Six Simple Rules For Dealing With My Anxiety

This post is the first non-technical one I’ve done in a while and will discuss my mental health issues, the problems therein and how I’m mitigating them.  I talk about things like this on Facebook, Twitter and even all-staff emails at work and I thought I’d finally pen something here.  This will also cover some of my favourite life hacks I’ve collected over the years, mostly via Lifehacker, which have helped me a great deal.

First off, I’m not a mental health professional and if you think you need help, please please please seek it.  This post will cover some of my issues, how I’ve dealt with them and maybe give some tips on helping you deal too but this isn’t a substitute for getting professional help.

Background

Anyone who knows me will know I’ve had problems with sleep for a long time, since I was 11 or so.  I chalked this up to puberty kicking in and then that just being how life is.  I’ve also had issues with crowds, confidence, imposter syndrome, stress and who knows what else and I always assumed they were lots of different things that weren’t related in any way.  I would get angry at the drop of a hat for the most inane of things, I would feel physically overwhelmed when in noisy rooms and generally feel constantly on edge.  These weren’t related though, clearly it was just that I’d had a bad week, bad nights sleep, I’d eaten something that hadn’t agreed with me and so on, always able to rationalise it away and though I was trying to deal with each of them it was in isolation.

One day last year I cam across a video from ProjectUROK in which Wil Wheaton talked about his struggles with anxiety and depression.  Now a lot of people thought his character in Star Trek TNG was irritating but I was young when I watched it so he was the character I associated with, a geeky kid with lofty goals trying to find his feet, so him talking about these issues I thought I’d give it a watch.

It really did hit me like a ton of bricks, all the little things and everything else swam in to focus.  It still took me a few months of reading up on it and talking with friends but I finally went to see a doctor about it in January this year.  She asked me a bunch of questions to get a idea of the severity and the results were pretty high.  High enough the question was raised, “how the hell have you dealt with this so long?” and I’ve no idea in retrospect.  I just kinda got on with life and hoped for the best but things were just getting worse.  She referred me for cognitive behavioural therapy and proscribed some medication to dampen the physical symptoms and I was finally on the right track.

The Early Days

What I learned about my condition was that my fight or flight response was almost permanently active, this explains why I couldn’t sleep, either hid from problems or got angry at them and more besides and the medication mitigates that until the therapy kicks in.  I didn’t quite have the epiphany that Wil Wheaton mentioned but after a few weeks I woke up one morning feeling odd.  I couldn’t quite place it, but something had changed and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what.  After a few hours of pondering it occurred to me that the ache in my chest that I’d had for years had gone.  I’d always chalked it up to a symptom of asthma but apparently not!

At the same time as this was happening my work health care added mental health cover so rather than tying up NHS resources I thought I’d take advantage of our health plan.  Over the six months or so of sessions we talked about all sorts of things but mostly it taught me coping mechanisms on how to get out of the vicious mental loops I find it so easy to get in to.

Over time, things improved a great deal but I was still finding it really hard to maintain momentum and even get up on time still.

The Rules

I’ve spoken about The Chain on here in the past and last time it didn’t really work for me, no idea what it was but something knocked me off my stride and I gave up on it.  I came across this article that says that before building up to big changes make little ones so I thought I’d combine the two.  I set myself the first of my little rules;

Have breakfast and watch some TV before work.

The key thing with this one was the TV bit as it forced me to get up early enough to be able to spare 22 minutes to watch an episode of 3rd Rock From the Sun, I figured starting a day with comedy was a good call.  It worked in the week and I was getting up more regularly for work and not really feeling like I was sleeping better.  After a month or so I thought I’d have another look at this one rule and break it down a little;

  1. Get up and shower straight away
  2. Make breakfast
  3. Watch something or read the blogs I follow

I also combined this with the chain to track how well I was doing and thought I’d add some evening rules too to allow me to get more done in the evening rather than just slump on the sofa.

  1. Tidy for 25 minutes
  2. Cook a meal and prep lunch for work the next day
  3. Make or learn something for 25 minutes

The biggest change was getting up and showering straight away, I’m waking up a lot earlier now and actually have a sleep pattern.  When I mentioned this on Facebook a friend shared a link to info on something called sleep inertia and it seems that the shower really speeds up recovery from sleep.  If you are wondering why 25 minutes then see my earlier post on the Pomodoro timer I made.  It’s also a mental hack as “It’s only 25 minutes, not even half an hour” seems easier to swallow.

After 21 days of this regime my blackboard looks as follows;

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I missed one evening of making meals early on and figured today I’d earned a lie in.  My flat is much tidier, I’m sleeping much better, I’m now known at work for being optimistic rather than cynical and I’m generally happier.  I still have bad days but the list helps, my therapist once told me “you don’t have to feel like doing something to do something” and it’s all too true.

The days where I don’t feel like tidying or tinkering I do so anyway and when I wake up the next morning or get home from work to a tidy flat it really helps break the cycle.

The Next Steps

I figured that if it takes 21 days to make or break a habit then reviewing the rules every 21 days would make sense too so today I’ve taken stock and tweaked them as follows;

Morning:

  1. Wake up and shower
  2. Have breakfast
  3. Chill out

Evening/Afternoon on weekends

  1. Tidy for 25 minutes
  2. Cook something healthy
  3. Make/Learn/Do something for 25 minutes
  4. Update my Bullet Journal

Not much of a change but that’s the point I guess, using this as a base for bigger changes was always the plan so making another small change makes sense and hopefully will help get my weight back down and keep it down. I’ve been using Bullet Journal on and off for years too and it really does help keep track of random tasks so making me update it more often can only be a good thing.  I’m also planning on taking notes of things I’d achieved each day too as a reminder I’m still getting shit done.

Thanks

Oh, and last month I got to say thank you to Wil Wheaton in person.  They say never meet your heroes but I thanked him for sharing his story and told him it was the reason I got help.  He turned to me and said “You’re very welcome. Depression lies” and gave me a reassuring smile.  It was brief but glad I had the chance and he really does seem a gent.

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A massive thank you to all my friends, family and colleagues who’ve supported me through all this and put up with me on the bad days before I knew what was going on.  The epiphany that was the video got me started but you all kept me going.

So, that’s the story so far and I expect I’ll post updates to my rules as and when they happen.  Until then I hope you all stay well or get the help you need.  Oh, and I know I ended up with seven rules but I’m a Computer Scientist so off-by-one errors are kinda my domain…

The next post should cover the multi-room audio system I’m building so normal service should resume shortly!

OneNote Kanban and Bullet Journal(ish)

Lifehacking!  Until recently I’ve spent more time blogging about it than doing it but in the last few months I’ve found a task/time tracking technique that seems to be working and today had an idea of how to adopt a complimentary method too;  Bullet Journal and Kanban.

Last year I started using Bullet Journal, which the guys at the source can explain far better than I, with a great deal of success.  I used a pocket sized Moleskine which I could take anywhere and it has helped keep track of what I’m meant to be doing long term and when.  The only irritation I found with it was that I tend to plan more than a month ahead so in my 2014 notebook I’ve written out January to December on pages 1 – 24 so my entire year is in one place and after that it follows the same idea as standard.

For my bigger projects I’ve long liked the idea of Kanban but I like to make notes and flesh out ideas in notes so using sticky notes to track the task as well as a separate notebook to track details of the task seemed a pain in the backside.  On the walk back from lunch today an idea, OneNote!

OneNote is a fantastic application, when it was initially pushed out at Microsoft it was a little bit of a pain but once coupled with FolderShare it became brilliant.  This pre-precursor to SkyDrive allowed notebooks to be sync’d across multiple machines via the internet which made the product very useful and with the later versions this is done automatically via SkyDrive.  I’ve been using OneNote for years for keeping track of ideas and research but using it as a Kanban board never occurred to me for long running tasks.  It turned out to be as simple as this;

OneNote Kanban

Create a new notebook called whatever you want, create a section for each state and a page per task.  The three in “In Progress” denotes the WIP (work in progress) limit and as a task changes state simply drag it to the relevant section, job done.  I think the two concepts will work quite well together as I can make a note on the go in my bullet journal notebook and when I get home add it to my backlog if it’s a longer term task or just do it if its a short one.  To handle the context switch between the two I’ve added a market to the bullet journal scheme which is a ‘K’, this denotes the task has been moved to my Kanban backlog and can be ignored from the perspective of the journal.

The journaling technique is working far better for me than the Master Planner or The Chain ever did insofar as I’m still using the journal six months later and as I use OneNote on a daily basis fingers crossed it’ll help too.  Time will tell!  If nothing else it’s a good place to throw all my ideas.

Sleep and the Creative Mind

Like many creative people, I don’t find sleep easily.  This is a common theme among those for whom their mind is their instrument and as I lay in bed last night starting into the darkness, trying not to think of the latest crazy thing to do next to add to my list of projects, a thought slipped into mind I believe is worth sharing.

116 amLast week there was a Horizon special on the BBC regarding insight and creativity, the latest theories in neuroscience.  For those in the UK, or for those visiting, here is a link to the show on iPlayer.  One of the theories put forth is that moments of insight, clarity, epiphany or EUREKA! moments seem to occur when the visual cortex is not being stimulated.  They suggested that to stimulate creativity you should put yourself in an environment where you aren’t visually stimulated.  One piece of advice is to ensure you don’t have anything resembling a face or to avoid being around people too as our minds are hardwired to pattern match faces.

For years I’ve wondered why my mind goes into overdrive as soon as my head hits the pillow and I’d always assumed it is related to environment.  When I lived with my parents, at University and for years afterwards in shared houses my room was also my study and living room.  The idea that spending so much time, active and awake, in the same room you sleep in has long been suggested as a link to not being able to switch off.

I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve been sat on the sofa, in a bright room, watching people on television and find myself falling asleep.  Five minutes later when I hit the sack, my mind is running a mile a minute.

As I lay in the dark last night attempting slumber, with little to no light in my room and nothing to stimulate my visual cortex it occurred to me that the darkness itself may be the cause of my creativity and of my sleepless nights.  The question is, if true then how to avoid this state of mind?  If the sight of faces can subdue the creative process then I’m wondering if a randomised slideshow of faces could be the antidote.  My reasoning is that if the mind automatically pattern matches faces then a series of randomised portraits would constantly activate these areas of the brain and may assist in quieting the creative areas of the mind.

Hell, it’s worth a try.

Kitchen Trick: Freezing Pesto and Passata

Between a minor electrical explosion at my local and a string of migraines my thing for week three is taking longer than expected so this week I’m sharing a kitchen trick that works a treat.

I love to cook but live by myself which means that sauces and things in jars often go off before I use them, the worst offenders for this was pesto and Passata.  I’ve discovered that silicon ice-cube trays are brilliant for storing these in the freezer in single serve portions.

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I often take cous cous based salads to work and putting a frozen cube of pesto in to the box in the morning will help keep the food chilled yet defrost by lunch.  Likely it doesn’t help that much but it can’t hinder matters.

The next post should be a Thing a Week post back to the more geeky topic of 3d printing as I’m currently working on the electronics for my 3d printer.  Stay tuned!

The Chain

I’m an avid follower of Lifehacker, particularly mind hacks.  One that has appeared recently, and appears to be gaining momentum, is Jerry Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” time management technique.

The idea is simple, set yourself a few goals to achieve each day and if you manage them all you mark the day on a calendar with a cross.  Put that calendar in an obvious place so you can’t help but see it and that’s it.  I printed a year calendar from printfree.com and printed it out in A3 then stuck it to the back of my front door.

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My long running problems are thus;

  1. Insomnia/oversleeping
  2. My flat (or apartment, to any American readers) is a very messy
  3. I’ve more projects than time and make none of them

To try and fix this I’ve set myself three simple tasks;

  1. Have breakfast before work
  2. Tidy something until it’s noticeable
  3. Work on a project until something has been learnt

Next to my door I’ve a blackboard wall, it has a list of my projects on it which include building my Mini, a clock for my dad, my 3d printer and brewing beer.  The idea is I work on one per day and in the long run they all get a bit done rather than all stagnating.  I’ve also decided to factor in my fallibility.

A lot of people who have tried this idea have been brutal in its execution whereas my aim is to average out.  For example, if I miss breakfast one day then if I know I’ll not get that cross through the day.  Despite missing that aim it’s counterproductive as mentally the day is written off before it starts.  Instead, if I miss breakfast I have to double up on one of the other tasks.  Today, I had breakfast but was a bit late for work.  Rather than writing the day off I instead doubled up on tidying and tackled a particularly untidy area of my flat that I’ve been avoiding for a while;  Behind my sofa.

I did so, and despite the fact I was a few minutes late for work I know that overall I have achieved something today.  To a lot of people this may sound odd but personally, I need momentum.  I need to feel that I’ve achieved something every day otherwise what’s the point?  It doesn’t matter if I’ve tidied something, succeeded in solving some tricky problem at work or having a eureka moment in a personal project, I need to ride a wave.  If I was anal about my tasks I’d be setting myself up to fail and I’d give up as all too quickly I’d lose momentum.

I’ve also decided to average out over the week to avoid burning out.  If I’m at work on a Friday, when I get home I don’t need to tidy or build anything as long as the previous four days I’ve done so.  This way I feel I’ve earned a pint, which if true then I have!  For the weekends, I have to get out of bed before 10am so still get a lie in but still have to work on the other two tasks.

If anyone is reading this (huzzah, readers!) and you think it sounds too simple then I urge you to give it a go as today something peculiar happened;  I felt guilty.  Because I got in a few minutes late, not the end of the world I know, I felt I’d let myself down and had to make up for it.  This wasn’t a conscious act but the simple fact that its working and the mind hack is settling in.  As such, behind my sofa is now tidy and seeing it tidy for the first time in months is highly rewarding!

Fingers crossed this will continue and little by little my flat will get tidier, I’ll build and make more things and I’ll finally get my sleeping problems in check (after 20 years).  The strangest thing is that these simple rules, on a daily basis, are almost trivial but the cumulative effect is astonishing.  Long may it continue!