Aikido · Guest Post

Being okay with what is (Guest post)

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In a recent post (What if this is a good as it gets?), Sam mused about whether or not to quit aikido, or continue training – possibly forever as a green belt (4th kyu). I read the post with great interest, because I’ve recently struggled with the exact same dilemma, and I was curious to see where Sam landed. What if I, too, am a green belt forever?

I recently moved to a different city a couple of hours away from where I lived before, and have had to leave behind my (and Sam’s) dojo for a new one. It’s made me very reflective about aikido, although it’s not the first time I’ve pondered my long-term commitment to the sport.

There are many reasons why people practise martial arts. Some really like physical fighting, and enjoy learning techniques and improving their fighting skills, to get better at winning fights.

Some people like the physical exercise involved in martial arts training – the calisthenic warm-ups, the full-body workouts from taking a class.

Some people “chase” belts, and value the status from achieving a high rank in a martial art. Some people like the community and the camaraderie. Some people like all of the above.

Myself, I was initially drawn to aikido because it was beautiful and graceful and powerful and thrilling, whether I was performing one of aikido’s unique self-defense techniques, or on the receiving end of a technique. The movements were completely foreign to my body, but I loved learning to move my body in new ways. I loved seeing my progress as I gradually picked up the movements, learned the names of the techniques, and became proficient at some of them.

In the case of aikido, I also love the philosophy behind the sport – the idea that if you are attacked, you can have a positive impact on a situation, redirecting the energy and leaving the situation better than it was. This lesson really hit home off the mat when I was diagnosed with breast cancer over a year ago, and I realized that I was reacting to my diagnosis in a very unusual way because of my aikido training.

Which is not to say I haven’t thought about giving up aikido at any point over the past two-and-a-half years. In fact I’ve entertained the possibility more than once, as I’ve struggled with overuse injuries to my knees and right ankle. As much as I love aikido, I also want to be highly mobile for as long as possible, and I don’t want to risk permanent injury. At their worst, my chronic injuries have had me hobbled, and in constant pain.

Over the past year I’ve also had many, many conversations with a good friend who is an aikido black belt, and who was also facing the possibility of giving up aikido for the sake of his body. We talked about whether modifying aikido to accommodate our injuries was a game changer. With my knees the way they are, there are several kneeling techniques that are difficult, if not impossible, for me to do without pain.

At my old dojo I felt confident that I had the support of my sensei and many of the black belts in accommodating my injuries, and felt like I would be allowed to continue to progress through the ranks with modified tests – switching out the mandatory kneeling techniques that exacerbated my injuries for other, equally difficult ones that didn’t require kneeling.

It was hard leaving my old dojo behind when I moved, and a big part of the fear of joining a new dojo was wondering whether there would be similar accommodations for testing. Could I continue to progress through the ranks without doing all the mandatory techniques? I realized that I very much want to achieve at least sho-dan (first degree black belt), which at the moment is four belt tests away from my current level. And if I can’t progress any further in aikido, do I still want to attend classes?

My new dojo (which I have quickly grown to love) is very different from my old dojo. We practise the same style of aikido, but the dojo cho (head of the dojo) has a different teacher lineage than my former sensei. I’ve attended eight classes so far, and there are obvious differences in every single technique and movement, as well as many differences in the protocol and class rituals.

My new sensei is very traditional, and I wanted to come to the new dojo with humility and an openness to quickly adapt to any differences. I didn’t want to appear difficult or resistant to his teaching…  so I was quiet about my chronic injuries (which admittedly are doing pretty well at the moment – partly because there are fewer aikido classes per week at my new dojo, and my knees have therefore been getting more rest).

Last week Sensei surprised me by giving me the dojo testing syllabus, and encouraging me to learn the techniques that would be required for my next belt test. I don’t think either of us are under the illusion that I’m going to be testing anytime soon – my deficiencies in his style of aikido are glaringly obvious, given the multiple times he corrects my techniques each class.

I looked through the syllabus and noted that there are many differences between it and my old dojo’s syllabus. The kneeling techniques that gave me the most problems in the past aren’t required until closer to first dan (black belt). At that point, Sensei will hopefully know me much better, and might consider making accommodations for me.

Or he might not.

My new sensei has talked many times during class about how things must be done just so. When he is directing his corrections at the junior belts, he warns them repeatedly that candidates can fail tests – especially advanced black belt tests – for even small slip-ups, mistakes, or breaks in form. And I don’t doubt that he would fail someone, whereas at my old dojo if you were asked to test you were pretty assured of passing, since it was generally acknowledged that you weren’t asked if you weren’t ready to progress to the next belt level.

There’s an older participant at my new dojo; I chatted with him briefly a couple of weeks ago. He’s in his late 60s, a physician, and has been a student of Sensei’s for 30 years. Despite being a ni-dan (second degree black belt), he no longer practises the tachi-waza (standing hand-to-hand techniques), but only participates in the weapons classes, which are gentler on the body because they don’t required breakfalls and pins.

He seemed at peace with his modest belt level (given his many years of practice) and level of participation. He comes to watch the tachi-waza class before the weapons class, then does weapons, and that’s enough for him.

I’ve realized that for me, my belt level is not important. I would love to teach someday, and need a black belt to officially do that, but I don’t have to teach. What I do want is to keep learning, and I feel like there’s so much I can continue to learn at my new dojo. I have dozens of techniques in my repertoire, and now I can learn them all over again in the new sensei’s way. I love that he’s exacting – I love being precise with my techniques. Even the breakfalls are slightly different. I love that there are classes only three days a week instead of six days like at my old dojo – it’s easier on my body.

I don’t need a certain belt colour around my waist. What I do want is to keep learning. And I can certainly do that where I am now.

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

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The solution to my long-term insomnia: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)

Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

So…  After years of insomnia and half-hearted attempts at dealing with it, what finally worked for me? CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia). (Which, by the way, is nothing like the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy you may have heard about in psychotherapy.)

CBT for insomnia is a program of retraining your body to sleep through the night, by keeping a sleep log, analysing your baseline sleep patterns, then establishing a fixed wake-up time and pushing back your bedtime until you’re dead tired – forcing your exhausted body to sleep through the night.

If you’re awake for more than 15 minutes in the middle of the night, you leave your bedroom and do quiet activities until you’re sleepy again. Your bedroom is for sleeping and sex only. Nothing else.

(For a much better description of CBT-I and how to implement it, see the book Sink Into Sleep: A Step-by-step Workbook for Reversing Insomnia by Judith R. Davidson.)

Well, it works. But based on my own experience, it’s brutal to implement. My first couple of weeks after my new bedtime of 11pm and wake-up time of 5:30 a.m., I mostly slept through the night. But the few nights I woke up, I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I was really sleep deprived – to the point where at least one friend was concerned about how fatigued I was during the day.

(On CBT-I you’re allowed a 1-hour nap between 1 and 4 pm, and you’d better believe I was taking full advantage of it.)

Once you’re sleeping through the night the majority of the time, you can try going to bed a little earlier, repeating the cycle until you’re getting as much sleep as you want, with good sleep quality.

That’s where my story would have ended, except I’m in the middle of planning a move later this month, and have been doing a lot of highway driving to my new home 1.75 hours away. I got really concerned that I would be driving while sleep deprived, so I’ve temporarily suspended the CBT-I regime until after my move, and now basically sleep whenever I’m tired. Thankfully I’m still getting more sleep through the night that I did during my chemo (the image below is a screen shot from my Fitbit app, which can track your sleep patterns) , and I’ve mostly avoided some of the worst of my bad sleep habits.

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On the whole, I’m really satisfied with the sleep I’m getting now – which is a huge change for me. Right at the moment I’m getting around 7 hours of sleep a night, which is a significant improvement. I’d highly recommend trying the CBT-I program if you have long-term insomnia that has been resistant to other treatments.

This is the last in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. 

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

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What to do when you wake up in the middle of the night (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

I rarely have trouble falling asleep, except maybe if I’ve stayed up too late and get restless leg syndrome. Normally I fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow…  or, in the days when I used to watch videos on my smartphone before bed, I would unintentionally fall asleep while watching something.

My problem is that most nights I would wake up in the middle of the night and be unable to get back to sleep.

Once I got serious about addressing my insomnia problem, I knew I had to make changes to my behaviour when I did wake up in the middle of the night. (It was my longstanding habit to pick up my phone and start surfing the Internet, which usually meant I didn’t get back to sleep again). So I made a point of not picking up my phone, but instead tried to keep a notebook and pen beside my bed to write down all the stray thoughts that were keeping me awake.

Since I’ve settled on my most recent insomnia solution (which I’ll write about next week), if I’m awake more than 15 minutes, I get up out of bed and leave my bedroom to do quiet activities somewhere else in my home.

Before I tried this strategy, I was really white-knuckling it through my wakeful periods with nothing to occupy my attention. I tried breathing exercises and mindfulness (noticing, but not engaging with, my thoughts), but neither seemed to work. And since I’d given up pharmaceutical sleep aids and smartphone use, it was a bit of a horrorshow.

The good news is, with my new sleep program I’m now sleeping through most nights, and I’m allowed a 1-hour nap in the afternoon, which helps if I do wake up in the middle of the night, and am awake for a while.

The early days of the new routine were incredibly unpleasant to live through, but I’m really satisfied with the results. More on that next time.

This is the seventh in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • The sleep plan that finally worked

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

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Fitbit, my sleep friend (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

I got a Fitbit Flex several weeks ago, mostly to track my daily steps, because I was concerned that I was sitting too much during the day. On the whole, I’ve been really happy with the basic model that I purchased – it does what I need it to do, which is track my steps.

But the nice thing about the Fitbit fitness tracker is that it can also track your sleeping patterns, spitting out reports like this one below. (As an aside, notice the time at the top of the screen shot. Yes, I started writing this blog post about insomnia…  while I had insomnia…)

The red areas indicate when you’re awake, and the light blue areas indicate when you’re restless. The device accurately plots both, and subtracts them from your total time in bed (as indicated by the time ranges beside each date).

I’m a bit of a numbers geek, so I’m fascinated by data like this. Over time, it helps explain a lot – like why I’m so exhausted, essentially.

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There are a few downsides to using Fitbit to track your sleep, though.

  • I’ve found it doesn’t do a super accurate job of knowing exactly when you’re awake. Some nights I when I know I’ve been awake for a while, it’s only registered that I’ve been restless (or conversely, it assumes I’m sleeping when I’m just motionless – like the nights when I used to watch movies on my phone!).
  • On the nights when I charge the Fitbit battery in the middle of the night, they only show up as nights when I’ve gotten a few hours of sleep (because I often put the charged device back on if I get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night). On the Tuesday night above, for example, I wasn’t wearing the device through the night, but put it back on to get one final bit of sleep before I got out of bed for the day.

On the whole, though, I love using the Fitbit to track my sleeping habits. I’m not sure I would be disciplined enough to keep such accurate records without the device automatically synching with my smartphone.

And as you can see from the report above, I still have a real sleep problem (although I’m convinced I’m finally on the right track with my current sleep program, which I’ll talk about in a couple of weeks). Most nights I’m getting between 6 – 6 1/2 hours of sleep, but some nights (like Thursday, above), I’m getting far less.

(Although you may also notice that I’m napping for 1 hour in the afternoon whenever I can – that’s actually an accepted part of my new sleep regime.)

This is the sixth in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • The sleep plan that finally worked

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

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Sorry, it’s past my bedtime (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

So after four blog posts about my insomnia problem, you’re probably as sick of my lack of sleep as I am. The good news is that now I’m going to talk about my recent sleep solutions. Experiments, if you will.

Many sleep books and articles recommend better sleep hygiene to address insomnia. You can probably list the rules as well as I can:

  • Go to bed around the same time every night.
  • Wake up around the same time every morning (no sleeping in – not even on weekends!).
  • Limit naps.
  • No screen time within an hour of bedtime – and throughout the rest of the night.
  • Avoid heavy exercise and caffeine late in the day.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed.
  • Sleep in a dark, cool room.
  • Only use your bed for sleeping (and sex).

You get the drift.

(Ugh, right?)

I was not thrilled about being more disciplined with my sleep hygiene. It seemed like giving up all the things I loved to do at night (watching movies on my smartphone in bed, doing social media in bed, reading on my smartphone in bed). Even though I craved better sleep, I wasn’t sure it was worth it.

But I tried. I made the following changes to my evening routine:

  • I set 10:00 p.m. as my “lights out” goal.
  • I made a point of putting down my smartphone at 9:00 p.m. every night. (I even set an alarm on the phone to remind me.) I mostly succeeded at this.
  • I enjoyed a leisurely, warm bath before bed.
  • I kept the lights dim in my apartment after 9:00 p.m.
  • I read paper books or my Kindle (on the lowest backlight setting) or did quiet, calming activities (like stretching and restorative yoga) before bed.
  • I kept a notebook and a flashlight beside my bed, for writing down all the random thoughts that wouldn’t stop, that kept me from sleeping.

The hardest part was giving up movies, TV shows on Netflix, and social media in the evening. I found myself cramming in as much smartphone use as I could before the 9:00 p.m. cutoff. (The screen time was even more precious because most nights I’m at aikido, and don’t get home until 8:30 or 9:00 p.m. So yeah, a big adjustment.)

I more-or-less resigned myself to the regimen, though. I wake up at 6:30 a.m., so a 10:00 p.m. bedtime was theoretically giving me at least 8 hours of sleep, depending on how quickly I nodded off.

I noticed that I became really intolerant of anything that disrupted my new evening routine. Like the networking event I went to, that went until nearly 10:00 p.m. It just got a lot easier to say, “Sorry, it’s past my bedtime,” to any invitations for late-night fun.

Too bad the new routine (and the enforced fun deprivation) didn’t really help, though. I still kept waking up (sometimes for several hours at a time) in the middle of the night.

This is the fifth in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend
  • The sleep plan that finally worked

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Photo: Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, barn in the Niagara Region

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Insomnia and emotional resilience (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

I’ve already written about my problem with sleep, the insomnia solutions I’ve tried that haven’t worked, and my recent resolve to make sleep time a priority over working or playing. This post was originally going to be about my experiences with regulating my bedtimes and waking times, but then a friend recently recommended Sink Into Sleep: A Step-by-step Workbook for Insomnia by Judith Davidson, and a paragraph from the book brought me another huge aha! moment about my own sleeping habits.

People with insomnia seem to be able to perform mundane tasks of daily living but they tend to have less enjoyment of their activities and show less “cognitive flexibility” – they tend to think more narrowly and less creatively – than people who sleep well. Although they are often able to perform work and other activities well, everything feels like it takes more effort. In sum, when people don’t sleep well for a long time, their mood, functioning, and quality of life are impaired.

It was the bit about cognitive flexibility. I suddenly realized (with an incredible amount of self-compassion) that in every instance that I can remember over the past 20 years, when I have felt most emotionally agitated and “fixed” in my thinking (read: frantic, defensive, and prey to “all-or-nothing” catastrophizing), I have also been extremely sleep deprived.

I can’t tell you what a huge realization (and relief!) this is for me. As someone who cares very much (maybe too much) about the feelings and opinions of others, I always strive to be even-keeled, understanding and flexible in my relationships. So I have quietly carried around a lot of shame regarding a handful of emotional reactions to difficult situations in my past, that have involved a difference of opinion with somebody else. Normally I’m quite logical, caring, and creative in my thinking – able to see many sides of an issue, and willing to be persuaded to change my own opinion by a compelling argument.

But a few times in my life, I have experienced what’s felt like an emotional “meltdown” that has taken me and the other person completely by surprise, because it’s so unlike my usual personality.

Seen through the lens of sleep deprivation, those meltdowns make so much sense now. It reminds me of little children who’ve been up way past their bedtimes. You know how they fuss and get all weepy and tantrum-y? That. I recognize that I’ve felt that. And all because of not enough sleep.

It’s not that I now think sleep deprivation excuses whatever I do or say while sleep deprived. I don’t. But in the future, when I know I haven’t been getting enough sleep and am likely sleep deprived, I can be more aware of my temporary lack of resilience, and take a step back from the emotional edge – maybe ask for a “time-out” or a temporary break from the discussion.

(And hopefully I can just plain avoid extreme sleep deprivation in the future!)

p.s. That book I mentioned above? I like it even better than the Ariana Huffington one – and I suspect that the CBT-I program it recommends is going to be my ultimate insomnia solution.

p.p.s. Being that this is a blog with a feminist lens, I feel compelled to add that when I’m talking about emotional meltdowns, I’m not talking about appropriate emotional responses to sexism and other oppressions, abuse, or the bad behaviour of others. There are times when it’s okay to feel hurt and angry, because someone is being hurtful or destructive.

This is the fourth in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Image: art journal spread, wax crayon and pencil on paper, August and September 2005

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Prioritizing sleep (Guest Post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

See that cute photo at the top of this post? That’s one of my two cats, peacefully slumbering. The way he and his brother do…  all the fricking time. (Except in the middle of the night, when this one wants to groom me during one of my hot flashes. Yeah. Fun.)

As much as I feel awful when I have a wakeful night, and as much as I say I want more sleep, it wasn’t until I recently read Arianna Huffington’s The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time that I finally identified one of the core issues that was corroding my sleep. And it wasn’t my age (mid-life), my breast cancer treatment (which is causing chemical menopause), or the chronic pain in my knees and ankles from sports injuries – although all three can definitely be major contributing factors to chronic insomnia.

I simply wasn’t valuing sleep enough.

Let me explain. In her book, Huffington spends quite some time talking about how North Americans pride themselves on their sleep deprivation, and devalue healthy sleeping habits, which include going to bed around the same time every night, avoiding the use of electronics / screens (including televisions) while in bed, and allowing yourself enough time in bed for a good night’s sleep.

I recognized that was failing big-time on all of these.

As much as I may have, in the past, said that I wanted a good night’s sleep, since my late teens I have been all-too-willing to sacrifice sleep to the “higher good” of productivity – be it studying for an exam, finishing an essay, or – once I started working in the nonprofit sector – finishing a project, meeting a grant deadline, or working on my own creative projects or volunteer work outside of my full-time job.

If I need to get something done by tomorrow, I will give up sleep to get it done. And feel smugly self-righteous about my choice. Look how hard I work! See how much I’ve accomplished?!

(I just remembered a compliment that my (Scottish) paternal grandmother once gave me. I had spent part of the summer between my first and second university degrees cooking for a tree-planting camp in Northern Alberta, waking up at 4:00 a.m. every other day to make the camp’s breakfast, and she told me that I “must be made of good stuff to get up that early in the morning.” Enough said.)

I also think nothing of staying up late to do something that I enjoy – be it finishing a good book, watching a movie on Netflix, or working on a new drawing or blog post. In fact, when my life is busy I feel downright cheated if I don’t have time to do the things that I love doing. Add to that the healthy dose of FOMO (fear of missing out) which fuels my social media activity, and it all equals a daily to-do list that requires 20 hours to fit everything in. No wonder I was only averaging four hours per night, and desperately napping during the day!

When I recently recommended Huffington’s book to a friend, she wondered if it said anything that she didn’t already know. I told her that for me, the solutions weren’t the point. The point was that Huffington scared me enough to seriously consider giving up all my guilty pleasures: watching Netflix and YouTube in bed, reading books on my Kindle late into the night, and doing my Facebooking and creative writing (in bed, on my iPhone) in the early morning hours when I couldn’t sleep. Scared me, by making me realize that the consequences of continuing these bad habits could be deadly.

So I vowed to try.

I set myself a “cut-off” time each night for my iPhone use. I set myself a regular bedtime – which meant I would be in bed, with the lights off, by that time. I wouldn’t pick up my phone in the middle of the night when I woke up. And I would use my brand new Fitbit to help me track my progress at getting a better night’s sleep.

That was the plan, anyhow.

This is the third in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Photo: Cat napping, July 2016, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

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Insomnia solutions I’ve tried (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

So I have chronic insomnia that’s lasted the better part of 10 years. What have I done about it?

Well, I can tell you what hasn’t worked.

(I was really touched to see that most of the comments on my last post about sleep deficit included suggestions for resolving insomnia, including meditation, books on tape, and limiting electronic screen time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m always open to hearing what works for people. It’s how we learn from each other. But please don’t think that I haven’t tried many of the things that people have suggested. I’ve been highly motivated to fix my sleeping problems over the years, because I’m definitely not a short sleeper. I really feel it when I don’t get enough sleep.)

So, some of the things I’ve tried:

Using a blackout curtain to darken my bedroom
For many years (from ages of 18 – 39 or so) I had heavy, pull-down blinds or metal mini-blinds covering my bedroom windows. They effectively blocked light from streetlights and the moon at night, making my bedrooms quite dark.

Then I moved into a studio apartment with a large window. My finances were limited, so I avoided purchasing any window coverings. There was a spotlight right outside my window, and it was quite bright inside my apartment at night. I lived (and tried to sleep) like that for a couple of years, and around this time my insomnia got quite bad. Not saying there’s necessarily a correlation, though.

Because at my next apartment (which had separate bedrooms), I made a heavy blackout curtain for myself out of black denim (and still use it in my bedroom today, one apartment later), and I still have sleeping problems.

Music, audio books, and guided medications
I started using all of these quite heavily in the bachelor apartment. I would play soothing music on a boom box near my bed at bedtime, but found I would wake up when the disc ended. (I still love this jazz first album by Pat Metheny, though, which was a bedtime staple during that period.)

I also tried soothing audio books like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which always put me to sleep, but again I would wake up periodically whenever the rhythm of his voice changed.

I tried a few guided meditations, same story. Sometimes the recordings worked, most times they didn’t. When I got a smartphone I even tried listening to timed recordings on my phone, but still found them unsuccessful at keeping me asleep. My favourite was an app called Sleep Machine Binaural Beats by SleepSoft, that produces great white noise if there’s something like a dog barking or a neighbour’s television that I want to block out.

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Herbal and dietary supplements
I’ve tried pretty much everything that’s recommended for sleep, including melatonin, kava, L-theanine, and 5-HTP – sometimes in combination.

I can’t say anything has really helped in the long term.

Pharmaceuticals
I’ve been really reluctant to go this route to solve my sleep problems, although near the beginning of my chemo I did ask for something from my family doctor, since I was still working full time and was worried about my work performance if I wasn’t sleeping well. She prescribed a very mild dose of the antidepressant trazodone, which I tried a couple of times without noticeable success.

Later when I was off work for the remainder of my chemo, I also tried Gravol and Benadryl to make me sleepy when my sleep schedule got seriously disrupted (I was napping all day and then awake most of each night). After a few nights each didn’t work as well, though.

It’s probably common sense, but all of the above, while having the potential to address symptoms, didn’t necessarily resolve the underlying problem – namely very, very poor “sleep hygiene”, i.e. bedtime habits that are non-conducive to a good night’s sleep. So that’s where I’m starting from at this point: changing my poor sleep habits – including the use of electronic devices in the bedroom.

This is the second in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Photo: Cats napping, September 2011, Michelle Lynne Goodfellow

fitness

The problem with sleep (Guest post)

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Guest blogger Michelle Lynne Goodfellow, who has written about her breast cancer and her love of aikido, is now in search of a better night’s sleep. 

The problem with sleep? There are a few problems, actually.

  1. I should be getting at least seven hours per night.
  2. I’m not.
  3. This has been going on for a long time.
  4. Cancer treatment and recovery? Not helping.

Here’s what my typical night looks like:

  • Into bed around 10 pm.
  • Watch a movie or some videos on Netflix until I fall asleep around 11.
  • If I don’t fall asleep, keep watching stuff or surfing the Internet until I fall asleep, midnight or later.
  • If I still don’t fall asleep, take a Gravol (or part of one) to make me sleepy.
  • Wake up at 2:30… Or 3:30… Or 4:30… Wide awake.
  • Think about some stuff. You know – friendly, cheerful stuff, like “how am I going to get all those projects done?” Or “what should I have done differently in that situation that went horribly wrong?” Or “what should I do to make that relationship better?” That stuff.
  • Pick up my phone when the cacophony inside my head becomes unbearable. Which is most of the time. Watch some more movies or surf the Internet. Catch up on my Pinterest.
  • Maybe fall back asleep, 10 minutes before my alarm goes off at 5:30.
  • Go back to bed after feeding my cats their pre-breakfast snack. (Cat owners will understand; the rest of you? Never mind…)
  • Maybe get another hour’s sleep before getting out of bed for good at 6:30.
  • Or, if I’m lucky and don’t have urgent work to finish, try to sleep for another hour.

Lather, rinse, repeat – pretty much 365 days of the year.

I know it’s a problem. I know I should be getting more sleep. (If you haven’t already heard, sleep impacts body weight, heart disease, cancer, work performance and ability to “operate large machinery,” i.e. drive cars safely – among other things.

My sleep has been like this for a while. (Here’s a humorous blog post that I wrote – wait for it – 9 years ago about my insomnia.)

It got really bad when I started working in the nonprofit sector, when I couldn’t turn of my mind at night from worrying about my overwhelming workload and task lists. On a good night, I will sleep between six and seven hours. On a bad night…  three or four.

I also know a lot of the things I could be doing to improve my sleep. (You probably know them too.) Like having a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Turning off my devices before bedtime, and making my bedroom an electronic-free zone. Keeping my bedroom dark and cool. Avoiding pharmaceutical assistance.

After my cancer treatment (during which time I let myself do whatever I wanted, because I could sleep around the clock if I needed to), I really struggled to regain a regular sleep schedule. And because my work schedule is currently quite flexible (I can get up and work at 4:00 if I can’t sleep, and then nap in the afternoon), it’s been harder to motivate myself to make the changes I need.

My worst sleep-depriving habit is my smartphone use all night long. I have an iPhone that I use for everything – email, social media, taking and editing photographs, reading (on my Kindle app), writing (I started the first draft of this blog post on my phone), podcasts, music, surfing the internet, watching YouTube and Netflix…

And most of those, I love to do in the middle of the night. Sometimes that’s the only time I have in my day to catch up on my reading or viewing. (Wah!)

But recently I felt like I was hitting rock bottom, and needed to do something to address my worsening sleep deficit and fatigue. I was dragging through my days, emotionally cranky and unhappy, and relying more and more on afternoon naps and weekend sleep-ins to take the edge off my fatigue.

I kept coming across references to Arianna Huffington’s book, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, and finally broke down and bought it because I knew that it would inspire me to change. Huffington is adamant about nixing nighttime electronics:

So I’ve begun to make some changes. I don’t like them, but hey – first-world problems. I really, really, really want better sleep.

This is the first in a series of posts about changing unhealthy sleep habits. Future posts will include:

  • Sorry, it’s past my bedtime
  • White-knuckling the early morning hours without sleep aids
  • Fitbit, my friend

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Illustration: Crayon and collage on paper, September 2005.

 

Aikido · fitness · Guest Post

Life lessons from aikido (Guest post)

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Huge aha! moment last week at aikido.

We have a brand new student who’s only been coming to classes for a couple of weeks, and at a class last week he did the warm-up and then stepped off the mat and joined me where I was sitting, watching class.

He asked me in halting English (he’s Korean) if aikido helped teach how to be calm.

Well.

Let me tell you, this has been a subject very much at the front of my mind for months – not only as I’ve been dealing with my cancer diagnosis and treatment, but also as I’ve been struggling with some huge ups and downs in my working life. And a couple of months ago, when I was going through a really rough few weeks with the latter, it was something I thought about almost every waking moment. How could I use my aikido training and practice to deal with emotional and psychological distress?

Last night I looked the new student in the eye and without missing a beat said, “Yes!”

The trouble was, I didn’t quite know how to explain it to him so that he would understand, because of the language barrier. In a flash, it came to me.

I pointed to my bald head, and said I’d had cancer, and many other problems.

Then I pointed to the mat. Sensei Therese was teaching second control – nikkajo – at that moment, and I pointed out the students who were applying the second control to the wrists of their attackers.

(In the photo at the beginning of this post, the people on the right side of each pair are applying the second control to the wrists of the people on the left, who’ve moments earlier just tried to hit them. A video describing the entire technique is below.)

I took the young man’s hand in mine just like the people on the mat, and explained that when we first learn second control, we usually grip our training partner’s hand very tightly. I made a grimace, and screwed up my face as if I were trying to do something very difficult, and gripped his hand as if my life depended on it.

Then I explained that the technique actually works better if our hands are relaxed. When we tense up, the attacker can feel it through our touch, and they tense up too, making it harder to move them. If our own hands are relaxed when we touch them, they don’t realize there’s a threat, and then at exactly the right moment we can apply quick pressure at the proper angle, and they’re controlled by us.

I changed my grip on his hand.

“Gentle,” I said, and moved his hand. I repeated the illustration one more time. Screwed my face and body up, and held his hand in a death grip. Then loosened up, “gentle,” and moved him.

And that’s when I had my aha! moment. It was the answer that I’d been looking for for months.

Relax your “grip” when you’re under attack – from someone else, or a situation, or even your own thoughts. Relax, and act from the relaxed place.

Sounds so simple.

It’s part of why I love aikido, though. Our training teaches us, through repetition, to respond a certain way to being attacked. And we repeat it over and over again until it becomes reflex, so that if we’re ever in a situation where we really need to defend ourselves, we act automatically.

When life is throwing all sorts of crap at you, ease up your mental grip. Go to your centre. Then act from that calmer place. Practice it even when life isn’t throwing crap at you, and it will become automatic.

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Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.