I just passed a milestone. I turned 60. For the month or so leading up to my birthday I developed a significant amount of angst that was based on a number of factors. For starters, my mortality is really starting to stare at me in the face. Also, my mother (I was adopted) died at the age of 66, however she had a whole host of health issues, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and was on dialysis.Another consideration is my workload. I have come to realize that the amount of stress that I have been having in my life is unsustainable.
Stress is known to trigger the release of cortisol in our system that can lead to issues such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Life is full of stress, good stress and bad stress, otherwise known as eustress and distress. An example of eustress is when a professional athlete gets ready for competition. The surge of adrenaline helps them to perform. On the other hand, if someone is dealing with a challenging situation, such as repeated arguments with a spouse or increasing financial demands, they may experience a wide variety of negative effects. Regardless, long-term exposure to stress can cause a significant strain on the human system.
There are ways to alleviate stress: exercise, meditation, utilizing a support system, therapy, listening to music, journaling, practicing yoga, getting proper sleep, as well as others.
I meditate daily, have a great support system, utilize therapy and try to exercise (which is one area I’m working back into). But the one area that is absolutely essential to me is sleep. Let me share a story to explain.
In my lead up to my birthday, I wanted to go on a silent retreat. There are a couple of centers in the area where one can go to that are more structured. I didn’t want to go this route so I ended up renting an Airbnb about 40 minutes north of my hometown in Buffalo. it was an in-law apartment that’s owned by a woman who is a member of the local Quaker community. I planned on doing this over a weekend. In preparation for this time I met with my pastor who provided me with some valuable suggestions on how to have some kind of structure for my time. This included time for prayer, meditation, reading of the Bible as well as for fun, and rest. She also instructed me to do things with intention.
It was a wonderful experience. I did the things she suggested as well as taking a 3-mile walk and reading the first Three Steps of my 12-Step Program as well as writing out the the Third Step. I even took the time to sit on the back deck and watched the variety of finches and other small birds that were eating from the three bird feeders.
I left on Sunday afternoon feeling incredibly relaxed and refreshed. Then Sunday night came. I found myself falling back into my pattern of pattern of poor sleep hygiene (looking at my phone, doomscrolling) thereby stimulating my brain. I meditated but when I closed my eyes, my heart was pounding, not necessarily racing, but it was particularly strong. The more I focused on this, the more distressed I became. This had happened several months ago and I remembered what my psychiatrist recommended. So, I took one ore of my psychotropic meds as well as an Ambien. Fortunately, this did the trick.
The next night, same thing. Mind you, I didn’t do myself any favors by continuing the phone activity. So, I ended up having to take the same increased amount of medication. I had a training that I was conducting the next morning so it was critical that I got to sleep.
Then, on Tuesday night, it happened AGAIN!! By the next morning I became quite concerned. I haven’t had this much trouble with sleep in forever. It was this that prompted me to reach out to my therapist, Jen. She suggested that I contact my psychiatrist to alert him regarding my plight to get direction on how to address my sleep issue. I called his office and left a message with his service. I got a call back within the hour advising me to do pretty much what I had been, but to increase my psychotropic med to 3 tablets.
That night, I actually opted to stick with what I had been doing and was able to get to sleep with less of an issue. I also made sure that I stayed off of my phone before I went to bed. Over the next few nights, and leading up to last night, I’ve been able to return to my regularly prescribed medication regimen.
All of this to say, that as a person who lives with bipolar disorder, I can say firsthand that I have to prioritize my sleep. If I don’t get at least 7 hours in a night, then things are going to be rough,
I also was made aware of another factor by my sponsor. He pointed out that I went from a peaceful, chill experience back into a stress-inducing experience. I had no buffer in which to re-acclimate.
I am reminded of the song by the British group Talk Talk, “Life’s What You Make it.” The lyrics, written by the late Mark Hollis, point to the concept of moving away from the past and making the best of what life has to offer:
“Baby, life’s what you make it
Can’t escape it
Baby, yesterday’s favorite
Don’t you hate it
Baby life’s what you make it
Don’t back date it
Baby, don’t try to shade it
Beauty is naked
Baby, life’s what you make it
Nothing can change it
Life’s what you make it”
I’m taking the opportunity to learn more about ways to improve my mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Listening to podcasts by Dr. Mark Hyman and Rich Roll are serving to teach me about ways to address the factors in my life that have served to negatively impact my health. This is a process, not something that will happen overnight. But with perseverance and persistence, I will be able to develop a lifestyle that is more conducive to health and wholeness.