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The Equation of Mental Health and Sleep

5 min read

A watercolor of a man in bed not sleeping

"There's not enough time in the day." Whether you live paycheck-to-paycheck or comfortably,the demand for your time is ceaseless. Certainly the phrase, "I'll sleep when I'm dead." must be famous last words. Sleep is important and deeply impacted by our mental wellness.

Show Your Work

Many people lucky enough to be working during the pandemic are working from home. While there are some "productivity gurus" who believe the gig economy is a step toward a future where people work when they want to, the reality seems to be that we are working all the time. My old mantra, "you're not enough," has driven me to burnout on many occasions. This "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" shame that has been passed down through generations eradicates sleep. My bed is in the same space as work. So, what's another 10 minutes, an hour or 3 hours of work? In addition to the self-shaming that many of us inflict, we now live in a world where corporate masters are monitoring our work from home with invasive technology. My anxiety loves this idea enough to disrupt my focus, day and night.

Story Problems

Personally, I have had as much work as I have had sleep, which is not a lot. That anxiety I spoke of fires up before I have even applied for work or pitched a story. It is so demoralizing that when I do successfully complete an application or a pitch I feel like Atlas and think Sisyphus is an amateur with his boulder. Mostly, I spend my evenings in bed looking back at the "time I have wasted" being a jobless loser and what a burden I am to myself and those around me. Self comparison pops in to tell me what my successful friends are doing and sadness follows behind to shove me deeper into the abyss. The next morning, devoid of sleep, I lack any self-confidence to find work. If I "pull myself up by my bootstraps," I have difficulty focusing and planning because of the lack of rest.

If I set aside the all or nothing thinking and admit that situation cannot happen every day, there is still a challenge with sleep. When I am working so very hard to prove myself to others and burning out, I experience Bedtime Procrastination. Am I too wound up to sleep or do I feel that I am owed more time in the day because I worked so hard? When that study about Bedtime Procrastination hit Chinese social networks, the word "revenge" was added to the beginning of the phrase. Revenge Bedtime Procrastination is staying up past your intended bedtime for some self-care. Me time is important, but so is sleep.

Negative Integers

Depression and anxiety are bedfellows. This is a chicken and egg situation as well-- being anxious could lead me to a depressive state or I could feel anxious about rebooting after a period of depression. One of the stigmas about depression is around sleeping all the time. Sometimes a lack of productivity is seen as a lack of motivation. And even if one isn't sleeping all day, stagnation is discredited by those who do not understand. We are not unmotivated, those of us in depression are frequently stuck. We are frozen from anxiety. The realization of our condition is essential to recovery, but also a hindrance. The weight of the time we lost during our crash is overwhelming. It feeds the depression. It keeps us up at night.

In the same way that the loss of someone close to us can be exhausting, ruminating on your mental health and comparing yourself to others is debilitating. Whether it disrupts sleep with obsessive thoughts, a need to make up for lost time, or revenge bedtime procrastination we despair. Without sleep, we lose even more of the resilience that aids us to live with depression and anxiety. I haven't even touched on medications, many of which affect sleep. You cannot seem to get enough sleep or no sleep at all with many of the SSRI and SNRI meds.

Solve for Why

Some neurologists theorize that our strange dreams are the brain's way of processing the memories of the day. It is possible that we may be moving short-term memories into long-term storage. Without sleep and the dreams do memories get stuck in the short-term space, a place where we are always thinking of them? Trauma has been shown to inhibit the hippocampus from converting memories. This is why flashbacks occur in many people with PTSD, the memory is still as fresh as the day it happened.

Imagine my frustration from lack of sleep being used to shame myself to going to bed early. You are a loser and everyone knows it. Why can't you sleep? What else are you going to do? You are a talentless burden to your family and friends. You should have found a job today. You should have cleaned the house. You should have got your Masters. You should have invested money. You should have died, not your father. You should... It is hard to sleep when a critic with a megaphone can take any of your thoughts and twist them into pain.

There are many ways to improve sleep. Changes in diet, medication, and activities can help. All of those are easier said than done. Meditation has worked in the past. Talk therapy is useful and EMDR therapy can aid in moving those memories to long-term storage. However, I am beginning to think acceptance is also needed. This is a moment of difficulty. Difficulty is part of every human life. May I be kind to myself in this moment and give myself the compassion I need.

A Break in a Pattern is Not Always a Break in Habit

5 min read

hand drawn pattern in ink

Habit is comfort. It is predictable and saves us from unfamilair emotions. These patterns can be complex and often work at a subconscious level. A break in the pattern doesn't always guarantee freedom from the habit. It is not a failure, this is an opportunity to be kind and compassionate to ourselves.

I've started knitting as a mindfulness practice and similar to painting, it is nice to work with my hands. When I drop a stitch and don't notice, it creates a hole in the work. Yet, the work goes on. When you catch your finished sweater or blanket on something sharp there is a danger of unraveling. The pattern breaks down because the yarn has been cut. In the case of a missed stitch the yarn continues along the pattern, but is unbroken. This is often the case when we're trying to change personal behaviors.

If I cannot sleep at night, exhaustion finally takes me in the early hours of the morning and I may not get up until after noon. Half the day is gone, which frustrates me and I begin to feel like a failure before I've started. I have less energy and I'm groggy. I reach for junk food for a quick pick me up, but it just makes me feel worse. By the end of the day, I have the urge to stay up late and get something accomplished because I've spent the day unproductively. If I get a good night's sleep, I break the pattern, right? Not necessarily. The yarn can continue to tighten around me even if I sleep well. It's called habit for a reason. I only have to jump into the pattern anywere. A good night's sleep and a productive morning would be great. Yet, I can get in my head and think it is not enough. Now, I lose energy, reach for junk food, and I'm back into the self-loathing loop.

Self help books and programs like C.B.T. don't really talk about this enough, in my opinion. These resources are focused on encouragement, but the reality is that change takes time. The advice offered is still useful, but I have found that I am quick to dismiss those things that "don't work as advertised." These programs and books are often presented in "how to" steps and when step one is making a goal to break your current pattern, I am done before I begin because the pattern remains. This is evidence to my critical mind that the program doesn't work.

The motivation to change, the personal will that sought out the the book or resource is not always enough. Sometimes I wonder if authors of self-help books believe it is. The irony that I'm using the phrase "not enough" has not been lost on me. I am not seeking to blame the authors and creators of the resources I've found. Instead, I want to caution those of you reading my blog. Change is possible, but instant and perfect change is not.

To me, it feels like I've written over and over about getting caught up in a self-critical loop. I am not enough. I don't make enough money. I don't work hard enough. I'm not a good enough son, sibling, friend, or husband. So, I read a book and enter some programs to get better. Things improve and then I relapse. The program and book are probably great, but I am not enough. The pattern of self-doubt is difficult to unravel. 

Furthermore, this default method of thinking doesn't allow me to see when things improved. Biologically, we remember the "bad" things to protect ourselves. This scar is a reminder not to get near that predator animal. However, I did write "things improve" above. I cannot take that back. I mean I could go up there and erase it, but the point is that there is some sign that I am able to do this. A key to breaking from the habit, or pattern, is likely self-compassion.

When I look back, I think one of my most successful streaks was one where I was working toward compassion. I was listening to mindful driving guided recordings that encouraged me to let other cars into the traffic and remember that there are people like me in those vehicles. Maybe that person is having a family emergency and that's why they are driving aggressive. Did they lose their job? Are they distracted on their phone, or with the radio because they're trying to avoid pain, like me? These things that can usually make me feel uncomfortable or angry are actually opportunities for gratitude. The homeless man on the street who is aggressively asking for money and scaring people is suffering. If I am not ready to see that and help, I can be grateful that I have a home.

Trying to be compassionate to others, complete strangers, was my way of finding some compassion for myself. I am also a human who is suffering. I'm not sure when I stopped working on this goal. I suppose that's in the past now. Today, I can try to move forward compassionately. I may not free myself from the pattern today, but what I need when I realize I am still in the loop is love. Something I have been keeping inside me this past week is a phrase I heard. It's not elequent, but every act is an act of love, or a cry for love. If I feel like a failure today, I'm looking for love. If I cannot get that from myself, I can always ask those around me. Hold onto your supports and hold yourselves.

Emotions and the Inner Child Meditation

macro image of a dandelion

 

I've only found a few meditations on healing the inner child on Insight Timer. None of them really got me where I needed to be, so I made my own.

Ever have a dream or nightmare that was so real that you woke up feeling like the events actually transpired? Emotions are very powerful and completely disconnected from that part of our mind that keeps time. So, I wake up angry from a dream argument. I am afraid of the nightmare and cannot return to sleep. I am on edge, stressed about money because I dreamed that I made a bad investment. In our day-to-day lives we can tap into emotions from the past and not even know it. Every time you meet someone with cancer you may start to replay the emotions from the loss of a loved one with cancer.

Imagine one side of your brain handles logic and rational thought-- math and time. The other side is the emotions. What you feel is happening right now, not in the past. A memory from the past may have triggered the emotions, but they are happening in that moment of meeting another person with cancer. I believe this is an important distinction because we spend so much time avoiding emotions. It's easy to think, "I shouldn't be so upset right now, my father passed away years ago." A thought like that is bottling the emotions up. It is telling myself, "I should not feel this way. It is wrong." However, we cannot bottle emotions away. Eventually they return. Instead, we need to sit with them. We need to feel them. Processing emotions is nothing more than being with them. They are a part of being human.

Our rules for living in this world are developed as a child. You touch a hot stove at age three, you know to never ever do that again. If your mother sent your brothers outside to play while you did housework and helped her with meals so you could learn to be a good housewife, how does that affect you as a child? Perhaps, you think it is bullshit today, but still feel guilt or shame at the thought of asking for help with the housework? Maybe helping your mom was a pleasure. Maybe it didn't affect you adversely. We're all individuals.

While that time of child development is important, we can also experience things as an adult that leave a lasting affect. The example of loss I used above is one such event that can produce lasting emotions that we relive subconsciously. Despite the title, my hope is that the following meditation allows myself and you to explore whatever comes up, whether it is from childhood or adulthood. Do the best that you can. This is difficult work. Be kind to yourself.

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Much <3

The Calendar, The Depression, And The Golem

6 min read

A self-portrait of myself reaching up from the water. I may be drowning.

Depression.

I penciled it in for the morning.

I would guess this happened because I was preparing for the psychiatry appointment I had scheduled in the middle of the day.

It was Monday. The world around me goes back to work to bring home the bacon, scramble for promotions, and attain status. I tried to make a go of it, dressing to take my partner to work and walk the dog. The winter bit at me while on the stroll. I had good company, though. The dog who was also unemployed. Once home, I tried to barricade myself from the depression with chocolate. Or, was that choice because of my mental health? It's never clear in the fog of self doubt.

Bojack Horseman was falling into a well worn pattern of denial on the television. His issue was apparent to me at the time, yet my own denial was miles away from my thoughts. The clock refused to slow and depression finally stepped aside.

I blocked time off in the afternoon for anxiety. I should leave soon, or I will miss my psychiatry appointment. I waited until the last possible moment to go out the door. Swimming in questions that the doctor may ask of me, I schedule some shame. Why can't I ask myself these questions? What is wrong with me? Now, I will be late.

The appointment is attended by someone else. He exists outside the fog. In the safe space of the doctor's office, he speaks of the challenges of living with me. I envy him. He tells the doctor that he thinks he might not be real. He fears his confidence and self-control is an illusion. As if I was smart enough to be a double agent and fool both him and the doctor. No, his abilities are real. Though, I fear he may just be a golem I constructed to protect me from further hurt.

The appointment behind us, I make time for escapism. The positive words from the doctor and my other are too difficult to digest. I head for some retail therapy. I feel like I'm part of the real world now. Which of these things can bring me status? Of course, I'm shopping in a surplus store and the liquidation outlet next door. It's a punishment of sorts. I am not really part of the working world. I don't deserve nice things.

Exhaustion.

It's not on the calendar.

The exhaustion has no right to be there. I don't work like others. How could I be tired from talking about, and ignoring, my emotions? Yet, it comes down on me like the gravity of a star. Ignoring the pull, I work on laundry and setup the new television antenna I purchased earlier.

The scheduled day is over. Anxiety about tomorrow sits down to read me a bed time story, but I'm too tired. Instead, I read some fiction because reading is perceived as an intelligent past time. I like reading as well. Both reasons can be valid, but I want to focus on the first to get another hit of shame. After closing the book, I drift nowhere in particular. I can't tell if the fog is lifting or if I am sinking.

My partner stirs. The Sandman is held hostage by the stress of her Monday. My guilt and anxiety leap into action to soothe her. To be fair, they nudged me awake and I genuinely enjoyed trying to help her rest by telling her a story.

It's midnight. She is asleep and I am now alone with shame and depression. She works so hard and what do I do? I saw the psychiatrist today. It's been a year. I'm still here. I'm still failing. What happened to my exhaustion is unclear.

The Fellow At The Appointment

He's here in the dark, watching me write this. The blackness of the night swallows his words as if he is underwater. He seems to want to remind me something said at the appointment. Was it him or the doctor? What did they say? I'm sorry, I don't understand. I'm tired. He is not so easily deterred. He reminds me that earlier in the evening my partner said she appreciates everything I do for her. She told me that every time work gets stressful she sees me step up to take care of her.

The memory surfaces. It was him. At the appointment, he said something about taking control. "I don't have to be a passenger or a victim. I can take some responsibility here. I can make change." We talked about art with the doctor. The perfectionist that once shared head space with us is now incredibly quiet when we create art. In fact, I think my golem stepped aside as I explained to the doctor that I enjoy the process of painting and creating. The end product, well it's not a product. The finished work is always a delightful surprise now that perfection is no longer calling the shots. The doctor calls this progress. I realize that I haven't been writing or painting lately because I've been punishing myself instead of enjoying my own company.

Strange, I switched to saying "we" in the above paragraph. Indeed, I didn't need my golem to protect me during the Monday appointment. There's a sense I am unfamiliar with in my chest. I may be slightly proud that progress can be seen. I'm cautious because I am more comfortable in the known world of disappointment and depression. It's predictable here in negativity. He murmurs under the water, "art." Immediately, I understand. Perhaps it is good to be cautious about progress because like art, my life is not about a final product. It's the journey. It's the process where I can find balance and maybe some happiness.

Curious. I thought my golem was a double agent working for my depression. "I'm good," he tells those around me. "No need to worry or continue discussing my emotions." However at 12:44am, he seems to be genuinely helpful.

Technically, it's now Tuesday. I'm too tired to schedule any more introspection. I will try to sleep again. Good night.

Couldn't sleep so I decided to workout. I still hate planks. Will this ever change?