Settling down and keeping up

Zen Rock Photograph – Frank Burnside – click here to buy a Fine Art Print

I got to bed at a decent time last night — 10:30 p.m., versus 12:30 a.m.  Then I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and almost couldn’t get back to sleep. I lay there for a few minutes, then decided to sit up and do my breathing exercises, which have helped me get back to sleep in the past. It did help me this time, too. After about half an hour, I got back to sleep and was down until 7, when my alarm went off. So, I got at least 7 hours of sleep last night. I can’t be 100% positive, but I’m pretty sure.

The interesting thing is that the more sleep I get, the more groggy I feel these days. It’s like I’m not stressed out enough to be alert. And that sucks.

So, I’m doing something about it. I had a pretty intense talk with my neuropsych yesterday, when I told them about a bunch of things that have been giving me trouble that I haven’t brought up before. The lurking, constant sense that something is going to go wrong, that I’m going to screw up, that I’m going to mis-speak and alienate people… that I’m going to keep talking trash and running my mouth and get myself in trouble…  It all lurks in the back of my mind, and it keeps me from really engaging fully in conversations and interactions with people. It keeps me from really engaging fully with my NP, because I’ve said things to them that have come out wrong, and I couldn’t back up and correct it — too slow to realize, then really felt like crap and was too busy being dismayed at what I’d said, to correct it.

It’s been hanging over my head – that happened over a year (maybe two years) ago with my NP, and it’s had a dampening effect ever since then. They don’t seem to realize how much it holds me back, and I definitely need to raise it as an issue and bring their attention to it. Because I’m telling you, I’m really, really good at covering things up, so how would they know?

I really don’t think they appreciate the extent to which this hobbles me. It also holds me back, in that I actively seek out situations and people that are hard on me — or when others are really tough on me, abusive even, I don’t stand up for myself and correct things. This has been an ongoing problem with my spouse for years — they can get pretty rough at times, and they can be very volatile and verbally aggressive. But I generally don’t say anything, because frankly having them yell at me keeps me sharp and it keeps me on my toes.

But it gets a little old after a while.

Likewise, when people at work are really hard on me, or they’re piling up more on me than I can reasonably take on (as they’ve been doing for the past 18 months), I don’t say a word. I welcome it, even. Because the added stress keeps me on my toes, and the added workload — even if it does exhaust me (maybe because it exhausts me) — sharpens my focus and blocks everything else out.

Like getting good sleep. Somehow, I don’t actually think I need to sleep, when I get in a hyper-stressed state.

But that all takes a toll. Big-time. Eventually things start to break down. I start to break down. And looking back on my employment history, I can see many, many occasions where I’ve skipped out of a job when I was completely maxed out and couldn’t continue. When I was so stressed and fried, I couldn’t think straight anymore. I had to get out. I had to start fresh. Because I was starting to make mistakes that came from the extended stress, and I cannot stand performing well and/or at less than my full capacity. I just hate it. So I’ve always moved on.

Now, however, I’m so maxed out and fried, that even if I did want to make a move, I would be incapable of making a decent choice. I’m seriously overloaded, and I’m stuck in reaction-gear, with reactivity running my days, rather than pro-activity. I’m just beat. And that’s not good. It has implications for my daily life. And it has implications for my future. The insights I got a few months back about the direction I want to go in for my career have stalled, and I’ve gotten pulled off in a dozen different directions that distract me from my ultimate goal — a goal that makes sense and serves my future. The stress of my present situation (which I thrived on for the first 9 months or so) is coming around to bite me in the ass in a very big way. And if I can’t turn this around, I’m going to continue to make the kinds of choices that put me in “professional harm’s way” time and time again. It’s just not good.

So, the first order is to get more sleep. I realized in a very immediate way, early this morning, that with my breathing and progressive relaxation, I can actually spend my time awake (if I do wake up too early) feeling well and relaxed, as well as doing body scans that help teach me how to gauge my stress levels — which can help when I am in dangerous situations. I don’t have to feel stressed and sick to my stomach, the way I did at 3:30 a.m. When I sit up and do my measured breathing, as well as do some relaxation, I actually feel physically better, and that helps me to relax further. And when I do my progressive relaxation and body scans (I tend to forget how tense my back and shoulders get), it helps me manage my stress all the better.

I have techniques I can use. And I have skills. I mustn’t forget that. I need to develop the kinds of habits — such as doing these exercises when I wake up too early, so I can get back to sleep — that will translate into a solid foundation of progress… and ultimately help me get to a place where I’m making decisions about people I’m around and work that I do for a living, because of the good they’re going to do me, not the attention-spiking threats they present to me.

So, I have work to do. But ironically, that work is about easing up… loosening up. It’s like with my shoulder. I’ve been lifting a lot, over the past couple of months, and I haven’t been stretching enough. And now my right shoulder (which was my throwing shoulder when I was in track in high school) is giving me trouble. I’m taking a few days off the weights to stretch and let it rest. And then when I get back into it, I need to be easy and remember to get plenty of rest then, too. It’s all a balance, but for some reason, balance feels like it’s “off” — probably because there’s not all this stress involved in it.

It’s not “off” — it’s just unfamiliar. Coming up with new habits that make this more familiar and help me to relax and just “be”… that’s the next step for me. Well, steps. ‘Cause I’m not sure that’s ever going to end. It’s a process. Heck, it’s life.

But enough writing. Time to live a little.

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Getting to Sleep… a meditation of sorts

I have a lot of trouble getting to sleep, some nights. A lot of nights, in fact. I have trouble relaxing, and once I am in bed, I have a hard time turning off my head and relaxing my body. Here is a kind of “meditation” I use to relax myself, stimulate my rest-and-recuperate parasympathetic nervous system, and eventually get to sleep. It incorporates pieces from guided imagery I listen to, techniques I’ve learned over the years, and elements of neuroscience.

Try it… you might like it.

First, lie down flat on your back in bed. Make sure your head and neck and spine are all aligned and well-supported by the bed beneath you. Shift your body a little bit, so that you release some tension and are better able to let your body rest fully on the bed beneath you.

Now, feel your body from head to toe. Feel how tense it is in places… Imagine that you are encased in a hard shell of tension…

Now, taking a deep breath, imagine that you are sending a deep breath down into your feet, into the very tips of your toes… As you inhale, imagine your skin is like a balloon, and your breath is expanding it around your toes and feet, inflating the “balloon” of your body…

Imagine the pressure of your expanding shell cracking the hard “case” of tension that’s surrounding you. When you have inhaled fully (and comfortably), hold your breath for just a split second and feel the little crackles of broken-up stress float free in the breath “in” your feet.

Now, exhale slowly and comfortably. As you do, imagine the little crackles of stress being carried out of your body on your breath. Exhale fully and comfortably, and when you are done, rest for just a split second before inhaling again.

Feel how relaxed your feet are, from your toes through the arches of your feet, up to the tops of your feet. Feel how relaxed your muscles are… how warm and soft and comfortable they are…

As you inhale the next time, send your breath down into your ankles, and “inflate” the “balloon” of your body around your ankles. Feel the warm breath warming your feet and ankles, and feel the rigid tension of your body breaking up into little pieces…

As you exhale again, slowly and easily, imagine the little free-floating pieces of tension being carried out of your body by your breath…

Feel how relaxed and comfortable your ankles are… Feel how warm and soft they are… almost as though they are falling into a sound, peaceful sleep…

Now, take another long, slow, deep breath, easily sending the breath down your legs to your shins, where they “inflate” the tough shell of tension around your lower legs. Feel the breath expanding the space around your calves, your shins… crackling the tension into tiny little pieces, so it can be carried out of your body…

As you exhale, feel the breath carrying the tension far, far away from you, leaving only warmth and relaxation behind it…

Keep moving up your body, “breathing into” the different hard places that are surrounded by a shell of tension, and letting the out-breath carry away those little broken-up pieces. Work your way up your body, from feet to legs to torso to arms, to shoulders, to head. Take your time and breathe deeply and comfortably. After each out-breath, let the parts of you that you breathed into relax fully and fall into sleep. Don’t worry about going to sleep yourself, just let your body relax and let all the tension fall away… It’s all good.

I have been doing this meditation a lot, lately, and on a good night, I can get to sleep before I’ve gotten past my thighs. The progressive relaxation helps me let go of the tension, and the deep breathing helps to stimulate my vagus nerve and the parasympathetic nervous system in general. Focusing on my breathing and my body keeps my mind from being driven to distraction when I’m trying to sleep. And just lying still and letting my body sink into the bed makes it possible for me to just… let… go… which is oh, so hard for me to do under waking conditions. Also, I have read that 15 minutes of conscious relaxation — not sitting around doing nothing, but actual relaxation, is like taking a 30-minute nap.  So, even if I/you don’t fall asleep right away, at least the body is getting some benefit from the experience.

I hope you find this helpful as you try to get to sleep.