Category Archives: Depression

Inspiring Inspiration

Writer’s block. Drawing a blank. Creative stagnation. If you’re a creative person, you’ve probably felt it at one time or another. Working on a project or in a job that requires constant new ideas and drive to complete them often  sounds great until I realize just how much inspiration is required to keep up.

People have typically always considered me to be a very creative person and I feel lucky to have grown up with one parent gifted in fine arts and another who is a skilled musician. Both were constantly supporting my desire to be creative, even when I made a change from attending a typical university to go to art school.

I don’t remember feeling very hard pressed for inspiration as a kid or through school. Ideas seemed to come easily while making videos or sketching or writing (really bad) poetry, and it wasn’t until I found myself in a job as an adult that I really began to struggle with trying to balance having a job and being creative.

The funny thing is that I was working in design in the fashion industry and most people would probably consider the work of a fashion designer to be creative, right? I had trouble trying to align inspiration with the rigorous, fast-paced schedule of the companies I was working for and ultimately didn’t feel much creative fulfillment.

The more I worked, the more my creativity seemed to be totally tapped out. I wasn’t doing projects at home, not even drawing anymore, and the more depressed I felt the more frustrated I became. The constant pool of inspiration I had been able to draw from previously seemed completely gone and I couldn’t help but wonder why or where it had gone.

Increased creativity is often said to be connected to those with mental illness, though we still don’t quite know how or why. It doesn’t surprise me because living with bipolar disorder has allowed me to experience extreme mental states like mania and psychosis where it has felt as though I have ideas faster than I can recognize them. Many of these ideas seem to take root like small seeds that quickly grow on their own until they’ve created a jungle of fiction around me.

I know I am not the only one to have seen this jungle and said, “ah ha! That’s where the pool of inspiration must be!” In severe moments of frustration at not being able to produce things creatively at the rate at which I have wanted to I have found myself grabbing a machete and traipsing into that jungle like Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth.

It can feel easy to believe that this is the one and only source of true inspiration when I am not used to having to work for it. After all, who would want to work for something they can get for free, right?

As I have gotten older I’ve come to believe that my mental illness isn’t the one and only source of inspiration. I’ve been able to create things while stable, even while depressed, so my idea that mania is a prerequisite for creativity has become somewhat antiquated.

What got me thinking about this topic was writing. I started this blog five years ago and, surprise surprise, I was in a pretty elevated state heading somewhere near mania at the time. I could sit down and write post after post, but as time wore on I found myself having to work for that inspiration that came so easily at first.

I had a goal to keep writing, and the biggest change I made was to shift my mindset from being someone who let creative ideas flow into me to someone who actively pursued things that interested me. Lo and behold, the more I scientific articles I read, the more people I talked to, the more blogs I read, the more I had to say.

I always wondered why people would say, “if you want to be a writer, read a lot of books.” The more I read and the more I write, the more true I find that statement to be. When it comes to my mind I’ve been ignorant about the fact that to get something out, to produce something, I need to take something in first.

Now that I recognize it, the concept makes perfect sense to me. When I was younger I drew inspiration from being in school. Constantly learning new things about history or art, talking to people and hearing new points of view; if you think about it school itself is a breeding ground for inspiration, I just didn’t know it at the time.

Beyond that, what is my mental illness but a constantly changing experience informing my senses in new ways all the time? In a sense, bipolar disorder has informed me emotionally the way reading has informed me in a literary way; it has been a platform for me to absorb something new without realizing it.

It seems totally reasonable that becoming more stable might make one feel less creative  when we consider how easy it can be to lean on the unprompted ideas sparked by mental illness for inspiration instead of taking up other hobbies or interests that might produce similar results.

Needless to say, I think it is really important to teach ourselves where to look for inspiration and how to capture it without having to rely on something that can otherwise be detrimental to our lives. I truly believe that creativity does not require an element of self-destruction. Sometimes it might take a little more effort to initiate that creativity with activities and engaging our senses, but imagine the things we can learn and pass on along the way!

Inspiration can come from anything, anywhere, any time. For me, finding it is about putting myself in a position to experience something new, whether that is experiencing something emotionally, visually, physically, or mentally, etc. Paying attention (being mindful) to what I am experiencing is key to getting something useful out of it, but I don’t go in with any expectations. Sometimes it takes me a few days to let something stew for inspiration to pop up, sometimes it happens right away. It is all about the mind making new connections.

Here are a few ideas for ways to help inspire inspiration:

  • Watch something new
    • Youtube
    • Movies
    • Television shows
    • Plays or musicals
    • Comedy
  • Listen to something new
    • Music
    • Audiobooks
    • Street noise
    • Sounds in nature/wildlife
  • Read something new
    • Books
    • Magazines
    • Blogs
    • Web Articles
  • Learn something new
    • take a class or workshop
    • Youtube how-to videos
    • watch how someone does their job
    • volunteer
  • Experience something new
    • Attend a sporting event
    • Meet new people
    • Join a club or group
    • Try out a gym
  • Be somewhere new
    • In nature
    • In the city
    • Travel
    • Take a new route home
  • Create something new
    • try a new hobby like pottery or knitting or photography
    • try a new medium like watercolor, charcoal, ink
    • allow yourself the freedom to make “mistakes”
    • try writing or drawing prompts
    • try a new genre for writing like mystery, romance, or non-fiction

One of the benefits of experiencing mental illness in my lifetime is that even in periods where I am stable, I am able to draw on that experience. Sometimes, like with this blog for example, I might not be having an episode and there is no intense emotion to fuel a subject for my writing. I’ve come to actually enjoy those periods because it allows me to write about my mental health in a different way, I can shift my perspective to think about topics like creativity when I might normally be too engaged with feeling depressed or manic to consider them.

Ultimately I’ve reached the point where I am happy to be learning how to inspire inspiration for myself without having to rely on my own unpredictable behavior. The most helpful elements for me have involved making an effort to step outside my comfort zone (and be open minded about it) and chasing what interests me. While it is true that “chasing what interests me” might be making my boyfriend a little crazy right now (because what interests me is South Korean pop music videos) there is little substitute for the feeling of feeling a new idea take root and watching it grow.

Advertisements

Back in the (Rx) Saddle Again

Living with treatment resistant bipolar disorder can be really frustrating, not just for me but also for those around me. With symptoms that have responded atypically (either worsening or not resolving and accompanied by outrageous side effects) to the traditional route of pharmaceuticals normally used to treat bipolar disorder I have to shift all of my focus onto using skills to help keep me calm and rational.

Even doing everything I have encountered; things like meditation, dialectical behavioral therapy skills, living openly about my illness and asking for help when I can, paying close attention to my diet, sleep, and exercise, -that bipolar spark in my brain remains elusive and unchecked. Under the right conditions, my big mood shifts can happen in whatever direction they choose and I find myself along for the ride.

Lately I’ve been seeing that frustration growing in my healthcare team. In the last two months I’ve been taking a significant shift into depression, enough that both my therapist and new psychiatrist (of about 6 months) have become edgy. My therapist let slip that, “well you would think something should be helping by now!” and my psychiatrist sat, horror-stricken, when I replied to her question about what we should do about my depression with, “well the past few years nothing has worked so we typically watch and wait, requiring hospitalization as necessary until the episode ends.”

Unacceptable!

Maybe so, but it is my life. As much as I dislike being subject to frequent mood swings and psychosis I have reached the point of feeling some form of acceptance over my situation. I can’t throw a fit (though sometimes I do) every time a new treatment option doesn’t go my way, but the slightly pissy attitudes of my healthcare team the past few weeks has initiated something of a domino effect kicking people into gear.

On one hand, it feels nice to know that my psychiatrist feels inspired to do everything she can to try to help me. On the other, after a constant barrage of negative outcomes from medication after medication the past few years I am pretty familiar with how it can feel to be a guinea pig. I’m not saying I am opposed to new options, quite the opposite. I want to keep trying, I want to move toward a life that is stable and more functional, I just need to find a balance where I can do that and not have to be pulled along in the wake of each drug that’s had a negative effect without being able to take a break. When psychiatrists take me on it can be easy for them to look at me as a sort of challenge and they feel eager to throw everything at me they can think of right away without giving me time to recover. It has tended to make me both more physically and mentally sick while this is occurring, so it is important that I can balance pursuing new treatment options and living some of the life I am working to improve.

After how hard it was cycling through medications the last go around (2010-2015) I have been floating around using my cognitive skills and sitting tight taking Lithium that isn’t helping. I have actually been doing better without the barrage of new drugs constantly eroding my mental and physical health, so I have just kind of been waiting for the right doctor, or something new to come on the market, or for things to get rough enough to push me back into feeling willing to roll the dice again.

I wouldn’t normally consider my current state of depression severe enough to make me desperate enough to move back into that place of uncertainty, but last week my boyfriend was gone for 8 days and I was really concerned about being home alone that whole time and having the added stress of taking care of our sick dog on my own.

My new psychiatrist is focusing on making tiny changes in medications (hoping that my big reactions to regular doses might be mitigated by tiny doses) and trying things that have a low chance for making my overall health worse.

We started with a huge increase in my fish oil consumption, up to 2400 mg daily of highly concentrated oil (with a bunch of other specific properties I can’t quite recall). I couldn’t tell if it was helping while my boyfriend was out of town, but I didn’t feel worse, so for depression that was causing me to steadily deteriorate that may have been enough to give me a more level playing field last week.

If the fish oil was helping keep me from sliding further into depression, the plan went to hell a little bit when my boyfriend came home from his trip with a broken shoulder. The immediate jump in stress level left me plummeting and I was frantic this week trying to take care of him, and the sick dog, AND me.

I found myself in a situation where I can’t really afford to be screaming at my neighbors or paranoid out of my mind at the grocery store so I called my psychiatrist and agreed to try an antidepressant again.

I tried Zoloft a few years ago in a similar situation and was manic within a couple days. My boyfriend found me feeling high out of my mind in our apartment jumping around uncontrollably and he thankfully had the frame of mind to point out to me that I was acting a little strange.

Naturally, the idea of taking an antidepressant isn’t one I’m too keen on (I’ve had several mixed or manic reactions over the years to them) but I find my psychiatrist’s theory about trying the tiniest little bit to be intriguing, mostly because I’ve had the same thought myself and anytime I’ve brought it up to a doctor before (or my sensitivities to medications) they always just prescribed a regular dose anyway.

Yesterday I tried 1/8 the dosage of Zoloft as I did the first time around. 12.5 mg, half of a 25 mg pill that is so small I keep losing them. I was able to sleep (which is a good sign) so I expect to keep this up and see if anything happens.

In the meantime I’ll be here doing the best I can.

Swapping Big Moves for Little Moves

Let’s face it, living with bipolar disorder has had a huge influence on the way I make decisions. It hasn’t been all bad, I admit the impulsivity I tend to feel has left a trail of both exciting fun memories in my wake as well as some cringe-worthy ones, but I’ve spent a lot of time considering impulsivity and the ways it has both helped and harmed me.

Instead, today I want to specifically discuss making big moves.

For a long time I believed that I only made impulsive big, life altering decisions when I found myself experiencing hypomania and mania. This was evident when I dropped out of college, for example, at age 19. The idea of living aimlessly in the Colorado sprawl seemed like a wonderful idea, and it was great… for a while.

Likewise mixed episodes have lent themselves to impulsive big moves as well. Spur of the moment breakups would be an example, running away from home. Usually these kinds of big decisions have been fueled by the need to escape something (rather than make a positive change in my life) and the results have tended to be regrettable when I returned to rationality.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot more about how that overwhelming impulsive urge influences depression, because for most of my life I would say I didn’t think it did. I mean, is sitting down and watching a full season of Ru Paul’s Drag Race because I’m too tired and depressed to do anything else a big impulsive move? Yeah… I didn’t think so.

Lately I’ve been seeing it a bit different. Maybe it is the nature of the depression I face, maybe it is a little mixed and coming with a small paper cup full of mania to act as a dipping sauce. Whatever the reason I’ve been able to hone in on this feeling, this urge to make a big move, and somewhere inside of me there is this spark that says,

If you make a big, sudden change in your life this depression with disappear.

To be fair, I’ve been doing this all along. In my younger years I found myself in some kind of Job-Hopping Phenomenon loop that I tried my best to grasp but couldn’t understand.

I would start a new job, be doing fine, and then start sinking into deep depression. The answer always seemed to involve quitting and starting a new job, where my hypomania would take over and I would feel great for a while until… you guessed it… wash, rinse, repeat.

For the most part I always chalked this job-switching thing to be coming from a place of reason though, not emotion. I told myself, “well, maybe this isn’t the right job for me,” and I’d launch myself out into the world feeling a sense of purpose every time I tried to find a new one. It kind of acted as a really inefficient, W2 swamping sort of band aid.

I didn’t connect the dots between these actions and that general bipolar big move urge until this month. I’ve been declining into depression for almost two months now, swiftly and severely enough for my psychiatrist to be on red alert (more on that next time). Honestly I think what I am experiencing may be a depression-heavy mixed episode because I’ve found myself in several swirling pools of psychosis where I seem to find myself in another place.

While I’m there everything is turned on its head, the only consistent element is that I feel overwhelmingly compelled to make a big move!

Sometimes the urge is to run away and start a new life, or get a job, or demolish my relationships with people… but every time the haze wears off I’ve been thankful to find I haven’t done any of those things.

With my manic and mixed episodes I feel like I have had the opportunity to practice not making those big moves I find myself gravitating toward. I’ve tried to remind myself of how horribly wrong they tend to go sometimes, and how what I am experiencing at the time is typically in the minority of how I feel otherwise.

The last few years my treatment resistant symptoms have left me experiencing severe depression without much alleviation, so much so that the only thing I could do was binge watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race. I feel like that might be what is causing me to hesitate when I fall into those whirlpools that try to bully me into mixing things up, because now I know that even when I do nothing at all I can make it out the other side.

In the grand scheme of things, I often picture bipolar disorder as a set of scales. I used to chuck whatever blocks I could find at them knowing that if one landed, they would flip my emotional state into the opposite direction and I could slide from depression into mania almost immediately. This crude method was effective short-term, but didn’t set up any kind of system for long-term stability.

The last few years I have been learning to scale down those moves when the urges hit. Instead of running away, maybe I’ll take a shower. Instead of getting a job, I assign myself to take out the garbage every Monday and see if I can consistently do it. Instead of destroying my relationships I turn on the Xbox and funnel my aggression into some kind of PvP deathmatch.

Instead of chucking those big blocks at the scales it is more like I am adding single grains of rice. While there is a kind of tension that comes from refusing the big move beast the satisfaction of an impulsive remix, I’m finally understanding that I can come closer to making those scales balanced by making little moves than I ever did with the big ones.

 

Providing an Outlet

Even since childhood I have often equated pain (emotional or otherwise) to be like electricity. Failing to provide an outlet for that force once it has entered my system generally results in short circuiting; an explosion of force down an unintended pathway as it tries to escape.

This morning I leaned in to kiss my partner goodbye as he left for work and stubbed my toe. You know the feeling you get when you know something gruesome has occurred to part of your body (in this case: a toenail) without looking -you can just feel it? Well, as pain started shooting through my foot I knew I wasn’t ready to look down and look at the damage quite yet. Even so, my first impression was to scream out in pain… but with my boyfriend standing less than 12 inches from my face (and it being 7 am in a crowded apartment building) I decided to hold it in.

Big mistake.

That energy that should have been released out my mouth shot down my throat to the next available thing; my arm. I immediately punched the wall (twice, apparently the first time wasn’t quite enough to allow all of that energy to escape) and winced as he left, attempting to walk off the pain in my foot.

While my big toenail is split (right in time for sandal weather, drats!) it wasn’t until my hand started to swell up from punching the wall that I realized that maybe I should have just screamed. Denying myself a natural outlet for letting that energy out certainly backfired, and my attempt to help my boyfriend and neighbors by keeping my seemingly inevitable screaming at bay ultimately hurt me in the end.

In my experience, the turmoil experienced in mental health isn’t much different. Providing myself with an outlet while depressed usually means verbalizing or writing through what is bothering me, while my manic outlets tend to be more physical; cleaning/exercising/and creative based projects. It took me many years to realize that, like punching the wall because of my big toe, failing to give myself an outlet for that energy trapped inside has often led me to explosive behavior, and outlets that have been seriously more damaging than what might have occurred if I had just followed my natural instinct.

I’ve done several training workshops about how to mitigate suicidality in crisis situations for other people, and I was shocked when each technique boiled down one core idea; confront the person about feeling suicidal, and then talk about why they feel that way with them.

Certainly I was expecting black hawk helicopters and swat teams and maybe a little magic to be involved, but ultimately providing an outlet for the person to express those feelings verbally in a nonjudgmental atmosphere proved that allowing some of that energy to escape was usually enough to disarm the threat of imminent suicide and get the person to some kind of treatment.

I would say that usually in my most dire moments I find myself at a loss for how to get that energy out. The fog associated with depression or mania might make it seem impossible, or unnecessary, and I might feel trapped in the moment, unsure of where to focus that energy without hurting myself or other people.

And obviously… I’m not perfect at it. After 15 years of considering this idea I still find myself punching walls occasionally or throwing my phone or rushing to my therapist feeling like a ticking time bomb because I’ve become certain that any words or actions on my part will destroy whoever I’m around (not true, as it turns out, but it still feels that way sometimes).

One thing I’ve done to help myself along though is to make a list for each of my intense mood states of good, useful, positive, harmless outlets that can help me get whatever energy I’m feeling out in a safe and satisfying way. Any time I think of something new, I add it, and that way when I am in the throes of a depressive fog, or so revved up on manic sunshine, or so irritable and agitated I don’t want to leave my room I have a little something to jog my memory.

Otherwise I might wind up punching the wall all the time and I’d never get my deposit back.

Supported as Supporter

The last two weeks has been a whirlwind as my boyfriend and I were faced with a family member who was in a near-death situation. I found myself sitting in one of the biggest role reversals our relationship has seen so far; stepping down as the supported and stepping up as the supporter.

I knew that this was a situation I would find myself in eventually, and it is something that has happened a few times on a much smaller scale before. Still, being in a position where my spotty depression brain this month was the more stable of the two of us (legit) made for a very stressful and confusing time.

While it has been many years since I stepped in the role of supporter for any prolonged period I have a lot of experience doing it. I grew up around a lot of instability which lent me to put most of my effort into being the rock for the people around me. I didn’t allow myself time or room to express my own emotions because I didn’t want to further upset the people I was trying to support.

Beyond that, my supporter resume remained equally as mentally and emotionally unhealthy when I found myself in a relationship with a guy whose instabilities often overshadowed my own in frequency. By the time this started taking place my bipolar symptoms were starting to make more and more of an appearance, eventually exploding through the seemingly supportive facade I had built up. As I expected as a child, my emotions + his emotions = a horror story.

I had forgotten most of this until two weeks ago when I put on my supporter hat, strapped on my supporter boots, and waited, poised, to be told how I could help in the situation. Before long I found myself settling into old patterns, completely overburdening myself with things, giving my self little leeway in terms of completing tasks when I thought they should be finished, and providing no outlet for my own emotional responses to the situation. Within days I could feel myself starting to crack under the pressure, my depression got seriously worse. I was having psychosis on and off. My DBT binder sat under a pile of clothes as I did my best to prepare meals and clean up and take care of our dog without sleeping.

I knew it wasn’t working. Within the first day I knew I couldn’t keep it up for very long. My emotions could not be contained under such a thin shroud of good intentions.

But… sometimes, when I am under a lot of stress or facing intense emotions (like mania or depression) all the framework for strategy falls away. An all-consuming fog makes it extremely difficult to know what to do next, or what I should do, or even what my options are. Even though I knew what I was doing wasn’t working, I was having the damndest time trying to figure out if there was something I could do different.

Luckily I have a scheduled weekly time I spend around a couple understanding friends. Pulling myself away from the apartment after 5 days of turmoil, they made me laugh just enough to help the fog lift.

Right. Taking care of Corey was helpful, but futile if I wasn’t able to also take care of myself. Frankly, at this point in my life I spend almost every waking moment working at taking care of myself, smoothing out the rough emotional corners  with routines, self-soothing or distracting myself when I need it, going to therapy and DBT group and seeing my friends each week to help take some of that ever-growing internal pressure off. I hadn’t been doing any of those things, and it wasn’t until I’d stumbled back into part of my routine that I realized how much I missed it.

At times I can be very single minded, if I start on a task it consumes me. Supporting Corey was no different, and while my therapist praised me for even noticing that I had fallen into that single minded place (from one of trying to take care of my own needs) I didn’t want to hear it. It didn’t feel like enough. It didn’t answer my question of how to be a supporter of both my boyfriend and myself at the same time.

This week things are finally starting to cool down. I got through things by grappling my way from one familiar point (like dinner with my friends) to another, despite how sparse those instances felt. I did my best to try to ask for help when I needed it (even though I have a hard time with it), and I cancelled several plans as well which was difficult (I hate feeling like a flake) but totally necessary in this situation.

Even though I don’t feel like I had any moments of clarity, any real understanding of how to position the elements in my life to enable me to be more fully a supporter and supported simultaneously I would like to think that down the road this situation will have taught me something, even if it is something I don’t fully recognize yet.

I’m sure it might sound greedy to yearn for immediate full understanding (yes please!) but as I get older I find I appreciate the sort of understanding that comes with time more and more. Since this situation didn’t lend itself to the former, I’m hoping for the latter.

 

5 Exercises for Falling Asleep

Falling asleep can be tough, even after attempts to remove all distractions. Sometimes I find myself too worried or anxious to fall asleep, other times it is like my mind just wont shut off.

Obviously living with bipolar disorder complicates things for me when it comes to sleep. In depressive phases I might feel like I can sleep for days, but there are times when I feel exhausted but can’t seem to fall asleep. Other times manic energy or a racing heartbeat makes it difficult to physically relax, not to mention hypomanic or manic flights of ideas that leave me constantly grabbing for a pen while I’m lying awake.

In these situations there are definitely times where I feel compelled to use a sleep aid and any number of attempts on my part to try to slow myself down to sleep seem to fail, however I can also have a difficult time falling asleep when I haven’t been bouncing up and down manically in my living room for 12 hours.

There have definitely been periods where I was prescribed sleep aids to take on a regular basis, and what I found was that it really screwed up my ability to fall asleep if I stopped taking them for any reason. The inevitable insomnia that followed triggered mania for me, and finding myself caught between being able to sleep but also having unwanted side effects or damaging my own ability to sleep wasn’t a fun place to end up.

These days I make the best effort I can to fall asleep before turning to a sleep aid, and over the past few years I have gathered a few exercises (some physical, some mental; all done while laying in bed) that have helped in my sleepy success.

Of course, there are many things that can be done to help increase our success rate for falling asleep like limiting screen time, increasing physical relaxation, and creating a routine around our sleep schedules. I find every little bit helps, and while it isn’t my intention to directly address these (or other) external strategies in this post it should be said that taking some time to bolster a healthy sleep routine can definitely get the ball rolling, and you may find that doing so may be all it takes to help you fall asleep.

These exercises are free, relatively easy, and can be done by anyone, not just folks with bipolar disorder, or anxiety, or depression. While I am not suggesting this can “cure” anything (and there are serious situations that require medical expertise) these five exercises have helped me become more successful at falling asleep naturally when I have been dealing with sore or stiff muscles, racing thoughts/flight of ideas, constant worry or obsessive thinking, physical symptoms of panic while in bed, and helped me relax when I generally just felt too alert to sleep. Some nights it takes a little extra energy to push myself into sleep past some of the physical side effects of my medications as well, and in those situations this list is my first line of defense.

1. Pointed Toe Exercise

This first exercise was especially helpful for me when I worked retail and spent several hours a day on my feet, but I used it just the other day when I had the flu and my legs were aching, keeping me from falling asleep and it was just as effective.

  • First I lie on my back and try to position my upper body to be as relaxed as possible.
  • Next I point my right toe down at the foot of the bed and then point it back toward myself. I repeat the pointed toe with the right foot ten times, and then do the same exercise with my left foot ten times.
  • Next I point both toes toward the foot of the bed at the same time, alternating between the pointed toe and toes pointed back up at me. I do this a total of ten times.
  • Finally (and this part is the most fun) I alternate which foot is pointed. If my right toe is pointed at the foot of the bed, my left foot is pointed up toward me, then they switch positions. Left foot pointed at the foot of the bed, right foot pointed up at me, kind of like using a paddleboat. I do this until each foot has been pointed at the foot of the bed ten times.
Usually by this time my muscles are stretched and much more relaxed, and my brain (that has been focusing on counting) is yawning and telling me, “dude, counting is boring. I’m going to sleep.” Sometimes I don’t even make it through the whole exercise before I am ready to fall asleep!
2. Clench & Relax
This is another exercise that is good for a tight/clenched/sore body, but the physical relaxation can be helpful anytime, really. I’ve seen several variations of this exercise but generally the idea is the same; systematically move through the body tightening and releasing different muscles as you go.
  • For this I lay on my back, and it doesn’t really matter how relaxed I am when I start (because end game relaxation is kind of the point here).
  • Starting with my feet, I flex my muscles in my feet and hold them rigid and count to five, taking a deep breath in as I count. When I breathe out I let go of the clenched muscles.
  • I continue up my body continuing this pattern with each area, flexing calves, hamstrings, hips, stomach, chest, shoulders, biceps, lower arms, hands, and then my neck. Finally I flex my face (I just scrunch it so the muscles are tight) and release.
One tip to maximize relaxation on this is to keep all areas of the body that have already been addressed as still as possible to maintain the relaxation. It can be eerie to feel like parts of my body have melted away to relaxation as I progress with the exercise, and that is part of the fun for me.
3. Fake it ’till You Make It
When I was a child I hated taking naps, so I devised a plan to lay perfectly still and pretend I was asleep to trick my mother into thinking I was napping. I remember laying on a couch at my grandma’s and considering what someone looks for to tell if a person is sleeping, and I tried to address every aspect I could think of. Wouldn’t you know it? I ended up falling asleep! I use this technique when I just generally feel too alert to sleep overall, as it covers some mental and physical strategies.
  • First I consider, “How do sleeping people lay?” and position myself in whatever is most comfortable for me that would recreate a deep slumber.
  • When people sleep they often appear or feel heavy and loose, not rigid, so I focus on making my body as heavy and loose as possible. I unclench my hands, sink into pillows, and let my shoulders sink downward.
  • The real trick, I find, is considering how sleeping people breathe. The breaths often aren’t too deep or too quick, but instead they are slow and moderately shallow. Focusing on trying to reproduce this kind of breathing is something that often uses all of my attention (which doesn’t make room for many other thoughts).
With this exercise I like to imagine what would happen if someone I knew came in the room and found me there. Would they think I was asleep? Typically, when the answer is yes, real sleep is right on the heels of my faux sleep.
4. Continental U.S. Map
I find this exercise the most useful if obsessive thoughts or constant worrying is getting in the way of falling asleep. Sometimes even if my regular thoughts are simply being too persistent I can use this to fall asleep as well. This exercise can be done in any position, all it takes is closing one’s eyes.
  • First I imagine there is a white line against the black background I see with my eyes closed.
  • Next I follow the line with my eyes as it creates an outline of the continental United States (moving clockwise). I allow my eyes to move as the line dips and curves around the great lakes and rises up over Maine, etc.
  • Depending on how persistent the thoughts are I might circle the country two or three times before going back to trying to sleep. If the obsessive or persistent thoughts happen again, I do the exercise again.

I know this exercise might sound ridiculously simple, but it has been super helpful for me. Weird, right?

5. Conjuring Observations

Ok, this one might be a little trickier but it is my favorite. I find it to be sort of emotionally soothing, beyond just helping me relax enough to sleep, and it is usually my first choice when I am experiencing physical feelings of panic in bed while trying to sleep.

  • This exercise requires me to unfocus my eyes. The best way I can describe it is that I close my eyes and first focus on an imaginary point (like the line in the US map in exercise 4), and then relax my eyes as though I am looking at a distant landscape of a mountain beyond tiny point. It can be helpful to make the distant thing I am looking at someplace familiar, a wooded trail I know, a beach I grew up by, or a room from my childhood.
  • Once my eyes are unfocused and I am looking at this “distant place” I occupy my mind by conjuring items or landmarks that I once observed of these places. Sort of like taking a big empty space and filling it with elements that I can remember. They can be as specific or general as I want. For example:
    • What were the location and types of trees in our old orchard?
    • What machines were at the arcade at the local drive in movie theater?
    • What was the floorplan of my childhood friend’s house?
    • What items could be found on the counter in my childhood home?
  • For this to be a nice experience and soothing (like soothing enough to make me fall asleep), there are some rules I employ, like:
    • I only choose places with positive or neutral associations. That doesn’t mean some places (like my beach) were never associated with anything negative, only that I have reached the point where I no longer feel a negative association with that location.
    • The details should be difficult enough to remember that it requires my entire focus (so it can’t be wandering around distracting me).
    • I never populate these spaces with living creatures, human or otherwise. I want to treat these spaces as tools and don’t want to lay around reliving memories that might produce an unexpected emotional response that might hinder my ability to sleep, not help it.

 

So what do these exercises have in common? It seems that each of them involves creating a relaxed atmosphere (physically or mentally) and occupying my mind in a challenging, but still relatively mundane task (like keeping track of how many times I’ve counted to ten). For me this is a combination that has made a recipe for success when it comes to coaxing myself to sleep.

Keep in mind that yes, like I mentioned, there are definitely still times I can’t calm my manic energy enough, or rebound from a midnight panic attack into a state of sleep, but I have been finding that with practice those moments seem to be getting farther apart. While I can’t guarantee these will work for you just because they work for me, I hope that considering what we are imagining or thinking, or how we are feeling right before bed is just as important for falling asleep as, say, having the right pillow.

There are numerous tips and tricks out there to help turn those sleepless nights into sleep-filled ones, and I encourage anyone and everyone who has had trouble falling asleep to do a little research and keep some tricks up their sleeve! There has certainly been no contest for me, more stable sleep is a constant requirement for a more stable emotional life and regaining the power to help myself fall asleep without the use of a sleep aid (at least, most of the time) has been paramount in helping me regain a feeling of control and peace in my life as well.

Depression Under the Radar

Like most people, when you hear the word depression you probably associate it with emotion. Sadness, perhaps, if you’ve never had it yourself. Despair, even, if that is something you’ve come face to face with. I know when I hear the word depression it is easy for my mind to make an association jumping straight to utter and complete hopelessness, or going a week without leaving the house, or even suicidality.

However, the truth of the matter is that depression has many symptoms associated with it that may not directly involve feeling sad or hopeless at all, and it is this odd grey area that I’ve found myself in lately.

Though I haven’t been having feelings of despair (profound or otherwise) I am definitely feeling exhausted all the time. I am more anxious than usual and having a hard time being in public places. I am less motivated and less interested in things, and I keep bouncing back and forth between wanting to eat everything I can get my hands on and not having an appetite at all.

But, despite all of these things, my first reaction when I saw my therapist last was to say things were going well. It wasn’t until she asked about my appetite and sleeping that I started noticing all of the other (emotionless?) symptoms of depression have been stacking up, but without that emotional sort of sinking feeling they’ve all latched onto me under the radar.

Once I noticed it I felt a little silly for not noticing it before. After all, I consider myself pretty experienced with depression’s escapades at this point and beyond that, there are plenty of times I have had symptoms of mania come on without the bliss or agitation I normally associate with it. Things like increased energy, impulsivity, lack of appetite and sleep, have been pretty easy for me to notice, but something like decreased energy could be any number of things from my immune system to stress to the weather. It isn’t until I can see all of those symptoms together that I am willing to start labeling them.

I guess I am hoping that since my stress level should (that’s the key word) be letting up in the next couple weeks I can simply play hostess and seat these other symptoms at a table while they wait for their friend emotion to arrive. If I’m lucky it’ll get stuck in traffic or be too sad to come to the party, and if not I will have my wait staff ready to do what needs to be done to keep things afloat.