s really a very easy problem to solve. I just have to ignore the impulses in my brain telling me to stay awake since there is no real reason for it. When I turn off the light switch, I just need to turn off my brain as well. That’s just a choice and nothing more.

Part five of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

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Rules for a Happy Life: Exercise

Opening a doorWant to solve depression without drugs?

Me too.

So when I say exercise, it is different from just moving around when I get bored or feel like I need to get out of the house before I lose my damn mind. I mean work out. This is more than doing a few situps or pushups or walking on a treadmill for a half hour and feeling good about myself. Working out means I sweat hard, feel a little sore, and stop only after I have kept going a few minutes after I thought I had nothing left to give.

Last year I started tracking my activity as a way to tell me the truth about how much I am moving or sitting each day. I can rationalize that binge-watching all of Angel is working because my brain is doing something. My proclivity to self-delusion is that powerful. I Jedi mindtrick myself into sloth.

In the fall of 2014 I got this little Vivofit that Garmin makes to help me out. It tracked my steps, sleep, and the kind of movement I was making. It was cool because it was waterproof and I could leave it on all the time. The first thing I noticed is that I was a very stationary chap. Of course, last winter was way too cold to be thinking about going out for a brisk walk especially because I had gotten used to being sedentary. But I had a YMCA membership mainly so my kids and I would have something to do during the winter weekend months. Here’s the kicker: There is an exercise room with all of the treadmills, ellipticals, and weights literally 100 feet from the front door of my building. A couple of years ago, I went to the Y to workout for at least 30 minutes every day, but after I moved in 2014 that and all the rest of my good habits died off which is when I started to get sluggish and down. Moving is stressful, people. All of your routines get crushed under the anxiety of change and you have to find a way to get back into it. I did not.

So why didn’t I just hop across the street? It was anxiety pure and simple. I felt out of shape and I did not want to look out of shape in front of others because all of that self-talk nonsense was polluting my brain. Even after I started running I refused to go into that room. It’s absurd to me now, but back then it was a big ass wall I did not have the will to break through.

After I started running, I got a bad case of iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) which meant my knees hurt like hell. I took about 2 1/2 weeks off but in that time I had to get my butt in that workout room to build up some strength in my hips and get on that treadmill to focus on form a bit. All I had to do was walk in the door and whatever fear or anxiety I had was gone the second I opened the door. Eventually my knees felt better and I started running outside again. I would go back to that room when I got tendonitis and now I am going back because winter decided to show up and I am not in the mood to run in that mess right now.

The reason I am telling you this little story is because if you have anxiety about exercise, about whether or not you can do it, if you will look foolish, if you will be sore afterwards, etc. just open the damn door! Of course you are going to be sore. Of course you might not look that great. The only people who look great working out are the people in the videos and even then, most of the time they are sweating and getting stinky and that is their job! If you are not looking somewhat constipated, sweating, and all around nasty while working out, you aren’t doing quite enough. This is all about effort.

Eventually my little tracker was not enough. Somewhere I went from a person who needed to track his activities who also runs to a runner who also tracks his activities. I got a Polar m400 because it can do both. I can get all of my GPS running data and track my activity during the day and night. It also has a heart monitor that I strap onto my chest. That’s where the real workouts began. In the gym, I focus not so much on speed or distance but on time and effort. I want to get my heart up and keep it in a solid “cardio” zone for most of my workout. I am 41 so my maximum heart rate is around 179 bpm. When I workout I am trying to get that up to a minimum of 150 for the duration and to peak it out to about 160-165. If I am outside and running a course with hills, that’s about what my body does so I want to replicate that effort inside. This means I am working out my heart and processing all of the sugar stores in my body. All those carbs I ate the day before are burning off and my fitness to run longer and faster improves.

Here’s the magic. When I work out like this, my mood instantly changes and I feel better about everything. My sleep improves and my quality of life gets more focused and supercharged. I wake up. My heart rate is like a natural drug and it is part of what I would like to call a totally drug-free solution for depression.

So if you are going to the gym and never see or feel results, check your heart rate. Pay attention to the effort your body is actually putting into the work. Then increase your effort regardless of how fit you are today. That’s what counts. Stop looking at the person who has been coming into the gym for 5 hours every day wearing matching gym clothes they got for Christmas and the cement mixer sized container of protein shake they have waiting for them. You’ll demotivate yourself and never want to come back. Put on your headphones and listen to yourself. Then work it out. That 30 minutes at least every other day will change your life. In a couple of weeks after you start, you will be amazed at where you can go.

But you gotta first, open the damn door.

Part four of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Rules for a Happy Life: Eat Less

myplate_yellow_livetype copyMy go-to response to stress and depression is eating. I love sugar and I love carbs. It turns out that for people with depression in their families or who regularly experience depression, sugar is a source of craving. Too much sugar can jack your hormones and create more craving which plays right into addictive patterns of behavior. It’s the great proxy for people getting sober as well. When you stop drinking, your body consumes less sugar so you naturally it will seek out sugary foods. Talk to any recovering addict about ice cream and they will let out a knowing laugh.

Most of my calories have been from processed carbohydrates which turns into sugar at some point in the power plant of the human body. Since I was not exercising, that sugar turned into pounds and sent my already unstable emotional balance downhill. Moving helps this problem since by using up the energy found in the glucose stores in muscles, your body is processing all of the crap it would normally store. If you are a runner, you need this stuff because after about an hour or so, you use it all up. But if you were a slothful slug like me, all of that ice cream, potato chips, and pasta would just put on the pounds.

I used the idea of calorie cutting first to help with the weight loss process. But what it also does is helps me to build an awareness of what I am putting in my body. Carbs feel great for a little while, but they don’t satiate hunger for a very long time. Something like a can of Pringles (screw not eating just one, I eat the whole damn can every time) is 900 calories but will only help you feel full for like an hour. Ice cream is even worse. Protein rich and fiber rich foods on the other hand are filling, take a lot of work for the body to digest, and far more satiating. So if I am going to cut my gross calorie intake a day, it had better be with those kinds of foods. That means more things like veggies and legumes.

I used to be tired and sluggish after lunch. At the start of 2015 and all of the years I can remember before that, I would avoid meetings after lunch and would feel exhausted for the hours afterwards. I ate too much and was doing nothing to burn it off. That sluggishness is gone. Now, I snack more periodically throughout the day and my main meals I try to keep around 500 calories. If I go over the limit of around 1500-1800 net calories, it’s not a big deal, but I try not to slip all that much. I dropped the excess pounds and now sit at a very comfortable weight that gives me enough fuel for a long run without the need for gels and other crap – even though they help sometimes. For that I will intentionally jack my system with complex carbs but only with the intention of burning it off.

I use MyFitnessPal to track what I eat. It is a great tool to build awareness and to see what I am actually putting in my body. I can’t trust my eyes or stomach to tell me the truth. Only data can do that for me. This is not a diet. It is part of a lifestyle change. And it works.

Part three of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Rules for a Happy Life: Move

Stuart_Smalley

Stuart Smalley was wrong.

Thinking my way out of bad thinking does not work. I used to confuse action with things I could do with my mind alone. For the longest time if I had a bad thought I believed that all I had to do was pray or meditate and replace the bad thought with something good.

If I was starting in on the monologue of “I’m worthless, I’m stupid, I’m useless, I’m expendable,” I believed that all I had to do was reverse the spin in my mind with affirmations. “I’m valuable, I’m smart, I’m useful, I’m special.” Or I would pray, “Lord help me see my worth…blah blah blah…”

But I always felt absurd doing that and it never helped. I think if it helped, I would feel less absurd. No matter how much I worked on it, my thinking would come back to its pitiful default. Then I would feel worse because I couldn’t seem to do what worked for others.

If something isn’t really working, no matter how much people tell you that it should work, just stop. You need to do something else. So I stopped praying and self-affirming. I stopped reading about it or thinking about all of those things that I had been told by well-meaning people for whom these methods had worked. Sure, I could get temporary relief from prayer, but I would always return to the fundamental structures in my brain that were firing off these awful messages that were mentally and physically exhausting me on a daily basis. I refused to accept the belief that this sort of thinking is just “who I am.”

The solution was literally to get out of my head with physical movement. The problem is in my brain which is a mass of chemicals and energy and moving my body helps to change what is happening in there at the most fundamental levels. Just doing the Stuart Smalley thing by telling myself I am “good enough, smart enough, and people like me” was like trying to clean up a spill on the floor with a soaking wet towel. The towel might be fine, but I needed to wring that thing out before it would work. Moving my body is like wringing out that towel.

If I am bored and want a snack even if I am not hungry, I go for a walk. If I am feeling lonely or stressed that just means I have energy I need to release so I walk over to the YMCA and work it out on a treadmill or something more low impact if I am injured. In good weather I will just go for a run. Or I will take the dog for a long walk. This is basically a specific method of leaning-in to the problem. 100% of the time since I started this, whichever thoughts were bothering me or whatever emotions were starting to weigh me down disappeared.

By moving as a response to negative or harmful thinking, the thoughts evaporated almost instantly. The payoff is that I have effectively conditioned my mind to the degree that these thoughts, which I have been a victim to my entire life, are very rarely present anymore. Whatever was in me that responded to the environment with depressive thinking is basically gone.

By moving my body, I have evicted my depressive self from my mind. It has taken several months and practice not just every day, but every time the thoughts appear and as soon as they appear. Depressive thinking is tenacious. It is incredibly difficult at the beginning because it is so unconscious. It takes time and practice just to build awareness of when and under what circumstances it happens. But it gets easier because with consistent and equally tenacious practice, the thoughts begin to fade. And fade they have.

Now I move my body mainly because it’s fun and I feel good doing it, especially if I am having a bad day. I now schedule my days around it. I know that the more I do this, the more likely my depressed visitor will never want to stop by for a visit. I don’t even need the towel to clean up the mess because the mess no longer exists.

Part two of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Rules for a Happy Life: Lean In

fish-355349_960_720Walter Bradford Cannon was a physiologist born in the late 19th century and made waves in the early 20th century when he observed the reactions of animals to high stress situations. What he found is that when animals were presented with stressful environmental stimuli, their autonomic nervous systems combined with adrenaline production to produce a response to escape the danger or to contest it. This is now called the “fight or flight” response in pop psychology.

The central cause of suffering from the Buddhist perspective is attachment. If we become attached to things in our experience too tightly, we are invariably setting ourselves up to experience pain at some point. Attachment presupposes that whatever we experience or possess will stick around forever. But this belief is false. Nothing is permanent and everything that we can experience in this life will eventually go away.

How are these two ideas related? Pema Chödrön teaches about attachment in terms of what is called shenpa. She describes the feeling of attachment as “being hooked.” Think about this like when you get an itch on your skin. It is automatic that you will scratch it with the hope that it will go away. Scratching has the expected result that relief will come soon. If you have ever had a cast and an itch underneath, you may have tried the old trick of bending a wire hanger to get underneath. There are few things that feel quite as pleasurable.

Life has may kinds of itches that we automatically try to scratch in order for the feeling to go away. We often “scratch” by doing what is easy or pleasurable to flee what is unpleasant – have a drink, eat ice cream, watch a movie, go for a walk, go shopping. These are avoidance behaviors that are like “flight” responses. When we get that pit feeling in the gut and the heart races while our thoughts start to get rapid and jumbled, we are hooked. Think about the last time you could not fall asleep because you kept replaying a problem in your life.

I have had a flight response to discomfort for as long as I can remember. A few years ago I read Chödrön’s description of shenpa and I saw myself in it. I was like a fish who had been nibbling on a snack underwater only to have the line snap taught in my mouth and the hook jam under my lip. Rather than relax with it and let go, I would fight the hook doing anything to get away from it. This always made my body and mind feel worse. Like the fish fighting the hook, it would only get deeper and more painful.

Somehow my memory of the misery I created through this response was so short I would do the same thing every time. Psychologist George Kelly (1955), called a disorder “any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation” (Kelly, 1955, p. 831).* My go-to avoidance therapy for many years was drinking. That never worked very well. No matter how many times I avoided the uncomfortable conversation, paying those bills, or dong those tasks the problems still sat there and only got worse as time went on.

The drinking eventually stopped, but the escapism did not. I found that even after I had resolved one set of escape responses, I had replaced them with a different set. Eating sugary snacks, binge-watching TV, playing mindless games on my phone, over-using Facebook and Twitter, etc. became a new set of avoidance behaviors. Whatever I was avoiding that gave me that initial unpleasant sensation of being “hooked” was gone, but I kept doing the same things to escape the feeling.

The solution is to lean-in to that discomfort rather than to run from it. Make the phone call, send the email, have the conversation, make the payment, complete the workout, eat an apple with a big glass of water instead of that big bowl of delicious chocolate ice cream, don’t buy the thing. Leaning-in took a massive amount of energy when I started to do it. But it wasn’t a palpable, physical kind of energy. It was a mental exertion that felt like pulling two electromagnets apart that are desperate to make contact. Once I was aware of that connection about to happen, I would mentally pull them apart by doing the thing I was avoiding. To fix my anxiety, I had to change my behaviors.

This is the basic way that I have been rewiring my brain for the past several months. When I start the self-talk of “I don’t want to do that right now, maybe tomorrow,” I am creating an association of doing whatever it is right then to fight against the years I have conditioned myself to avoid it with something else. I did not want to write this post right now because I did not think I had much to say about it. I did it anyway. I did not want to do pushups today – another small, physical goal I have for myself. I cranked out 86 anyway. And I did both of these things at the moment that my desire to avoid them was at its most intense. Achievement unlocked.

If it’s too big of a deal to complete right at that moment, that’s the time to set a goal, plan a few achievable steps to get there, and then complete that first step immediately. Delaying is another way of avoiding and it just feeds the flight response letting that shenpa hook dig a bit deeper. To change my thinking and be happy, I have to act right now.

Lean-in. Do something. Feel better.

*The statement “Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is not from Einstein, nor is it from Benjamin Franklin. It may be actually a modification of Cannon’s quote. A picture of Einstein does not validate that he actually said it!

Source Cited

Kelly, G.A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. New York: Norton (republished by Routledge, 1991).

Part one of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.

Rules for a Happy Life (And How to Shop for Self-Help)

good habitsLast year I began a life re-boot. I had been through a lot of changes in the past few years. Some of these were for the better, and some just sucked. I had quit drinking, been to therapy, was faithfully taking three psychotropic meds to balance my brain chemistry, and found a group of friends to help me make useful changes. But I was stagnating and sluggish. So I had a choice. Give in to what I was feeling, or do something to change it. I went with the latter. I weaned myself off the meds slowly and started to feel better, but I knew I needed to take other action so I would not end up where I was when I literally fell apart several years before. (If you are on meds, don’t just go off them. Talk to your doc before you change anything. Your life depends on that talk.)

No fan of self-help books, I took a dip in that area of the bookstore anyway. The thing with self-help books is that most people will peruse them and read them only to be told that whatever they are feeling is perfectly normal and ok and that all they need to do is think positive and great things will happen. While it’s true that positive thinking can help, just feeding yourself saccharine affirmations when you feel like shit is putting a band-aid on a festering boil. To make a real change you need to lance that thing, pour some alcohol over it, get your stitches, and work on the thing that caused it so it doesn’t happen again. Better to have a few hours of pain and a scar than a wound that will never go away and will likely only get worse when things get rough again. I was through wallowing in my problems.

But I found a book that actually helped. I knew it was more or less the real deal because it met my criteria:

  1. It needs to be based in accredited clinical research. This can get rid of most of the bullshit people are trying to sell you. (For example, there is no science to support the claim that so-called “cleansing diets” actually cleanse anything at all. And I love juicing, too.) Accredited means that the body sponsoring the research has someone watching them to ensure the process is ethical and reliable. The best spot where that happens is through research universities.
  2. If it presents the proposed solutions as “easy” or “simple,” it is lying. Change is hard. Changing one’s habits takes discipline, time, and practice. Living well is like learning to play a musical instrument. I don’t care what your natural predispositions are to be an awesome guitarist, you have got to practice. More than that, you have to practice the right way by working on specific techniques and skills to make you a better player. Being happy is no different than this. You can’t expect to be happy. You need to learn specific skills that work for you and then you need to practice them every day and in situations that make you uncomfortable.
  3. It has to be simple. Don’t confuse simple with easy. E=mc 2 is simple. But it is not easy. If you have heard of Occam’s Razor in science, that’s what I am think about with simple. Great theories are concise and simple, but they explain a lot of phenomena and can do so in very complex ways. And most importantly, they are testable. If I can’t work through this self-help program and test the results empirically, it’s useless.

+-+643487111_140The book I found was You Are Not Your Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. They are researchers at UCLA and have used this method with success in OCD patients. The concept is called self-directed neuroplasticity. The basic premise is that you can not only control your thinking, but by controlling that thinking you can change how your thinking works. One example is to label as false all of those nasty messages we tend to tell ourselves and automatically accept as true. The task is to figure out why those messages might be there, under what conditions they are most likely to pop up, and then how to change our response when they do come up. The four steps are to relabel, reframe, refocus, and revalue. So if I have a nasty thought like “God you’re an idiot,” what I will do is say “That’s not true” (relabel); then say, “Shut the fuck up you bastard,” to myself (reframe); I will respond by doing something like going for a walk or even focusing on the activity that I am avoiding that is sending me that message (refocus); and finally accept that my thoughts were never really a big deal (revalue). This is mindfulness training with a systematic process that works.

Through my practice of these steps I started running and changed my habits with just about everything including what, when, and how much I eat  and sleep. My thinking is healthier and I now see depressive or self-loathing thoughts as this little alien in my brain that has no business living there. Very liberating. But it took practice and hard work. And it still takes practice and hard work.

Out of this experience, I have started coming up with little rules that have helped me and continue to help me on a daily basis if I practice them.

  1. Lean-in to what’s uncomfortable. When I don’t want to do it and start procrastinating, do it any way. The hardest part is the first 10 seconds. You gotta focus and punch through that wall.
  2. When my mind starts to wander, I need to move my body. The brain basically runs on sugar. If you are focused on something for a long time, you use up the brain’s fuel and get sluggish. That’s normal. If I am bored or anxious I see that as energy in my system that has nowhere to go. Either way, moving my body gives my brain a break and restores its energy load while expending excess energy the rest of my body is jacking up my system with.
  3. Eat fewer calories. This keeps me from being sluggish, keeps my gut happy, and keeps off the pounds. Energy and self-image both improve.
  4. Exercise every day. This is about heart rate. I feel better if I get my heart rate up over 70% of maximum for at least a sustained 30 minutes. This changes my body and changes how well my brain works.
  5. Sleep. At least 7 solid hours a night. If I am using my body that much, it needs to heal. Sleep does that.

Over the next few posts I am going to take each of these rules and explain how I do it and how I got started. I don’t know what will work for you, but these sure as hell work for me. These steps have proven to be better for my mental health than any combination of prescriptions or therapy than I have ever tried.

If you are interested in what self-directed neuroplasticity is all about, do watch Jeffrey Schwartz’s presentation on the science behind the practice.