stress


I took a year-long break from news, starting in the spring of 2015, on the advice of my doctor, to reduce stress. It helped a bit, and I needed the help. I was working on the last of my hours for licensure in a stressful environment. It was worth it to give up my standing as a good citizen who keeps up with current events.

Then, a year later, I decided to listen to the back episodes of my main news sources, Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square and KCRW’s Left, Right & Center,* figuring that old news should be less stressful and that my good-citizenship could use some updating.

I found that old news is almost infinitely less stressful than new news. It is also, of course, significantly less interesting, probably through the same mechanism. But the main lesson for me was about spin. Listening to pundits and guests talk a year ago about the news, I realized that they are constantly making, or at least implying, predictions. Maybe every third declarative sentence is a prediction. And from the vantage point of a year later, it is clear that these extremely intelligent, well-informed people are very, very bad at predicting the future. Predictions with no predictive value are just spin, an attempt to create the future by moving the narrative in the direction of your ideology.

That news is largely spin is not a major theoretical revelation, but it has been a big deal to me experientially. It reminds me of the first time a press release I’d written appeared, with only minor edits, in a newspaper under a reporter’s name. I’d known from my publicity classes that 80% of print media was rewritten press releases, but seeing my words there in print, looking so official, I felt my brain shift: Just about every thing you read exists because someone else has a vested interest in your thinking what they want you to think. And the same goes for words spoken on news shows.

So after catching up on news and realizing this, I very nearly went off it again. How is it useful to listen to all this spin? It takes up a fair amount of time that could be spent reading or studying. Or, I thought, maybe I’d search for a news source that offered no “analysis,” just descriptions of events. Eventually I decided/rationalized that I’d be missing out on the most entertaining few months of news in my lifetime, so I stayed in it. To temper the stress, I’ve added some much nerdier sources, mostly FiveThirtyEight Elections, Vox’s The Weeds, and The Daily Evolver. It helps to have people talking about data, statistics, policy, and theory.

Maybe I’ll go back off news after the election. Maybe all media for a while. We’ll see.

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*I don’t mean to pick on GPS or LR&C, by any means. (Though I do consider LR&C a perfect example of outcome irrelevant learning.) They are both really good shows, and intended to be analysis of current events, not just descriptions.

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I’ve had chronic, intermittent insomnia for as long as I can remember—at least since I was eight years old. I can remember at that age how my younger brother, Ely, in the bunk above mine, fell asleep so much sooner than I did that I would get lonely. I would keep him up as long as I could by starting conversations or, more often, asking him to tell me stories. He told me a great series of mean stories about a couple of girls we didn’t like–I think their names were Ingrid and Gretchen–with spectacular endings involving the girls being catapulted into huge vats of poop. They were hilarious and I loved them. One night, though, I asked for a story and he told me I’d used them all up, and he never told me another story. I still feel a little sad about that.

At that time, the loneliness was the worst part of it. I was homeschooling, so I didn’t have to wake up at a particular time, unless it was the year we had a TV, and it was Saturday morning and I had to clean my room before watching any cartoons. Once I was in public school, though, and on into college and jobs, insomnia became a curse. There were so many times I woke up with only a few hours of sleep, nauseous and primed to catch whatever cold was going around.

Thirty years later, I’ve pretty much overcome the problem, and in the process I’ve thought and read about it a lot and collected or invented a bunch of strategies for dealing with it. I’ll share the ones that have been consistently helpful. This post is so long I feel like I should give some meta-advice, too, like how to use this advice. I’m not sure. I came upon this stuff incrementally, and I’m not sure how it would have been different if I’d come across this information all at once. Also, I’m not sure how specific a lot of this stuff is to me, the specific causes of my insomnia, and the training I’ve had in meditation and therapy. If you are an insomniac, I suggest reading the whole thing and trying things out, one at a time, until you find something that helps. If you are not an insomniac, I suggest reading “Things to know” and then moving on to something else.

Things to know

1. It is important to understand that insomnia is never in itself a disease or a disorder. It is always a symptom of something else going on, usually too much stress. This means that you have  to deal with your stress or other underlying problem to deal with your insomnia.

2. Because of that, while there are situations in which it is smart to take sleeping meds, I find they are extreme and rare. Sleep meds are habit-forming and not a good substitute for natural sleep. If I’m pretty sure I will not sleep at all during a night, I might take something, but I find that the quality of sleep I get on meds is so much worse than natural sleep that I’m better off with four or five hours of natural sleep than eight of medicated sleep. This piece of advice is influenced by my anti-allopathic stance, but I believe that it is important to encourage your natural sleep cycle to emerge, and that taking meds will usually move you away from that, rather than towards it. I will occasionally take melatonin, which is moderately effective, or more often valerian. I like valerian the best because the liver processes it quickly–it helps me get over the hump into sleep, and that’s it, so I’m not so groggy in the morning.

3. Along the same lines, if you are serious about sleeping easily and well, do not mess with caffeine. That includes chocolate, which has caffeine and several other stimulants. Just don’t do it. You need to start paying more, not less, attention to the sleep pressures your body is giving you.

4. Don’t be afraid of napping. I didn’t nap for decades because I wanted to be as sleepy as possible went I went to bed at night. I thought I was “saving up my sleepiness.” This is not how it works. I now think that resisting the urge to nap is more like practicing not sleeping when your body wants to sleep. If you are an insomniac, you do not want to get better at this skill! Consider the fact that first-world humans are the only primates that don’t nap. It’s a pretty small club. I bet that club has most of the insomniacs in it, too.

5. Don’t be afraid of “oversleeping.” Sleeping is like peeing; when you are done, you stop. The exception is clinically depressed people, and I’m not talking about very sad people, or even people who just fit the DSM criteria–I’m talking about people who are so massively depressed that they’ll sleep for 17 hours and still not be able to get out of bed. These folks are not insomniacs, anyway. Incidentally, I won’t be surprised if we eventually discover that many cases of clinical depression is are a type of sleep disorder. It’s not well known because there’s no way to make money from it, but by far the most effective treatment for depression is sleep deprivation. Staying up all night every third night or so completely eliminates the symptoms of real depression.

6. This is the most important thing to know about insomnia: Not being able to sleep is no big deal. It’s really not that bad. Unfortunately, this most important advice I have is not useful to hear, it is only useful to know, and I don’t know how to make you know it. Being freaked out about not being able to sleep has been the cause of most of my insomnia. I could tell, too, but that didn’t help. It only helped when I realize that it was no big deal to not get to sleep. Ever since then I’ve been able to sleep much easier and when I don’t sleep it doesn’t cause much discomfort. Perhaps the trick is getting a real problem–in my case it was having my heart broken.

7. If you are in love, having insomnia is normal. If you are in love and find yourself complaining about the insomnia, this my indicate that you are a chronic complainer and that you are focusing on the one unpleasant aspect of your situation.

Getting ready for/setting the stage for sleep

Allow your life to revolve around sleep for a while:
8. One way to decrease the I’m-not-falling-asleep-fast-enough anxiety is to give yourself lots of time to in which to sleep. If you need 8 hours—and you do, at least—give yourself 10 hours in which to sleep. This should be a sacrifice of “night guy,” not “morning guy.” If you have to wake up at 8 am, get in bed and close your eyes by 10 pm. That way, you can fail to get to sleep for two hours before it starts to matter. If you don’t think you can afford to lose those two hours, do some thinking and talking about that idea–somewhere in there is the anxiety that is keeping you awake. Plus, if this technique works, you’ll only lose the two hours for a few weeks. After that you’ll be falling asleep around 10:30 and waking up before your alarm, giving you that extra time back.

8. Another plug for going to sleep before you think you need to: It takes normal people 20-30 minutes to fall asleep. If your alarm is set for 8 am, lying down at midnight is ensuring that you don’t get enough sleep. That’s not insomnia, it’s just silly, but I’ve done it many times.

9. Set aside some time to do only relaxing things before you get in bed. I recommend no electric light for an hour before bed; a certain number of lumens of light hitting your suprachiasmatic nucleus tricks your brain into thinking it’s day. Other than that, just pay attention to what is relaxing and what is not. For me, any kind of internet is out, writing is out, and talking or thinking about emotional subjects are out, unless I’m getting good, loving attention while I’m talking. Edgy TV or reading is out. School work is out–any kind of work that will remind me of deadlines etc. Mild cleaning, like picking up laundry, is OK. Stretching, yoga, and physical therapy are good. Calming meditations are in. Drinking herbal tea is in.

10. Stay in bed with your eyes closed. Many insomnia-advice lists will tell you to get out of bed and clean or read or something until you feel sleepy, but I disagree, for a couple reasons: (a) You want to establish regular sleep patterns. It is better to get used to being in bed, doing nothing at the same time every night. Consider the possibility that, as an insomniac, you are no longer good at knowing when you are sleepy. (b) You do not necessarily know when you are awake or when you are asleep. You may be having the vivid experience of continual wakefulness, but unless your eyes are open you could be going in and out of stage 1 sleep without knowing it. Nurses often report waking up snoring patients from stage 1 sleep who insist that they had not yet fallen asleep.

11. Do not have a clock visible from your bed and do not get up to check the time, both because it violates #10, and because it will only make you more anxious. It’s better not to know.

12. Be limbically well-regulated. You are a social animal whose brain and body work best in contact and concert with others. Get plenty of cuddling and other forms of physical affection. Have a lover and friends and children around who you feel safe with and loved by.

The sleep train

13. I think of the wave of sleep pressure that comes about 20 minutes after I lie down as a train, because it’s moderately regular and easy to miss. Missing the sleep train is a product of being too alert or anxious, and this problem is best dealt with by doing the stuff I’ve recommended above. The only technique I’ve used with any success for catching the sleep train is anchoring on a sensation. Usually if I’m awake enough to use a technique, I’m jolted awake by the rushing, falling sensation of falling asleep. Several times, though, I’ve been able to pay total attention to a sensation, usually in one of my ears, and ride that all the way into sleep. This is the way I have had most of my lucid dreams. I have the experience of moving directly from being awake to having a lucid dream. It’s unlikely that this is actually happening, since beta-wave REM sleep is usually separated from alpha and beta-wave wakefulness by some time and two sleep stages, but the experience is vivid. It’s pretty cool, but if you miss the train, it can be quite a while before another one comes. Most of my tricks have to do with bringing on the train.

14. Sleep in a dark, quiet place. If this is not possible, I use a fan and/or earplugs to mask noises and a bandana over my eyes to block light. The best earplugs are the 30 dB white foam cylindrical ones from Wal-Mart. I don’t much care for Wal-Mart, but good sleep is more important than my dislike. Avoid the shiny, colored, or airplane-shaped earplugs. They are crappy. Silicon earplugs block noise well, but put too much air pressure on the ear canal. You could use those if you always and only sleep on your back. The best way to use the foam earplugs is to flatten them completely into little circles, squeeze the circles a little smaller, and then insert them as deeply as possible–to the point where the ear canal enters the skull. [And, since I don’t know you or how smart you are, I should also say that you should never put anything in your ears, much less as far in as you can. You run the risk of puncturing an eardrum, or having to go to a doctor to get something removed, or pushing your ear wax back to form a plug that can eventually cause ear infections and hearing loss. Don’t do it.]

15. Sex is good for bringing on the sleep train if you are allowed to fall right to sleep after your orgasm. Otherwise, it’s a wash.

16. More limbic regulation: I find it very effective to have someone spoon me, so I can feel their body breathing along my back. Nothing feels more comforting or brings on the sleep train better. One caveat: For this to work, you either need to have a good, non-twitchy sleeping partner, or be able to fall asleep before they do. In situations where spooning might be uncomfortable, because of homophobia or whatever, I’ve also found it helpful to rest my head on someone’s chest. It seems like it’s the intimacy and the sensation of someone else breathing that does the trick.

17. Get a massage. This works great but, like sex, only if you are allowed to fall right to sleep afterwards. The overall relaxation is great, and there is sleep magic in my ilio-tibial band (outside of the thigh) and my calves. For you it might be somewhere else.

18. Stop thinking. This is a big one. The main way I accomplish this is by paying attention to physical sensations. I have two methods. One is body scans–feeling the sensations in each part of my body, starting with my head, down to my feet and back up. The other way is just staying on one part of the body. For me the most effective is staying on my eyelids. Relaxing my eyelids is one of the quickest ways to bring on my sleep train. It’s so quick that I have to be careful not to do it before I’m calm and sleepy enough to catch the train.

19. The other way to stop thinking I found listening to an Ekart Tolle book on CD. He recommended listening to the space between his words, rather than his words–the underlying silence. The first time I tried it I fell asleep almost immediately. Subsequent uses have been less dramatic, but it’s reliably given me a chance at the sleep train. This only works with calm voices talking about calm things, of course.

20. For co-counselors: I’ve experienced profound relaxation and easy sleep during and after a “standing guard” session. If you’re not a co-counselor you probably won’t get this, but here’s a brief description: The client relaxes, eyes closed. The counselor stands guard, occasionally reassuring the client that they are safe and that if any worries are arising, the counselor is taking care of it.

21. Check in with the sleepy and tired part of yourself. I adapted this from Genpo Roshi’s Big Mind meditation, in which you tell yourself, “OK, now I’m talking to the part of myself which has no need to search for anything and no need to grasp ahold of anything….” He took the idea from some therapeutic modality in which you have discussions with parts of yourself–I forget the name of it. I decided one particularly alert night to check in with the part of myself that was sleepy and tired and it was remarkably effective. I think it’s important to do it in a kind, relaxed, parental voice. In my head I say “OK, let’s check in with the sleepy, tired Nathen.” Then I respond, “Hi, this is the sleepy, tired Nathen speaking.” “Hi, sleepy, tired Nathen. What does it feel like to be sleepy and tired?” Then I describe any sensations that feel sleepy or tired–my body feeling heavy, my eyelids feeling scratchy, whatever is there. This has consistently brought on the sleep train.

22. Exercise–use with caution. Most exercise wakes me up. There are two exceptions, and they are both so difficult that I rarely use them. One is a full set of Bikram yoga. Several times, on particularly bad nights, I’ve gotten up at 2 am or whatever and done the full 90 minute set, and each time I’ve fallen directly asleep afterwards. The second only takes a half hour, but is even more unpleasant. I got this from Jonathan Elkins: Flex the muscles in your feet as tightly as you can and hold it. After several minutes, flex the muscles in your calves as well. Over the course of a half hour at least, flex the muscles up your body, like squeezing all of the toothpaste out of a tube. Remember, when you get to your head, your feet are still flexed; your entire body should be completely rigid. If you do it right, it’s incredibly difficult and uncomfortable–barely or maybe not worth the sleep that comes afterwards. But it works.

23. I’ve used a few meditations on CD that have helped. A few versions of the yoga nidra meditation–it doesn’t seem to matter which, as long as I just listen to the body-relaxation bit and then take off the headphones. The delta wave pattern part of Centerpointe Research Institute’s level one CD seems to have been helpful. Mostly, though, I’ve used the first meditation on Roberta Shapiro’s Sleep Solutions CD. (Thanks, Mom, for the gift!) I like it best because the volume tapers off as you go, so it’s possible to actually fall asleep with the headphones on. It’s always a drag to wake up enough to take them off, or else get woken up by the next loud word or sound. What I’d really like is a CD player that monitors my brainwaves and fades the sound out at the onset of theta waves. That would be great.

Waking up too early

This form of insomnia is fairly new to me, but here’s what I have so far:

24. Don’t drink water for a while before bed, so you don’t have to wake up to pee. Yes, you wake up dehydrated, but well-slept. Alternatively, if you are a man, keep a pee-jar by the bed so you don’t have to walk to the bathroom.

25. Don’t underestimate your ability to fall back to sleep. Stay in bed with your eyes closed until your eight hours are up. You can fall back to sleep, but you won’t if you get up and start your day.

I stopped eating wheat for a few years in the mid-90s. I had been getting sick a lot and a doctor recommended I give it a try, postulating an allergy. I immediately stopped getting sick. It was great. I was happy. I must have had an allergy, right? The thing is, I didn’t start getting sick again when I started eating wheat again. And, around the time I went back on wheat, I got skin-tested for food allergies and wheat did not show up. Did this mean I never had an allergy? That it had been a coincidence that I had stopped getting sick? That I had an allergy that didn’t show up because my tissues had been clean for so long? That I had an allergy and skin tests are no good? That I used to have an allergy and I had grown out of it? Food sensitivity, I have decided, along with most food-related ideas, is a murky domain, and I’m sorry to say that looking into the opinions of experts has not been helpful.

The idea I developed at the time, and still believe to some degree, is that I do have some kind of sensitivity to wheat that may or may not be an allergy (whenever that term finally gets a good definition), and that surfaces during times of stress, like rocks when the tide goes out. I don’t have much evidence for this. Just that the story I presented above happened during a stressful few years of my life, and that wheat seems to be one of the three foods (along with red meat and sugar) that I get clear “you just overdid it” signs from my body: If I eat a lot of white bread, I can count on getting a little irritated in the back of my throat and feeling a bit…yucky, I guess, is the technical term.

I have some evidence against my idea, too. First, no noticeable reactions to moderate amounts of wheat. A true Celiac, for example, will be extremely uncomfortable for days after eating any wheat, rye, or barley–bloating, diarrea, various symptoms. Also, by far the most stressful period of my life was a few years ago, and I ate wheat through it and barely ever got sick.

Anyway, I have this idea, and I’ve been thinking about this set of symptoms I have. I’m not sick, but not being sick is not good enough, you know? I have these symptoms: 1) I have dandruff. Dandruff is an inflammatory reaction to a kind of yeast that lives in our scalps. 2) I’ve been having some pain in my joints and tendons, mostly in my hands, feet, and low back. Joint pain is often associated with inflammation. 3) I have what a urologist called epididymitis, inflammation of an epididymis, which feels like a slightly achy testicle. 4) I’m itchy. Couldn’t that have something to do with inflammation?

As you may have guessed, I’ve come up with a hypothesis, the Nathen Has Low-Grade Systemic Inflammation Hypothesis. NHLGSIH, for short.

I’ve also come up with a plan that sounds really fun, starting this weekend and going through to my birthday, at the end of September. Part of it is going off gluten (or, strictly, gliadin, the molecule in the protein complex that is called ‘gluten’ and that is in the gluten of wheat, rye, and barley, and that seems to be the problematic element) because of my food sensitivity idea–maybe I’m reacting to it at a low level and I’d be better off without it. Part of it is supplementation: anti-inflammatories (fish oil and turmeric, mostly) and bioflavanoids (picnogenol and grape pips, mostly). I can honestly say that I’ve never felt a clear benefit from a supplement, but what the heck, I’m giving it a try.

I’ll be watching for a clear improvement in any of my easily trackable symptoms (pains, dandruff) by my birthday. It would be nice to experience obvious changes, but I’m skeptical. Inflammation is another murky topic. It’s a very, very complex part of our immune response, involving a bunch of hormones and chemical cascades. No doubt in a hundred years inflammation as we know it will seem very quaint, along with balancing the humors. Anyway, without obvious improvement, I’ll go back to the good, crusty breads and not reading labels.

There are several weaknesses in my methodology. First, no control group. I need a second Nathen to eat gluten all summer but otherwise do exactly what I’m doing. Second, these are not the only diet changes I’m making. I’m also going off sugar and pretty much all other processed foods. I’m also going to be eating 50-70% raw food, by volume. I’m taking glucosamine, MSM, and chondroitin. I’m also going to start eating protein three times a day. Third, there are the lifestyle changes. I’m moving. I’m not going to school. I’m not going to be reading/computing/stressing as much. I’m going to be excercising a lot more. And meditating. I’m going to be making music. I’m not going to be dancing as much. I’ll still dance every day, but I’m not planning to do any camps or exchanges until December.

So it’s not even a very good quasi-experiment. But I’m so looking forward to it! I love changing up my diet. I get so much more creative about what I eat. I’m looking forward to my summer, in general. I’m going to stay in Eugene for most of it, which is unusual for me even though it’s my favorite time of year here. I’m going to relax. I’m going to eat some great food.

I am a few weeks past halfway through my 38th year, conveniently marked by my brother Damian’s birthday, and the start of my spring term. Here’s an update on how my intentions for the year are coming along.

1. Add new knowledge to the field of social psychology: I have just finished (I hope) crunching numbers for my honors thesis, and I can say that I have helped produce some new evidence, at least. It is not as sexy as I had hoped, but I have learned a whole lot about the process of psychology research, and that is the main point, as my advisor keeps reminding me.

2. Break my habit of scratching and picking my skin, including biting my lip: I have made some progress here, using a technique Reanna told me about: snapping myself with a hair band around my wrist whenever I had the urge to touch myself. My success varies clearly with my stress level. It requires mindfulness. Another insight/confusion: picking and lip biting, I can tell, are pure stress responses, but the scratching I think is more than that. I seem to be an itchier than normal person. A dermatologist told me that it was the “notoriously harsh” hand-made soap I have been using. I accepted that explanation until I realized on my ride home that he had been wrong. I only use soap on a few key areas. By his reasoning my armpits should be itchier than most of me, and they are not. Any ideas?

3. Celibacy: This has been no problem. I have not been tested, however; no one that I am aware of has wanted to have sex with me. When I first told Grace about this one, she said, “You are going to learn a lot from doing that, but you know, now that you are committed, you will immediately meet someone who will make it very challenging.” Well, not yet.

4. Dance every day, working on 1) musicality 2) vocabulary 3) style: This is going pretty well, though some days my dancing is just a token, so I could say I did. I had a big breakthrough in musicality on my fast dancing at Seattle Balboa Festival in February. The choreography I have been working on with Karly has been helping my working vocabulary. And the main reason I decided to take ballet is to improve my poise and lines. It is easy for me to get into an I-could-be-doing-so-much-more/better state. There is a guy who started in the same beginning class that I did in Eugene who really dove in and is now a rock-star dancer in Portland, winning national competitions. But I still give myself a thumbs up on this one.

5. Finish bachelor’s degree: Yes. I am on track to graduate with honors on June 13, 2009.

6. Get accepted into a couples and family therapy graduate program: Yes. I start in the University of Oregon’s CFT masters program on September 29 (happy birthday to me!), 2009. I’m very excited.

7. Maintain this blog: I have a lot more ideas for posts than actual posts, but I am pretty happy with NME so far. It has been a consistent source of inspiration for me. I get about 20 clicks a day, on average, which seems pretty respectable. The lowest I go is three (two of which are my ever-hopeful-for-a-post Mom, I just discovered), and my peak was 62 on March 31, the day after I posted the guide to my sidebar. I wonder who you all are.

8. Meditate every day: Yes. Sometimes just a few minutes, but yes.

9. Produce a record with David Waingarten: This is not going to happen this year, which I’m sad about. I love this guy’s voice and songwriting. He also makes movies, though, and that’s what he did with his time and money this year. The movie looks good, though. Here’s a preview: This Is Now

10. Record an EP with my band, Abandon Ship: This project is not on schedule, partly because of #12, below, and partly because of how much work an honors thesis is, on top of an internship and classes. I am working on it , but it will almost certainly not be done by my birthday.

11. See healthcare provider each month until all my body concerns are resolved: Yes, I have been doing this. I’ve seen a dermatologist, an orthopedist, a urologist, and two chiropractors. I’m disappointed with the results, so far. I seem to be collecting concerns faster than I am resolving them. Hmm… That makes it seem like I am on my last legs. I am quite healthy, overall, actually.

12. Set up a slick system of musical collaboration over the internet and use it regularly: This has come together much slower than I anticipated, but I have every reason to believe I will be up and running by early May. I can hardly wait.

13. Shift my schedule three hours earlier for at least one term: In bed by 11 pm: I’m very happy with this one, so far. I have not pulled it off perfectly for a term straight—my dance schedule conflicts somewhat with it—but I’d say 90% of the time I’m in bed by 11:30, at least, and that means I’m waking up naturally before my alarm 90% of the time. I love it!

14. Sing out every day: I have not been doing this as I had hoped. I am still inspired to sing out like my friend Zen Zenith, but I have not been working on it with any regularity.

15. Take African dance classes: Yes, I have taken two classes from master dancer Alseny Yansane, and they were awesome. Unfortunately, I have been having this low back pain that has kept me from dancing with that extreme athleticism. When my back stops hurting, I will go back.

16. Write at least one song per month: Nope. I have not written even one complete song. Ouch.

17. Make at least one of each item in Maya’s cookbook: Yummm. I have made four of 19 recipes: Fluffy Whole Wheat Pancakes, Super Hero Granola, Corn Chowder, and Maya’s Tomato soup. They were all excellent except I burned the granola.