Sleep to stay well

Feel like you’ve had enough and can’t go on? As soon as you start feeling stressed, anxious or low, it’s usually a sign that your brain is getting tired. Not necessarily sleepy but exhausted. If you have been running for too long, your body will ache as a sign that it needs to stop, so when you feel like you’ve had enough, your brain is telling you to stop.

Giving your brain a break is vital for its survival; Like any other muscle it needs time to rest to regenerate and grow. Sleep is the most important way for the brain to do this. Whilst you sleep, it can rest, repair and grow. If you suffer with a mental health condition, sleep is vital. If your chemical levels are slightly different to other people’s, then your brain will have to work harder to function the same as everyone elses. I am always amazed how tired I am after a day’s work but then I’ve had to battle bipolar on top of my daily duties – and it’s bloody hard to do that some days. To combat this, I need to prioritise rest and sleep more than others I know.

Getting enough sleep helps improve how we feel and how well our brain can function, therefore our mood improves. It’s as important as medication and exercise in staying well. Here are some strategies that help me sleep that may help you:

1 – Exercise

Moving your body will help you feel tired but think carefully about when  you do it. Exercising vigorously immediately before sleep – with perhaps the exception of sex – doesn’t help as your body needs time to wind down and prepare for sleep. Try exercising during the day, preferably in the morning, to feel more tired when you’re ready for bed.

2 – Shut Down

You need to give your body and brain time to unwind and get ready for sleep. Try setting aside at least an hour before you want to go to sleep to relax and unwind. Watch mindless telly (there’s plenty to choose from), read a book, listen to the radio – whatever it is, it will help you to take focus away from your day-to-day thinking about work, life etc, and help your brain to unwind.

3 – Mindfulness

When you finally hit the sack and rest your head on the pillow, if your the type of person that has everything flashing through you mind at 100mph, now if is the perfect time to practice mindfulness. Concentrate on your breath, let the thoughts come and let them go with the out breath. I’m very lucky living in the country as I can focus on what I can hear, whether that is church bells, a distant train or the occasional owl. Trying identify the different noises will help distract your mind from preoccupations – much like counting sheep. That said if you can hear screaming and gunshots, call the police and start looking on rightmove!!

4 – Turn the phone off

I am the worst culprit for the this. If the world of information is at your fingertips, you will be prone to use it. So many of us use it as an alarm clock as well so feel tied to it when we go to bed. I’ve started using the alarm on my watch and turning my phone off so I am not tempted for late night searching.

What I learnt from today’s run – creating your own luck.

My daughter cam home from school yesterday and said, “Daddy, did you know that it is lucky to catch a falling leaf.” It came from nowhere but she obviously felt compelled to tell me this at that particular time. And she is very wise. My wife and I are separating, I am heading toward financial uncertainly and have recently been admitted to hospital because of my bipolar. If there is anyone who needs to catch a leaf at the moment, it would be me.

I kind of forgot about this until I was running through the woods today and noticed the early autumn falling leaves. I stopped my run for a moment, held my hands out and waited for a leaf to come my way. I waited. Ten seconds. Thirty seconds. A minute and nothing.  Just waiting for luck to arrive means there will be a long wait.

I carried on running until the next flurry came. Rather than waiting, I started jumping around from one place to another, more desperate to catch an elusive leaf. I came close, some even touched my hand but, alas, no caught leaf. I had more hope and realised that this approach was more successful than just waiting for luck to come to me.

Having made a fool of myself for around a minute or two, an impatient dog was off and away so I trudged on. As fate would have it, there were no more flurries by the time I got back to the car. Bugger. I’d been running for 45 minutes and hadn’t caught my leaf. A little tired, I decided to take action into my own hands. I found a low oak branch with plenty of curled, brown leaves and shook. Suddenly lots of falling leaves which I could catch easily.

When I pick my daughter up from school later, I will tell her that I managed to catch a falling leaf. I probably won’t tell her the most important fact was that I had a lot to do with how I ended up catching one. Some might see shaking the branch as cheating, others might see it as using one’s initiative. The thing is, when it comes to luck, you can’t just sit there and wait for it to fall into your hands, you have to be proactive in looking for it.

Idling in the autumn sea.

The car door clunked shut and I headed up the slipway. In front of me lay nothing but the churning sea and a breeze with a hint of winter on my face. The sand under my toes was wet, the clouds were being pushed along quickly and the few other people there were just starting to pull their coats around a their ears. 

There was a dog as well. There’s always a dog. In this case and extraordinarily chipper Yorkshire terrier desperate form someone, anyone, to throw his ball. 

It’s on days like this I enjoy swimming the most. There are only a handful of Lowry figures trudging along the sand, no surfers, no tourists and just enough waves to make it interesting. Today, as I am feeling wimpish from a cold earlier in the week, I have donned – unceremoniously – a wetsuit, just to take the edge off. With its protection I can skip in to the waves and be immersed in no time at all. No dallying. No awkwardness, especially when the waves encroach on ones crotch. 

Yes the water is cold and it’s grips onto your fingers and toes but that only makes you focus on getting moving. 

You are at the mercy of the tide. Waves come and go. You rise and fall. I enjoy laying on my back, being bobbed up and down like a sea otter, cradled by the Atlantic. I study the clouds filling the sky along to the horizon. I think about where they have been and where they’re heading. I rise and I fall again. I am powerless. Drifting. Alone. At peace. For a moment I shut my eyes, complete in that moment. I am smiling.

All in all I play for 20-30 minutes. I duck dive some waves, do some sprints, lay like a starfish, paddle on my back. There is no real purpose for my visit today. It’s not for exercise. I most definitely should be doing other things but none of that is important. Once I’ve crossed that threshold, life can wait. No, this is life, enjoying these moments not worrying what has it hasn’t happened. 

When I’m ready, I catch some waves back to shore. I bury my head in the wave and feel it’s power; you can hear it. It is so. Much bigger that me It is controlling me, guiding me even. And I let it guide me. I have faith in it and I don’t panic.

When I have been washed up. I begin walking back up the beach. It’s started to spit but it didn’t stop me taking the top part of my wetsuit off so I could feel the air as I jogged back up. The poor young lifeguard looked looked away at this point as I rather resemble an overweight bulldog in full flight than Daniel Craig. I don’t mind. I am beaming. I feel warm. Fingers and toes tingle. Skin fresh and eyes glinting. The pure satisfaction of being alive is being pumped around my bloodstream. 

The few other people bracing the beach today think or tell me that I’m mad, which, of course, is precisely why I do it. What they think is madness actually helps my sanity. 

Outer mountains & Inner mountains: Personal perception vs Actual reality

So, your faced with a problem – a new obstacle. But, in fact, there are two version of it. The first is what actually lies in front of you and the second, and, often forgotten about, is the way your mind sees the problem. 

The latter is always the one which is harder to overcome. No matter what it is. 

For me, this site is a mountain. In reality it’s just some words on the internet. In my mind, it’s the inner workings of my brain laid out for others to judge. I fear yet crave that judgement. 

When I go to a party – my ultimate mountain – the reality of people meeting to relax and socialise is mixed in the inner struggle of fear. 

I understand when soldiers play down their acts of bravery because they weren’t afraid, so were they really brave? Do you conquer the mountain if you’re not afraid of it?

Overcoming a fear is a huge accomplishment no matter how small or petty it may appear to others. I know some who are petrified of public speaking, dogs, heights and even frogs. It’s not what’s I front of us but how we see it  that scares us. A cruel trick of the mind. A trick that paralyses the senses and makes rational the irrational.

Mix this with a predisposition to a mental health condition and boom – you have become psychological time bomb.

Bipolar is becoming my mountain. When it was just Stephen Fry that had it, it was only a mole hill. As soon as the diagnosis came along, I could see the top of this giargantuan peek. I still can’t. The way I see my bipolar has become an all consuming fear that I was unaware of before. Sometime I wonder if I would like I had it it or not. Would ignorance have been bliss? But now I know it’s there, it’s got to be climbed. Overcoming the fear of getting to grips with it is the hardest part – something I’m not sure I have the strength to do…yet. 

What I learnt from today’s run – Giving up gets you nowhere

This week, for one reason or another, I thought about stopping this blog. I was beginning to get bogged down in the traffic rather that enjoy the process of writing about my well being.  

To produce good quality content, you need to focus on what you’re writing and not how much traffic you generate. The quality might not be here yet, but the more I practice, the better it will get. If running has taught me anything, it is to keep going. 

When I started, I would do 2 twenty minute runs a week; now I am comfortable with 2 hour long runs and a half an hour run a week. I am so much stronger now because I kept going. I need to do this with the writing. Bad writing isn’t failing; giving up is. Now might be bit of a bump in terms of struggling with ideas but a lot of times ideas come you least expecting them – like when running. 

I’m starting to think that there is such a thing as overthinking; where the harder you attain your thoughts, the harder it is to think at your best. Sometimes, you need a distraction to let your subconscious go to town. Nothing worthwhile comes easy. There will always be hard times. But we have to keep going. 

What I learnt from today’s run – I’m in control.

I spent a little time planning where to run before I headed out. I hadn’t been out earlier in the week as had felt under the weather and had the urge to try something different. I though about it, told the dog where I was going and headed out into the early autumn morning.

About two minutes in, I had hopped over a gate, was running through a field and have deviated from my original plan. I’d though of something different. Not necessarily better but perhaps more suited for today. I didn’t have my phone so couldn’t call the dog to let her know the change of plan. I just carried on. 

At that moment only I knew what I was doing. No one else had influenced me and it had no impact on anyone else. Then I though of my children. At that same moment, I though of the dog. I had no idea what she was doing – my guess was sleeping – and that was out of my control. I could only control what I was doing. I realised how little we can control from moment to moment. We kid ourselves that we can control more than we do but we don’t can’t. I can’t control what decisions my children might make when they grow up, by all means I can help, guide and love unconditionally but they will be in control. 

Plodding along the muddy country lanes, I felt so small yet strangely reassured by this. It felt like a small epiphany yet one I had known all along. Was I thinking straight? Had I just reawakened something I had forgotten?  

When I got home, the dog did not care about my change of route. I doubt anyone will. The decisions I make will only be important to me. They could, of course, impact on others but things change. And change is living, constant change. My cells have changed since this morning – I am literally different to the person I was this morning. I change and I move on. I am the captain of my own ship. I’m learning to sail amidst the storm. It will be ok. 

This was a lot to think about in an hour’s running. It was not deliberate thinking but it came from letting the thoughts come and not surprising them. It came from being in that moment, peeking at the moors over the newly trimmed hedge; splashing in the cold puddles; the heavy breath as the incline got steeper; the sun breaking through the cloud. 

Nobody’s Perfect – Accepting Imperfections for better wellbeing

Have you heard of John Eales? Not likely. He is a former Australian rugby player who had the nickname ‘Nobody’. He was perfect – hence the name; Nobody’s perfect. He was the burly ball carrier, inspirational leader and would kick the winning goal from the touch line in the last minute of the game. I still swoon at the thought – what a guy! 

But Perfect? Really? Probably not in the minds New Zealand players and fans. Or those who don’t follow the game.  How we see what is perfect is very much based on our perceptions and values.

I grow up in an all boys school. Competition was fierce. You wanted to be at the top and avoid being at the bottom. You looked up to the people you deemed as ‘above’ you and aspired to be more like them. You wanted to strive to be perfect. Of course the boys you thought were coolest probably don’t think like this – they were too busy carving their own path. Not caring about what other thought. There was an almost bohemian carefree aura about them. 

I have wasted my life comparing it to others – looking in awe at other’s perceived perfection and forgetting to carve my own path. Measure of success has come from idolising the achievements of others. But I am not like them. They are probably not like them; was my perception of them that I wanted to be like – an unreality.

The perfections of others will sit with imperfections we are blind to. I look at sportsman as a key example here. The life of an athlete looks perfect but there must be so many downsides that we just don’t appreciate. The lonely hours of training, painful injury, personal and family sacrifices, the repitition of doing the same thing day after day after day. We see articles of fame, fortune and fleeting moments of glory but it’s the things we don’t see that we choose to ignore.

Social Media is the same. We idolise what we see but ignore what we don’t. Nobody’s life is perfect or no man’s life is perfect. The essence of life is tied up in its imperfections. 

The things I love most about my children are the things that make them different and special – whether that’s my daughter’s ringlet hair or my son’s freckles on his nose (among a long list of things I adore about them). Oh I can list the things I hate about myself for hours, but they are the things that make me, me. 

My bipolar – my biggest personal hate at the moment – is a key building block of who I am. But other ‘normal’ people don’t have it so it’s not right and I resent it. The resentment burns inside me. Why can’t it go away? But the resentment fuels the stress of having it – it makes it worse. Wasting time dwelling on it only self perpetuates the condition. I dread to think of the things I could have achieved in that time because I haven’t accepted it fully.

I am not perfect. No one is. We all have flaws but dwelling on them can be our biggest weakness. Accepting our imperfections can be our biggest strength.

No place for individuality; Spot On, My Dear Old Thing.

It feels a little like Christmas at the moment. In a couple of days time, I will be head to Lord’s cricket ground to watch England vs. The West Indies. Whether things are crumbling around me or not, cricket is a guilty pleasure that takes me away from the reality of life. When you think about it, it is absurd: A game can last to 5 days, there is often no winner, the weather can affect a result as much as superior athleticism and a weird language alien to most of us. It’s amazing and totally absorbing. Often, I get distracted by clouds sauntering overhead in between being caught up in temporary waves of fervour. 

It is game of a bygone era. It’s hard to believe that Cricket was the main sport of England a hundred years ago and now it’s struggling with its identity in a modern world. I can sympathise. This is how I feel a lot of the time out of time.

Thursday’s 3rd Test Match against the Windies, themselves in an identity crisis having formerly been call West Indies, will also see the fond farewell of Henry Blofeld, the erudite and loquacious commentator known by anyone who has listened to Test Match Special for at least 5 minutes. Here is man who paints a picture for the listener with a bumbling clarity that encapsulates the spirit of the game so elegantly. He started nearly 50 years ago and he’s as popular now as he ever was. 

It’s his individuality that makes him stand out; from his accent to his trousers, he is a man like no other. When reading an interview with him he said something that struck home. In reference to the BBC, he said that there had been a levelling from the bottom up and implied that individuality was no longer encouraged now as he had been when he started. Indeed, if you listen to TMS now, apart from Boycott and Blofeld, all co-commentators are nearly clones of themselves rotations around the seats. 

But he is right, Individuality is not encouraged as it was. Life is very prescribed now. I find it rare to hear stories that dramatically differ: encouraged to do well at school, the bright go to university, enter a career, do well, ritire and die. I don’t suppose there too much wrong with this but what if you don’t fit the prescribed model? What if you are the individual? In many ways I don’t feel I conform – living with bipolar is just one example. I feel very much the outsider. Finding another odd-bod under 40 who can talk cricket is bit of an issue in a football dominant world. 

Although we say, as a society, that we embrace individuals, do we really? For me, Henry Blofeld is one the last eccentrics whose colour will be glossed over by biege. Is this progress in an every changing world? A few concerns arise:

1. Is the over prescription making things stale?

2. How are we made to feel when we don’t fit the mold?

3. How come there are probably more of us worrying about not fitting than those who feel they do?

Problems – How We Solve Them Is How We See Them.

I was reading an interview with the author Neil Gaiman in The Times yesterday in which he shares his experience about swimming in the bay in Maine, New England with his partner.  He was terrified but his partner assured him by saying that the fear he had wasn’t real. Neil’s response has stuck with me for the last 24 hours and I can’t shake it:

‘But it’s real in my head.’

I haven’t thought straight for the since. The past couple of days have been hard, but only in my head. On the outside, things have ticked along as usual and the weather has been disappointing. All of a sudden I have been worrying. Worrying about anything. Should I change the car? Can I afford to continue living in my house? Will the children be OK? Is the lump on the dog’s chest getting bigger? Why can’t I think of anything to write? How can I make myself happier? All the while, the weather is still disappointing!

Rationally, I know all this is nonsense. I can’t control every facet of my life, no-one can. It is one of the main sticking points of today’s world that we impart to children that we are the masters of our own destiny, if only we work hard enough. We’re not. Certainly we can be our own agents to a certain extent but so much of our lives is beyond our control. By worrying about problems we can’t fix or only have certain limitations over only makes us feel inferior, like there is something wrong with us. It’s all a question about how we perceive our lives. We decide how real things are.

As a teacher, I love teaching children how the eyes work and how they create the images we see. If you close your eyes, you prove that. Your eyes make the the world visible. It’s up to your mind to interpret the rest from there. How you deal with perceived problems is all down to your perceptions. More to perceive creates more problems to devour on. I always thing of statistics about poverty and happiness and how those in poorer nations have less to worry about are then able to live free from worry. This strikes home with modern adventurers such as Alastair Humphreys  who realise on their travels and adventures how little we actually need to live and survive. Something Henry David Thoreau discovered in Walden, or Life in the Woods.

And yet we are pushed to bog ourselves down with unnecessary problems.

The career, the family, the house, the car the pets, the holiday home, the facebook profiles – all meaningless. If something disastrous were to happen, life will go on. It just will. When I look at the stars, I am struck by a level of insignificance that reminds me of how futile the life we create for ourselves actually is. In those moments I could be anywhere, doing anything and I would still be looking at the same stars.

I am still reading Wherever You go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn and have been intrigued by the ideas of letting go.

[Letting go] is a conscious decision to release with full acceptance into the stream of present moments as they are unfolding.

It’s about being aware of how stuck we are in relation to specific events and thoughts and giving distance to them so are able to see them with more clarity. With the distance, comes altered perspective that, for me, can make thoughts more manageable. For example, I can’t act on most of my worries because it is Sunday and life still slows down on a Sunday so there is nothing that can be done.  I might as well enjoy today for what it is, I have my children with me, I will sign off momentarily to spend time with them.

Stuff happens. It’s one thing after another; that’s how life works. Whether we like it or not, we can only control a limited number of factors about our life. The rest is down to our own perceptions and a level of choice to how we relate to the events of our life. Ultimately, in time, our achievements will be meaningless and forgotten, again whether we like it or nor, so needn’t worry too much about the little things. Find what’s important to us and live by it. Enjoy it and don’t hold on to what’s not important.

 

The Importance of Minfulness & Nature

I am writing this in my car next to the woods I’ve just walked in. It has cleansed my soul and put me firmly back on planet earth with clarity and lifted the murkiness of recent troubles – which I am not here to bore you with.

For too long I’ve been hung up with being sat at a desk with computer or pen in hand to write. Sitting in the car tapping away on an old iPhone listening to the stream works just as well. This is the 21st century after all!

Actually when I left my house over an hour ago, I had no idea where I was going to go. Walking the dog today was a chore I did not want to do. Having been away for a week, the dog didn’t look too bothered either. I just kind of ended up here.

Over the past 24 hours, I’ve been dipping into Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever you go, there you are. I had downloaded the Headspace app but my free trial had run out and I decided to turn to the godfather of mindfulness that is JKZ. Throughout the book are references to Henry David Throreau, and his experiences living at next to Walden pond. When living surrounded by nature, Thoreau felt truly present  in each moment. Nature helped him engage with the here and now. To be present and to better understand himself. Truly the quintessence of mindfulness.

Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity with Nature herself.

Henry David Thoreau, Where I lived, and what I lived for.

There is much simplicity in walking. Whatever is congesting in my mind melted away and I was able to experience similar emotions to what Thoreau might have felt, allowing the beauty, simplicity and the natural world to wash over you.

For moment, I was distracted by clovers. I spent a several minutes looking for a four leave clover that didn’t materialise and only prompted starange looks from Crumpet, the dog. I thought about how one must search in hope for luck rather than just waiting for it. I admired a small beetle just going about its business without a care in the world. It just kept on going, like we all must do.

My mind wondered off to the time the kids and I gathered holly and ferns from this wood for a Christmas wreath. The time I took a friend running through these woods who nearly threw up half way round. The time I saw an elusive deer skip across the path at dusk about a decade ago. My own personal connections ebbed and flowed interspersed with moments of focus on the natural world that surrounded me.

Today, I went to those woods feeling empty, I left feeling feeling whole. I truly had been there. I am here now and no mattered what happens, I should feels privileged to be so.