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Category Archives: Diet and Exercise

(Mental Health) How to Help Yourself

Myth 150If I could have readers leave the Desk at the end of the month with only one new piece of information, it’s that mental illnesses are actual, physical ailments in the brain. While the way we think and perceive has something to do with how the illnesses are expressed, the fact remains that most conditions come down to processes in the brain working in ways that cause significant suffering. For folks like me, these ailments are going to stick around for a while; that means one of the best things we can do for ourselves is develop coping mechanisms and routines that help us have as few bad days as possible. Now that I’ve talked at length about the conditions I have, I’d like to talk about a few of the things I’ve learned to do that help me most.

Before that, though, I do want to make a few disclaimers. First of all I’m not a licensed professional and none of the advice you find here should be taken as gospel; feel free to discard any or all of this if your psychiatrist or psychologist tells you different. Second, this shouldn’t be viewed as the equivalent of professional help. If you have (or think you have) a mental illness, the best course of action is seeking professional treatment if at all possible. Finally, taking these steps won’t guarantee that you’ll never have issues with your mental illness. I still have bad days and I still fall into depressive episodes myself. Hopefully, though, these can help shallow out the emotional valleys and make it easier to recover from them.

THE BORING STUFF

Sleep. Sleep has been the most important thing for me to get under control for my mental health. Back in college during my worst periods I had functionally no schedule for sleep; I would instead spend as much time as possible in my dorm’s computer labs seeking out some kind of human connection to make myself feel better. But the lack of consistent sleep made it so hard to regulate my emotions, pay attention in class, or absorb the day-to-day stresses that come with a full courseload.

While the exact function of sleep is not entirely understood, we do know that a number of important “brain maintenance” processes happen during rest. For those of us who have problems with brain function, a consistent sleep schedule is one of the easiest ways we can help our brain manage what it can. Our internal clocks are different, and for those of us working jobs with variable schedules or have some other function that doesn’t let us adopt a stable routine, it might not be possible to set a consistent bedtime for, say 10 PM – 6 AM. Do what you can, but do something; seven or eight hours of sleep a night are a must before just about anything else.

Diet. Again, I know that this is some loaded advice. There are so many folks who are simply unable to eat well because they can’t afford or find fresh produce, don’t have the time or will to cook for themselves, or have other legitimate reasons preventing them from making big changes to their diet. I get it; I’m not going to ask you to go vegan or only buy organic. But small changes to your diet that recenter focus on nutrients that help your body function better can be made. A good rule of thumb is the classic quote from food writer Michael Pollan: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”

At minimum, I’d recommend eating less salt, sugar and processed foods; drinking fewer sodas and juices (even diet and sugar-free versions); eating more lean meats and whole grains; drinking more water and tea. Most carb-heavy processed foods tend to convert into sugars within our bodies (at least, to my understandings) and the simpler or more processed the carb, the faster that process tends to be. In the United States we’re all about our processed carbs, and breaking away from them can feel like swimming upstream. It’s hard, I know. But if you can have fruits, vegetables and lean meats — have as much of them as possible.

Exercise. Exerting ourselves can often trigger the body into releasing dopamine, endocannibanoids and other chemicals that lift our mood, and the best part about exercise is that there’s a near-limitless variety of things we can do to work ourselves out. There’s weight training, sure; but there’s also running, sports like basketball or soccer, yoga or tai chi, cleaning the house, or walking along a favorite trail. In addition to the benefits of regular exercise, getting outdoors also helps our bodies to make Vitamin D (which helps build our bones and protects against cancer) as well as serotonin (one of those neurotransmitters I’ve been talking about).

Personally, I love running, but the spirit might move you to try something different. I understand how hard it can be to make time for regular exercise — I still struggle with it myself. But taking even ten minutes a day to walk around the block during the day can help lift your mood and give yourself more energy.

Getting more sleep, eating better food, and developing a regular exercise routine are all suggestions that any of us who’ve gotten professional help for our mental illnesses have heard time and time and time again — but there’s a reason for that. Taking care of our most basic needs is incredibly important. Not only does it help our body develop the tools it needs to manage the imbalances in our brain, but it also encourages us to change our relationship with ourselves. I’ve found that making sure I eat, sleep and move well helps me to think of myself as someone worth caring for and also helps to make me more sensitive to those needs. I have a better gauge for when I’m hungry, or really need sleep.

LESS BORING STUFF

Meditation. There are a lot of misconceptions about what meditation is, and that might be because everyone who practices it has a slightly different concept of what it is. In popular culture, meditation is the emptying of mind and communion with everything around you in the present moment; it’s an act of peaceful enlightenment that you have to do perfectly the first time you do it or you just can’t.

I’m here to tell you that meditation is messy and disorganized. I’ve meditated (almost) every day for seven years or so now, and most days are still a struggle against “monkey mind”. Meditation is not the mechanism we use to force ourselves into mindfulness and peace; it’s the mechanism we use to watch and accept our own thoughts as they arise.

When I sit on the meditation bench, I replay past arguments I’ve had with people; I think about the many mistakes I’ve made; depressed and obsessive thoughts pop up all the time. That’s completely fine — that’s what I’m on the bench for. However, so many of us believe that the thoughts or feelings we have are inherently bad and meditation is the way we rid ourselves of these thoughts. That’s not the case: these thoughts and feelings are natural, and it’s OK to accept that we have them. Acceptance of these difficult emotions and the thoughts they’re associated with is the first step we need to take in order to make peace with them.

Meditation as a daily practice allows us to gain better insights into the deeper layers within our thought process. We might notice, for example, that the same kinds of situations trigger a specific memory or regret; or we might notice that there’s a common thread in the things that make us angry or sad. If we accept this, we can then explore these insights with a gentle and compassionate curiosity. Perhaps, in time, we can even resolve the things that cause us suffering.

That definitely takes work, persistence, and faith in the process. But it’s been worth it to me. Due to my meditation practice, I have a much better understanding of when I’m in a depression or particularly rough bit of anxiety; that allows me to handle myself better when I’m in those spaces so I’m not as likely to do something that I’d later regret. That alone makes the depressions easier to deal with.

Making a care packet. One of the things that I like to do for myself when I’m feeling fairly well is making a “care package” for a future version of myself struggling through a bad depression or anxiety day. This can include one package of my favorite candy, a story or novel that I love, a playlist that lets me “lean in” to that feeling of sadness and turn it into a cathartic experience, or a Snuggie, or a really sweet letter or gift from a friend. Your mileage may vary with this, of course, but now that I can somewhat anticipate when I’m hitting a downward spiral I can look into the small things I’ve left myself to feel better and use them.

Of course, the things in your care packet don’t have to be physical objects: it could be permission to cancel a social engagement without feeling guilty, or a day to binge-watch a show in your pajamas. The main idea is to accept that there will be moments where despite your best efforts you hit a rough patch, and to do little things in advance that will help your future self ride out those times. In addition to giving yourself presents, it also helps retrain your brain to treat yourself a bit more kindly and to recognize that these “flare-ups” aren’t your fault. Sometimes they happen, and it’s important to be kind to yourself when they do.

Engage and learn. For most of us with mental illnesses, it can feel like we’re the only people who have this messed up thing where our brains lie to us about how the world works every once in a while. The terrible thoughts, the embarrassing emotions, the situations that are surprisingly common for those of us with deep depressive episodes — all of these can make us feel alienated and broken beyond the possibility of repair. The stigma that surrounds these illnesses can make it hard to open up about them, to share experiences even with other people we know going through the same thing.

That’s why learning as much as we can about our conditions and engaging with others who are also coping with them can be so important. The messed up things we do or think at our worst might be a fairly common experience; or we might, through the course of consoling a fellow sufferer, learn how to be gentler with ourselves dealing with a similar problem. There are a large number of online resources for depression, anxiety, and ADHD — even grouped by location, background, or lifestyle. The Internet is a wonderful gift here, in that it’s given us the capability to share our struggles in ways we’ve never been able to before. It might help knowing more about what you’re going through, and that you’re not the only one going through it.

These are some of the things that have helped me build better coping strategies and resilience against my mental illness. I sincerely hope they help a few of you out there, as well.

 

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(Mental Health) My Executive Function

Myth 150Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a bit of a misnomer; I think the name is a big reason why ADHD is so poorly understood and controversial as a mental illness. Those of us with the disorder aren’t necessarily hyperactive, and it isn’t always characterized by a deficit in attention. We aren’t bouncing off the walls from one thing to another, never able to finish a project because we have so much energy to burn off and no way to actually direct it. I mean, it’s partially true — but never in the way that people unfamiliar with the disease or its critics imagine it to be. ADHD is, like almost all other mental illnesses, a fairly complex disorder that can have a variety of expressions.

Also like so many other mental illnesses, the exact cause and nature of ADHD is poorly understood. However, there’s been a lot of research for it possibly because it’s such a controversial subject, with a number of scientists spearheading research to better classify it. We do know that ADHD expresses itself differently in children than it does in adults, primarily because undiagnosed children develop internalization mechanisms in order to “hide” symptoms, cope with them in increasingly complex social or professional environments, and attempt to deal with the lack of support or understanding for their difficulties.

We do know that ADHD is primarily a dysfunction of the parts of the brain that govern executive function, which leads to problems sustaining attention, being organized, and procrastinating. It affects planning, prioritization, time management, impulse control, decision making and mood regulation. In children, this can look like they’re incredibly hyperactive and impulsive, with a tendency to lash out and ignore instruction. In adults, this often looks like someone who is a ‘space cadet’ — lazy and unfocused with no capability of remembering the things they need to.

In any case, it’s generally accepted that the frontal lobes in the brain handle executive functioning. While there may be differences in the structure or volume of brain matter in this region, there might also be really hyperactive dopamine and norepinephrine reuptake mechanisms there. Since those neurotransmitters are very important for brain function in these regions, this can result in the neurons in that part of the brain working “sluggishly” because there simply aren’t enough chemicals within the synapses needed to promote enough electrical activity. This is why, paradoxically, stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin work so well. They increase the level of dopamine and adrenaline (epinephrine) in the brain. It’s also why folks with ADHD tend to seek out constant stimulation; it’s the brain trying hard to get its fix.

People with ADHD tend to have other mental illnesses, either as the direct result of the physical/chemical issues within the brain or due to the struggle to understand and cope with the illness. Depression and other mood disorders, anxiety disorder, low self-esteem and other issues all tend to pop up; I know for the longest time, before my diagnosis, I thought I was simply broken. I couldn’t make my brain do the things I know it needed to, and my focus would just slide off a task that I knew would require sustained, intense effort. This has been the case ever since I entered high school, to be honest — it was then that I realized I couldn’t simply coast through lessons, but I had never learned how to actually work for the consistently high grades I had gotten before. It was a pretty hard crash, and I never managed to recover from it.

For me, ADHD expresses itself in the form of intense procrastination on projects that I know will be difficult and require sustained focus, detailed effort and a lot of moving pieces. The kinds of stories I like to write are the worst for this, and I genuinely wish I could adopt a style closer to, say, Vonnegut or Douglas Adams or Charlie Jane Adams. But stories with tightly-written plots and thoughtful, nuanced takes on difficult themes often require great care, and I so badly want to make sure that I’m treating these subjects with the mindfulness they require. It’s been a great struggle to fight through a brain that simply doesn’t have the equipment to be as organized and detail-oriented as it needs to be.

It took me a long while to come to grips with the possibility that I had ADHD, mostly because of the stigma and controversy that exists in the media. There’s a steady diet of hot takes out there suggesting it’s a made-up disease, or that it’s especially overdiagnosed in children who are just being regular kids, or that drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are abused by people who are looking to stay up all night and crush that exam or work project.

There’s also a heavy stigma around the use of Adderall. Do you remember that (likely doctored) Calvin and Hobbes comic where Calvin is prescribed medication and it forces him to ignore Hobbes? I’m not going to lie, that scared the shit out of me — the thought that my ability to daydream, to be creative, would have to be sacrificed in order to be productive haunted me for a long time.

calvinhobbes

Seriously, this is nightmare fuel.

But now, of course, I know that’s a false dichotomy. ADHD actually hinders your ability to be creative; if you’re like me, you get hyperfocused on one aspect of the story and (because of my anxiety disorder) fall into a loop where you feel you need to rewrite again and again and again before you’re allowed to move on to the next aspect. Then, you get burned out or distracted and end up with three paragraphs that have been polished to within an inch of their lives.

Medication is absolutely a viable option for treating ADHD, especially in adults, but it’s only one avenue of treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other techniques are needed in order to unlearn all the bad habits that our own stumbling about to deal with our brains might have introduced. It can also give us a greater understanding of our individual challenges with ADHD and offer ways to cope with them.

Now that I know that my executive function is impaired and that makes it really difficult for me to stay on task, resist distractions, stay organized and deal with my impulses in a healthy manner, I’ve taken steps to address those. Developing routines that teach you how to consciously do what many others can do in their own heads has been a lifesaver; it’s how I make sure I take my medication, meditate, feed and water my rabbit; it’s how I make sure I’ve broken down projects into bite-sized chunks that I can actually handle one at a time; it’s how I make sure I write down just about everything I need to remember and keep on top of my to-do list. It’s still a struggle to get things done, but I’m no longer wondering why things are so hard or what’s wrong with me. There’s nothing “wrong” with me; my brain works differently from most and while that offers certain challenges it also opens up a lot of benefits too.

Hyper-focus, for example, is a tremendous tool. I know that if I’m emotionally invested in something or fascinated on a certain level it’s a lot easier for me to enter a state of flow where that’s all there is in the world. If I can find a way to access that feeling for a certain project, it’s much easier for me to devote a significant chunk of time to it. Learning how to be organized and mindful is also a strange fringe benefit, but it’s served me well. My Bullet Journal and I are super-best-friends, and the organization, mindfulness and productivity it has brought me feels so much sweeter because it’s been so hard won.

It’s also enabled me to recognize problems with executive function in other people. If someone can never seem to be on time, or forget things if they don’t write them down, or constantly misplace things, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much as it used to. Understanding myself and how I work allows me to be more compassionate towards the difficulties that other people face. It’s so very hard to be an adult, where it feels like you’re juggling balls and spinning plates all the time, and people only notice the kind of job you’re doing when something goes crashing to the ground. All of us are trying to keep too many things in our heads at once; it’s kind of a blessing to know how impossible this is and stop trying.

Symptoms and issues of ADHD can happen to anyone, but that doesn’t mean that ADHD isn’t a “real” illness. Multiple symptoms have to be present for a long time in order to be diagnosed, and medication can also have a weird ‘calming’ effect. For example, meditation and Adderall enables me to focus much more easily than I would be able to otherwise and I’m much more resilient against distractions.

If you think you might have ADHD — or even just an issue with your executive function — it’s best to learn more about how executive function works, what it looks like when that region of the brain isn’t working as expected, and schedule an appointment with your doctor to discuss the possibility. Even if it turns out you don’t have that diagnosis, there might be other issues or more information that might help you improve your focus, organization, and memory. Regardless of whether you’re neuro-typical or coping with a mental illness, proper nutrition, regular exercise and enough sleep are foundations for better mental health.

This post is a part of Mental Health Awareness Month; all month long I’m writing posts about my personal experience with mental illness, the stigma that prevents conversation and treatment, and bits of fiction that highlight these issues. If there’s a subject or aspect that I haven’t covered, please leave a comment!

 
 

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(Personal) Perpetual Tharn

Myth 150We’re three weeks in to 2018 — just long enough to settle into the new year and whatever new habits or goals we’ve set for ourselves. I wanted to push myself towards more mindful behavior this year, doing my best to really dive into right speech, action, and livelihood. While last year was definitely stressful, a lot of unresolved anger bubbled towards the surface in so many interactions. I didn’t like the way that made me behave, and I can’t help feeling that my relationships suffered because of that. I ended up retracting socially through a good bit of the year; while a lot of that was probably for the best, I have the feeling that I could be handling these difficult interactions with a lot more equanimity — but that’s way easier said than done.

My anxiety has been very hard to deal with over the past several months. The current state of our country, and the world, has elevated the level of ‘ambient’ anxiety I’m dealing with and that makes it a lot more difficult to take on additional stressors. Surprises or an increase in workload are harder to absorb, and recovering from those episodes of anxious lashing out or simply being overwhelmed takes longer.

So much of the time I feel like I’m in a state of perpetual tharn, so overwhelmed by anxiety that I freeze up and simply can’t do anything. Today, for example, my mind is racing with thoughts about the government shutdown and why it’s such a terrible thing. I’m worried that Republicans will successfully shift blame for this to Democrats, who are taking all the wrong lessons from this and seem to be allowing the public discourse to be pulled further to the right. I’m worried about what this means for all of us — especially those of us who are self-employed, need health insurance, or just happen to be federal employees.

I’m worried about our environment and the fact that the weather has been so obviously unusual over the past year or so. I’m worried about my finances and how I’ll be able to meet my obligations there. I’m worried about so many friends who are going through a difficult time and my diminished emotional capacity to help them. I worry about our ability to talk to one another in a way that connects us instead of dividing us. I worry about my family, who I avoid talking to because I simply can’t handle the possibility of more stress.

I worry about the promises and obligations I’ve made and my ability to keep them. I worry about trying to maintain a balance between being principled and being too rigid; I worry about standing up for myself in a way that doesn’t make other people feel bad. I worry about our apartment and keeping it clean. I worry about learning the technical skills I need in order to move to the next stage of my career. I worry about the people I know on Twitter, and can’t shake the feeling that most people only tolerate me because I’m so frustrating and weird and hesitant. I worry that I talk a good game but can’t deliver when push comes to shove. I worry that I’m just a fundamentally untrustworthy person.

This is what anxiety is like for me. Almost every action I take is connected to a worry that is never far away from taking over my thoughts. Am I talking too much about myself here? Is there a better way to communicate this? What kind of response am I after? Is this just for attention, or reassurance, or am I really just trying to help people understand how anxiety works so that others can deal with those of us who suffer from this better? What are my motivations? Are they corrupt and selfish?

Existing in this state of paralyzing doubt is exhausting, and it just doesn’t leave me with much energy for other things. It can be difficult when I’m struggling with anxiety to remember my promises, or keep my focus away from distractions, or not to simply bail and spend large chunks of time chasing idle happiness. It’s hard to put in the work because setbacks and obstacles are a lot harder to handle rationally.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be focusing on building and rebuilding the habits that help with anxiety. Taking care of the basics is essential, which means that I need to get good sleep, eat good food, and exercise regularly. On top of that, building a meditation, reading, and writing practice will help provide some measure of virtuous stability that always keeps mindfulness with me. This might mean that I’ll be quiet and withdrawn for a bit longer; I need time and mental energy to put these into practice, and that may mean less to deal with other people. So, apologies in advance if I’m a bit slower to respond to things, or have to decline requests for favors for a little while.

Ultimately I would like to be able to interact with people, help them wherever I can, and find ways to have difficult conversations without surrendering to anger and fear as drivers of behavior. But in order to do that, it’s clear that I need to get on a more stable emotional footing. That means mindfully withdrawing to renew the foundation of my practice and hopefully coming back in a better, more hopeful frame of mind.

 

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(Personal) Accountability Report, February 2017

Self Improvement 150At the beginning of the month, I noted that while I hadn’t quite achieved a perfect run on meditating and writing every day I had done pretty well for myself. There were a couple of days with Further Confusion where I didn’t hit my goal and a few more towards the end of the month, but overall I was building a pretty good routine for myself. For February, I had resolved to keep it going — write, meditate and count my calories every day. I had identified a few things that were working to keep me away from the meditation bench, writing desk and calorie counting app, and had developed a few ways to get past those potential blocks. This month, however, was a major stumble. In just about every metric I failed to write or meditate every day, and I was exceedingly spotty with my calorie counting.

Write every day. This just didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons. I seriously got out of the habit here, and I’m not even sure why. I think a lot of it was just…pressure, in general. Work has been a little difficult, and the whole thing with my online math course for school happened, and work on “Stable Love” and the “Gift Exchange” finale proved to be a bit more intimidating than I had bargained for. There were a lot of days this month where I just didn’t have the spoons for writing, even though I should have toughed it out and wrote anyway. It’s been really difficult to balance those kinds of long-term goals against the day-to-day demands of what comes up in the moment. I’m really going to have to find a way to do that, though.

This month, I will set the same goal I did in February: I will write every day, working on either a blog post or a short story. March will be notably busier; my “Argumentation and Debate” class starts up with twice-weekly classes on Tuesday and Thursday, and I’ll be working on my “Elementary Statistics” textbook in an attempt to get ahead of things for that eight week class starting up in April. Somewhere in there, I’ll be hitting up Texas Furry Fiesta — that’s something I’m really looking forward to, but it’s also something that I’ll need to prepare for ahead of time. I’ll need to make sure that my schoolwork and writing is positioned ahead of time so I can enjoy the weekend without worrying about all of the stuff I’ve let slip.

Meditate every day. This also just didn’t happen. There were a few nights of insomnia that made it really difficult to get up in the morning, and there were a few mornings where I just ended up getting distracted by my phone instead of doing the things I should have been doing. So far this month I’ve missed eight days, mostly at the beginning, but it’s still not great. There’s not a whole lot I can do about insomnia, I realize, but I could also make it a priority to meditate as soon as I get home on the days where I’m just not able to do it in the morning.

This month, I’ll set the same goal that I did in February: I will meditate every day for at least fifteen minutes. Ain’t nothing to it but to do it, but I do think that I will need to pay better attention to my bedtime. If possible, it’d be best to avoid a lot of phone usage before bed and if necessary I’ll take melatonin at around 10 pm to reset my body clock. I should be getting tired right around then, and preparing to hit the hay. If I can manage to do that successfully for a while, it’ll be easier and easier to wake up at 5:45, meditate, then get out the door and kick ass at work.

Counting calories every day. This also didn’t happen, and was probably the thing I was worst about over the month. I think I’ve just gotten really bad at updating things through my phone, to be honest. I use it for games and chatting more than anything, and I just don’t think of it as a tool that I can use to be better at holding myself accountable. Being a bit more strict about my phone usage would be a really good thing; making sure that anything I’ve eaten or spent has been logged before I do anything else would be an awesome habit to get into! I am just not sure I’ll be able to pull it off.

In March, I will log every calorie I eat and every dollar I spend through my phone. This will help me reset my habits and idea of what the phone is for, and start pushing me towards making more responsible decisions for it. I’ll be trying to take better care of my diet as well, and maybe reinstalling Fitocracy would be a good way to look up quick bodyweight exercise routines or a circuit of stretches for the days when I’m not running. My phone needs to be more than a mobile entertainment unit or boredom eradicator; I’d love for it to be more of a digital assistant. It can get there, but I have to be a lot more mindful about its usage.

So there we go. In March, I’m still trying to build the writing, meditation and accountability habit. February was a step down from January; there were a lot more things working against me, but that’s likely to be true in March as well. I’ll need to work pretty hard to make sure that the right things are a priority for me this coming month and make better decisions to emphasize that.

I’m curious about what the struggle is like for other people by this time of the year. Are folks still working towards fulfilling their New Year’s Resolutions? Or have we dropped them at this point because real life is way more complicated and antagonistic than we had anticipated? Does anyone have recommendations on what might help build a good habit?

 
 

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(Personal) Accountability Report, January 2017

Self Improvement 150At the beginning of last month, I made three resolutions: I wanted to meditate and write every day, and I wanted to avoid added sugars if at all possible. Well, the first month of the year has come and gone, so I thought I’d take a look back on the last 31 days to see how I did. I realize that it’s really hard to be actually perfect with these things, especially just starting out — it takes a while to build a practice into a habit and obstacles are going to come up. Still, all things considered, I think I did pretty well for myself.

I didn’t meditate every day in January. I missed one day during Further Confusion 2017 because I got distracted with Twitter, and I missed another day near the end of the month for much the same reason — I go to open the meditation app on my phone and ended up getting sucked into something else. The smartphone is a life-changing invention that gives us the power to do so much in our lives whenever we need to, but it also offers an endless tide of distraction. When I’m just waking up, without coffee or medication, I’m especially susceptible to that.

This month, I’ll renew my intention to meditate every day this month. I think the best way to avoid potential distraction is perhaps to put my phone in airplane mode before I go to bed; that way, when I get up it’s easier for me to use my meditation app than it is to turn off airplane mode and dive into Twitter or games. I realize this likely won’t be a permanent solution, but hopefully it will buy me enough time to get into that perfect habit territory. Even still, missing two days out of 31 isn’t bad, and I’ve definitely been a lot more even emotionally through regular meditation.

I didn’t write every day in January. I mean, I sort of did — between my History of Rock and Roll class, The Writing Desk and other things there were plenty of things to work on. However, when I made that resolution I specifically meant a fiction project that I wanted to release through the Jackalope Serial Company, submit to a publication or post online, or play through with friends. Making sure I’m regular with my Patreon is my top priority here; people have had my back since the beginning of last year, and I want to make sure I’m holding up my end of the bargain. Once I’m on a more stable footing there, I can move on to other short stories, serials or role-playing game stuff.

I’m renewing my intention to write every day this month, with the specific stipulation that it will be writing for Jackalope Serial Company stories. That means finishing up “Gift Exchange” (my January serial) in the next day or two, editing/rewriting “Stable Love (the February serial) after that, and working on the serial for March and April. The goal is to be at least two weeks ahead on serial posts so I can have a nice buffer for those weeks when work or school gets to be too heavy. Since I’m prioritizing the JSC, I may not be able to keep up my three times a week schedule for The Writing Desk. I’ll try my hardest, though. Maybe writing posts on the weekend for the next week is the best move here.

I avoided added sugars this month, with a few exceptions. Alcoholic drinks are a bit of a gray area, there — mixed drinks tend to use simple syrup (which is basically just sugar dissolved in water) or really sweet fruit juices, and I had one or two of those. During the Australian Open final, I did have a mug of hot chocolate because how could you say no to that? Overall I’ve severely limited my sugar intake, and my palate has shifted because of that. While sugar definitely makes fireworks go off in my brain, it takes a lot less to reach satiety. Still, it’s not a habit I’m interested in falling back into.

This month, I resolve to count my calories every day and exercise at least three times a week. My routine of choice involves a lot of running, but I’ll need to supplement that with stretches and body-weight exercises. I’m WAY too stiff in general, and it would be nice to work more on my core and arms. The calorie counting app I use is MyFitnessPal, so if you use it too feel free to add me as a friend! My name is “JakebeRabbit”.

There are a few other things I’d like to do this month — read more regularly, be more disciplined with my budget and to-do list, finally get my act together with activism and volunteer work. But meditation, writing, and diet accountability will be my main focus. What about all of you lovely folks? How have you been doing with your New Year’s Resolutions so far? What changes will you make to stick to your goals?

 

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(Personal) New Year’s Resolutions 2017

Self Improvement 150Welcome to 2017! How about that last year, huh? What a repeated kick in the teeth it was. I remember what I was like this time last year, all full of hopes and dreams and thinking that this was going to be a pretty great year of progress! If you were anything like me, then you probably drank as much as you possibly could to forget what happened over the previous twelve months — only it didn’t work. Donald Trump is still set to be inaugurated later this month; way too many luminaries shed their mortal coil; and the political discourse went beyond caustic into cartoonishly terrible. None of us were prepared for the parade of horrors that 2016 brought us, and the consequences of what went down last year will be with us for quite a long time.

The last year contained a few big wake-up calls. I learned that it’s not enough to only invest in something up to your comfort level and hope for the best — if you want something to change, you are going to have to stretch past your point of comfort to get it. I learned that changing the tone of our discourse is something that we will have to do ourselves; changing our government to work for us and uphold our American values is something we’re responsible for, not the politicians we elect; that in order to do anything I consider worthwhile, I am going to need to be uncomfortable, I will need to sacrifice, and I will need to put in the work.

My resolutions this year are centered around doing just that, putting in the work. It’s important to know what I want at a high level and build my life around what it will take to get there. If I’m going to be a writer, then I need to build my life around that. If I want to be a psychologist, then I need to make sure that the things I spend my time with get me closer to that goal. I will be 37 years old this year. It’s reasonable to assume I have fewer years ahead of me than I do behind. There is no more time to waste.

This year I have three fairly ambitious goals, and I’d like to think I have clear eyes on how difficult they will be. But while they’re ambitious, they’re also a solid foundation to build better habits with. Once I’m able to trust myself with the basics, I can move on to more complicated things.

Meditate every day. I practice sitting meditation fairly often, but I can get streaky with the process; I’ll have three weeks where I’m doing it every day, and then take a week where I’m just not doing it for whatever reason. The benefits are obvious, though. When I meditate, it’s easier for me to be resilient with interruptions and setbacks; I’m more attentive and compassionate with the people around me; I am able to handle and absorb stress better. Meditation not only helps my depression and anxiety, it helps my focus, productivity, creativity and understanding of the people around me.

In order to be able to do what I’d like to do this year, I need to make sure that I’m preparing myself properly. I intend to be more politically engaged. I will put myself and my writing out there a lot more. I will push myself to be better at my job by being more agile and collaborative, expand my knowledge about the underlying technologies I’m working with, and cultivate and nurture relationships with my coworkers. I will push myself to be more vocal about the things that actively hurt society, including willful ignorance and antisocial behavior. I expect that nearly every day this year, I will need to do something that makes me uncomfortable. In order to absorb the stress of that, meditation needs to be a cornerstone of my life. It will allow me to handle all of this, which means that it needs to happen every day.

Write every day. If you know me, you know that I have tremendous difficulty finishing the things I’ve started. There are a ton of short stories, snippets and other projects that I’ve started and restarted, only to have them flame out once the stress of continuing gets to be too much. That cannot continue. If I’m going to live up to my potential, I’m going to need to follow through. That means finishing the short stories and other projects I’ve started, no matter how terrible the first draft might be. In order to do that, I’ll need to shift my perspective on how writing is achieved.

For a while now I’ve operated like an “artist”, only writing when the inspiration strikes and cursing the dreaded writer’s block when it prevents me from putting anything good on paper. But a great craftsman doesn’t allow themselves to be tossed and turned by the whims of the muse; they are the center of the storm, putting in the work every day whether it’s good or not. It’s that time, that dedicated and focused practice, that allows us to make the work we put in on even the “bad” days just a little bit better. We also learn perspective, where we know that one bad day or one bad story isn’t going to break us; no matter what, we’ll be right back at it the next day. There’s always the time to get it right, but only if we make sure we put aside the time.

So that’s what I’ll need to do. Even if it’s just an uninterrupted 15 minutes, I will dedicate time to the project that I’ve designated as the primary one, every day. For the most part, I’m assuming that will be whatever I’m writing for the Jackalope Serial Company Patreon, but it could also be for MegaMorphics, the Furry Basketball Association, my Pathfinder game, or a short story for submission to a magazine or anthology. Whatever it is, if it’s my primary focus, it will get at least 15 minutes of dedicated effort every day.

Eliminate added sugars. Another one of the things I’d really like to do this year is be more discerning about the things I consume. There are too many great stories being told by too many great storytellers to waste time on careless fiction or time-wasting games and apps. The news media is in a legitimate shambles at the moment, and it will take time and training to learn what’s actual information and what’s been spun to advance an agenda or made up wholecloth. Even beyond that, there are so many things that might be good but lie outside of my range of tastes that I should stretch to see and talk about in service of pushing myself in general. But before all of that, let’s start with something basic and intimate.

I am a sugar addict. I can’t self-regulate when it comes to sweets; having candy, cookies and pastries doesn’t satisfy me, it just makes the desire that much more intense. Given that a whole lot of refined sugar in your diet can cause a lot of problems with your physical and mental health, it’s a great idea to cut them out whenever possible. This means leaving behind the Sugar Babies and chocolate bars, the fruit danishes and cakes that I love to have.

Just because something feels good to consume doesn’t mean it’s good for you to do it, and that lesson is no more simply learned than with the food I eat. I’ve taken big strides in 2016 with my diet, and I’m proud of the advances I’ve made. However, getting into the habit of watching for and abstaining from a lot of added sugar trains me to step back from the impulse of instant gratification to learn discipline and sacrifice in service to a higher ideal. It also trains me to look for the many different ways sugar can be hidden within food and reject the idea that something is healthy just because the box says it is. I know this sounds cynical, but I’m not trying to be — a company’s main goal is to get me to buy its product, and it will do whatever it can to make sure I do that. If Nabisco is worried about the health craze impacting its sales, it will bury the less healthy aspects of its products and promote the healthier ones to keep people buying. It doesn’t matter that a cookie or a sugary cereal is all-natural or certified organic — it will still promote all the problems that sugar does.

So for this month, I’ll keep close tabs on what I eat with the goal to lower my sugar intake to 40 grams or less a day. On special occasions I’ll indulge in a dessert or ice cream — when I’ve finished three short stories, meditated and wrote for 30 days straight, during birthdays or certain holidays. Otherwise, added or refined sugar is out of my diet.

For now, making sure that I meditate, write and abstain from added sugars every day will serve as a good foundation for me. Cultivating good habits that I consider fundamental to my experience and cutting out a bad habit that teaches me a few much-needed skills in the doing should put me in a good place to make the next leap towards the change I want to see in the world.

How about you lovely folks? What are your resolutions for the new year? If you’ve decided to forego resolutions this year, ain’t no shame in that; let me know why and how you plan to manage your own self-improvement in the comments.

 

(Mental Health) When Depression Strikes You

Myth 150Chronic depression is one of those things that can be very difficult to deal with, mostly because those of us who suffer from it exist in two states. When things are fine, we might think that we’ve rounded the bend and things will never be as bad as our last valley again. And then, when we find ourselves descending towards another crash, we have no idea how to stop it or make the cliff feel any less steep. I think most of us have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude towards things that are big problems; when we’re not actively battling our depression, we prefer to forget we have it.

But the fact is that chronic depression is a disease; an invisible one, one whose symptoms might not show up for days or weeks or months, but a disease that most of us will have to cope with for a major part of our lives. When a diabetic has his glucose levels under control, the diabetes isn’t cured — it’s just managed so that the symptoms aren’t making it difficult to function.

I think it’s useful for those of us with mental health issues to think of our illnesses like that. The symptoms might not be bad enough to prevent us from functioning most of the time, but it’s still doing its thing under the surface. There are things that we can do to help ourselves manage it; taking care of ourselves can make depressive episodes less frequent and less severe. I can’t guarantee that we’ll ever be completely free of it, but we can develop a number of coping mechanisms to help.

Learning how to live with depression is a process. Sometimes it might feel like we’re making no progress at all; sometimes it can feel like we’re sliding backwards into our worst places. But it’s important to have patience with the process and with ourselves. There is nothing fundamentally broken about us; there is nothing that we can’t handle. There are just a lot of considerations we must make that most others might take for granted. This can be a gift of practice; learning how to appreciate many aspects of our life that we wouldn’t even notice otherwise.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned to do over the course of several years. You might find that different habits work better for you, and that’s fine. It’s not important to do every single thing that people recommend for you. It’s important to find your own way of managing your mood and getting to a place where you feel comfortable and capable within your own skin. Take my advice, or discard it and forge your own path. But please try. It’s worth it, I promise.

Sleep. This is single biggest piece of advice I would recommend for people dealing with mental illness: sleep well. I can’t overstate the importance of rest in helping yourself to get on a more even keel. If you don’t have a sleep routine, or you’re having issues with getting regular or quality sleep, I really do think this should be a top priority. Sleep allows us to settle our emotions and builds our ability to cope with fluctuations in mood or changes in our environment that would cause anxiety. It is one of the best things we can do to care for ourselves.

Building a good sleep habit takes time and practice. The chemical imbalance that can lead to depression also impairs sleep function, so we end up sleeping too little or too much. However, keeping a regular sleep practice is a great foundation for routine that we can use to help us weather those times. Listen to your body; notice when you start to feel tired or your brain tells you it’s time to get to bed. Notice when you’re most likely to wake up without an alarm clock. If at all possible, build your sleep time around your own circadian rhythm. If it’s not possible, determine when you need to get up and count back nine hours — start getting ready for bed at that time.

It’s not easy, and it’s not quick, but it is effective. Once you’re sleeping regularly, your body can begin the work of stabilizing itself.

Eat well. I know in a lot of situations this can be exceedingly difficult. Even for those of us in the United States, we might live in a food desert where fresh produce or lean meat might be hard to come by. Many of us simply don’t have the money or time to make our own meals. I get it. But making sure we at least eat food that gives us a good balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and fiber will give our body its best shot at managing itself.

If possible, eat three squares a day that includes lean protein, unsaturated fat and complex carbohydrates. Think a turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread, multigrain chips and fruit. Try to limit caffeine intake after 2 PM; we all know that caffeine plays havoc with the ability to sleep and too much of it will definitely exacerbate anxiety issues. Drink more water, and cut back on sodas and sugary drinks.

You hear this kind of advice all the time, and I know how much of a drag it can be to try and follow through. But it’s definitely important. The better fuel you give your body, the better it will be able to function. That’s the simple fact. And I know that the instant you begin to control your diet it feels like you’re swimming upstream, and we just can’t put in the effort all the time. But try. And keep trying. Notice how you feel — how you really feel — after you eat. Does the food sit heavy in your stomach? Do you feel gassy or bloated? Greasy? Light? Satisfied? Focus on the foods that make you feel good — not just emotionally, but biologically. The more you listen to your body, the more it will tell you what it needs. To be a god-damn hippie about it.

Exercise. I know, I can hear the groaning from here, but trust me — being active when you can really helps. Just going outside or getting the blood flowing helps just about every part of your body, including your brain. When you find the activity that works best for you, your brain learns how to release endorphins that tell you that you’re doing a good job. And again, pushing yourself to pay attention to your body will help you recognize how it speaks to you — how it tells you that it’s in pain, or needs food or water, or what kind of shape or mood it’s in. Learning your body is the first step to being comfortable with it, realizing and accepting its limitation, and appreciating the things you like about it.

Most people think of exercise as a slog; huffing on the street during a grueling run, or sweating through some terrible routine that you can’t begin to keep up with. But it really doesn’t have to be; it can be any activity that gets you moving and makes you happy. For me, it actually IS running. I get a wonderful high and a sense of accomplishment after putting in my miles. But for you, it might be anything from playing tennis, basketball or football to playing Dance Dance Revolution or Rock Band on your XBox. If it gets your heart rate up and your body moving, it’s fair game. Do it as regularly as you can without hurting yourself.

Therapy. This is another suggestion that takes on almost limitless forms. For you, it might be therapeutic to write your feelings down in a journal or talk to the spiritual leader of your congregation. It might be reading, walking in nature, talking to a therapist or taking medication. Whatever works for you, seek it out and do it; develop a self-care routine, arm yourself with coping mechanisms, engage with the world and community around you however you see fit.

Again, I understand how difficult this might be for some of us. We might live in places where mental health professionals are hard to find or prohibitively expensive; we might not have access to an understanding or capable support network; we might not know where to begin to develop a framework of self-care. But if you’re reading this, you probably have access to the Internet and that gives you a leg up. Research things that might help you and try them out; describe the results when you use them, and determine if it would be useful to keep doing them. Seek out communities online if you can — there are a number of websites and forums for those of us dealing with depression and anxiety. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Try.

Sleeping regularly, eating as well as you can, doing active things you find enjoyable and engaging in a therapeutic practice are all basic things we could all do to help stabilize our mood as much as possible. Again, these are a lot easier said than done for many of us, but please — do what you can when you can. Seek out help and support where you can find it. And keep trying. What helped me most with my depression is seeing it for what it is. It allowed me to engage with it, really understand it. And by doing that, I understood myself a lot better. Self-awareness is perhaps the most powerful tool we have against our mental illness. It helps us learn how to cope with it and to live happy, full lives even while we struggle.

If you have depression, anxiety or another mental illness difficult to endure and tough to make people understand, I see you. I’m with you. I want to help. And I’m not the only one.

But the best way to get help is to help yourself. We can support you, but we can’t “fix” you. There’s nothing to be fixed. You’re a human being, wonderful and complete just as you are. You deserve to live, to be happy, to be loved. For people like you and me, it takes more work and care. But it makes the results of that work so much sweeter.

 

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