Stressed out? Meditation helps, and so does sleep

Image description: Yellow background with a sun reflecting on the water on the left side, a lotus flower on the water's surface with a rippled reflection on the right side.

Image description: Yellow background with a sun reflecting on the water on the left side, a lotus flower on the water’s surface with a rippled reflection on the right side.

I went on a retreat this weekend with some friends. It was at a lakeside retreat centre a couple of hours away and the weather was beautiful. I set myself one main goal this weekend, and that was to get enough sleep.

The retreat involved organized sessions that included guided meditations. I like guided meditation especially when it’s “live” and I’m doing it with other people. But this weekend, I uncharacteristically fell asleep through each of the guided meditations. I could feel myself nodding off and there was nothing I could do about it. Obviously, I needed sleep.

This morning I was chatting with my mother, who recently completed a course on mindfulness meditation. I told her that despite the retreat, I was feeling stressed out at work. I really can’t stand complaining about workload because I have a great job and I realize that, but I do feel overwhelmed. But I mentioned this to my mother and she said, “are you practicing mindfulness?” (I love that she took that course and now is offering mindfulness as a solution to stress!).

She’s right that meditation always helps. Even if I just take a few moments of silence, it can bring me into the present moment where things seem a lot more manageable than when I am worrying about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

On the retreat we learned a technique that I have encountered before called “anchoring.” If you’re feeling mental discomfort or distress, think instead of a time when you felt peaceful and content or even joyful. Really focus on that feeling and anchor it somehow (e.g. touching your ring, snapping your fingers, even inhaling an essential oil). If you really connect with that feeling and anchor it in this way, you can use your anchor to bring you back to that sense of peace and contentment when you’re feeling a more negative feeling.

Anchoring is not exactly the same as mindfulness, but it is another process that we can use in meditation. For more information about how to use anchoring to alleviate stress, check out this article, “From Chaos to Calm in an Instant: How to Create a Positive Anchor.”

The anchoring meditation was the only guided meditation that I didn’t fall asleep during. To make up for the others, I took a couple of sessions by myself to sit in silence in a beautiful meditation room they have on site, overlooking the lake. It’s called The Oasis, and for some reason no one ever seems to go there. I love it.

So I meditated, I slept, and I anchored. And yet still I came home with an uneasy feeling. I think one reason this happens after a retreat is that, for me, I have a tough time reconciling that sense of peace with the chaotic pace of my day to day life. I got back to town and went straight out to a birthday party, followed by a different celebratory dinner, followed by an event in someone’s honor. Even though these are all good things, the pace of it all reversed the sense of calm because I had to rush around. I fell into bed exhausted, and felt the urgency of the week’s tasks press upon me as soon as I opened my eyes.

The good thing about meditation, sleep, and anchoring is that you don’t need to be at a retreat centre to do them.

What are your go-tos when you’re feeling stressed out and overwhelmed?

 

 

 

 

It sees you when you’re sleeping …

By MarthaFitat55

Last winter, I acquired a FitBit. I’m not the world’s best tracker of anything, but I was intrigued after I bought one for my husband and saw how easy it was to monitor different things.

I had originally seen the FitBit as a supersize pedometer, but in the almost eleven months that I have had, I have learned a lot.

The first thing I found out was how little I actually moved during my work day. I work from home, so I am always going up and downstairs. I assumed this was making me less of a sedentary person, but I was wrong.

It’s been a real process to reach my 10,000 steps a day as recommended. When I first started tracking, I averaged between 2500 and 3000 steps a day. When I went on my trail walks though, hitting 10K was no problem at all.

I’ve been making a conscious effort to move more, by taking more frequent breaks. The Pomodoro technique helps, and I use a nifty online program called mytomatoes.com to help me.

On a recent holiday to London, England, I averaged 15K a day, and I earned a couple of cool awards when I reached 20K and 25K in steps. Sadly I am not one of those people who can walk and work (unless it is a walking meeting). A treadmill or stand up desk is not for me, but the good news is that the Fitbit made me aware of how little I was moving, so now I do more (especially when on holiday!).

Now I lay me down to sleep

The second thing that intrigued me was the sleep tracker. Now I have always been a reasonably good sleeper. In fact, when my son was small, he said my superpower was that I could sleep anywhere, anytime.

And it is true. Need a catnap to reenergize? I can curl up with the best kitties and get 40 winks. On a long haul flight with either a hideously early start or a horrible arrival? I plug in my earbuds and off I go to noddyland.

So you can imagine what a horrible shock it was to learn from FitBit that I was a restless sleeper. The Fitbit registers when you turn over, and I do that a lot. I flip almost every 20 minutes, but I rarely wake up as a result. The panic set in when I accidentally set the sleep mode to sensitive. It was a sea of red lines.

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After I realized that flipping was a normal part of my sleep habit, I turned my attention to how much I actually slept. Over the last few months, I have reset my bed time so I am hitting the pillow an hour earlier than usual.

I notice the quality of sleep has shifted too. When I recently had a hard week ,which resulted in extremely late bedtimes, I noticed the difference within 48 hours. My productivity was low, my attention span was shorter, my mood was crankier, and my desire for long, long naps overwhelmed me in the afternoons.

I could also clearly see the change in quality as monitored by my FitBit. Not only was I not sleeping as much, but the kind of sleep I was getting mimicked my earlier stint on the sensitive mode. Except this time I was in average monitoring mode.

Measure what matters

 

The fact is the FitBit allows me to measure better. While I support intuitive knowledge, if you really want to make lasting changes, you need evidence, and the FitBit offers it in spades.

Some people feel it is a little creepy, but since I only send the information to myself and don’t participate in challenges with anyone else, I am not too inclined to worry.

I like the reminders I can set, especially on drinking water. I haven’t ventured too far into the food tracker because I am pretty hopeless on that front. (What has been working has been taking pictures of my meals. After a week of that activity, I could see where I needed to change (eat more greens!) and where I needed to cut back (eat less white food!).

Incidentally I have the Flex, which is about as basic as you can get. Right now it is enough for me. I think if you are just starting into tracking lifestyle habits with a view to a change, this might be the way to go.

— Martha is a writer living in St. John’s documenting a continuing journey of making fitness and work-life balance part of her everyday lifestyle.

 

Children and Changing Sleep Patterns, or Confessions of a Former Morning Person

I used to be a morning person.

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When I was riding and racing my bike in an organized fashion, I even had alarms that began with 4. Why? Because I rode to the start of training, which started at 6 am, and it was 20 km away, and I had to have breakfast first. Ditto when I swam with the triathlon club at the university. I had to be on the pool deck at 6 am ready to go. But again I was riding my bike to campus first and then there’s breakfast and so the need for an alarm before 5 am.

And while some days that involved snoozing the alarm clock, or hoping for rain, most days I was okay with it.

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When your life is like that you go to bed at 9 and you’re asleep, for sure, by 10 pm.

Now part of the reason that worked was that years of parenting small children had me wired for early rising. There’s no sleeping in with toddlers. And even slightly older children have morning activities that require parents getting out of bed quite early. I’m still the person in the house who wakes up first, makes coffee, and who yells at, pokes, and prods others to get them to work and school on time.

There was a golden period of parental sleep. That was when the kids first started sleeping in and my partner and I were still on the early rising schedule. We could get up, ride our bikes and be home before they were even awake. That felt like stolen time. Of course the reason it worked is that they weren’t going out at night. The teens stayed up late but they stayed up late playing games or watching movies at home. That didn’t last and it was followed by the years of night time worrying.

If you’re a regular reader you know I don’t have small children any more. There are large dependent adults sharing my house, all over the age of 18. And this fall for the first time, just one them.The other two are off at college, setting their own alarms, and making their own coffee.

The remaining teenager at home is 18. He’s out late a lot. He works late too. He goes to the gym in the evenings. And I don’t sleep very well these days. Partly because I worry. I’m practically a professional worrier. But also because there’s lots going on in my life and in the world that’s affecting my sleep.

So I’m now an evening exerciser. Like him. It’s a bit of an adjustment.

My emerging schedule seems to be in bed by eleven, alarm set for 7. My day begins with coffee and dog walking. More formal sorts of exercise happens at night. I’m going to the gym to lift weights tonight at 7 pm.

I’m not sure where I’ll land once there aren’t any kids living at home. My schedule so far has been driven by other people. I’m curious whether I’ll revert to my preference for very early morning exercise. For now though, I’m going with the flow and working out at night.

You? When’s your best time of day to fit fitness in?

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Sleep and health messaging!

 

Image result for sleep quotesI’ve been thinking about health promotion and identity lately. See my posts on gender and sunscreen (Men, gender roles, and skin cancer risk), as well as on women and wine (see Women, wine, and the gendered marketing of alcohol.)

On the one hand, we might want to change the world and undo lots of the damage caused by gender roles. On the other hand. we want to save lives. Maybe when we’re out to promote health we do best with existing identities and motivations.

What got me thinking about this this week were two very different headlines about sleep in my newsfeed, obviously aimed at different demographics. The first, Go to Bed to Find Your Six Pack  is about the role of sleep in body fat reduction. It looks to be aimed pretty squarely at my son, for example. There’s no other argument about lack of sleep that would work, I think. It’s not that the fat reduction claims aren’t true. But do you lead with them?

(An actually, an aside: I do worry about health tips that rely on weight loss as a motivation, particularly for exercise. Suppose you don’t lose weight–that’s the most likely outcome–and you stop exercising. But it’s good for all sorts of things besides weight loss….)

Surprisingly, though, as a nutritionist who works with a lot of athletes, Mohning considers neither nutrition nor exercise to be the prime weapons in the fight against a tubby tummy. Instead, she points to sleep and stress.

“I would say Number 1 is sleep, Number 2 is stress, followed by nutrition and then exercise,” she says. “If you’re exhausted, it’s better to sleep the extra 30 to 40 minutes than to exercise.”

(The most effective anti-smoking ads for teenager girls, for example, don’t mention lung cancer. They mention your complexion as a smoker and the horror of wrinkles.)

This piece in After 50, called more sensibly and comprehensively The Risks of Insufficient Sleep, instead rtalks about cognitive decline, memory loss, and declining quality of life.

A small study published this March in Nature Neuroscience explored the relationship of poor-quality sleep with changes in the brain’s prefrontal cortex (where long-term memories are stored) associated with aging, which both led to reduced slow-wave activity during non-REM sleep.

Researchers concluded that the lack of deep sleep in older adults combined with these structural brain changes is linked to impaired memory and age-related cognitive decline but couldn’t establish a direct, causal connection.

All true. Sleep is super good for you. But different health messages reach different people.

 

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Quick! Get me some placebo sleep!

I’m travelling a lot in other time zones these days,  Austria one week, Calgary the next, now Sweden and Scotland. It’s lovely really (though I do miss my bike) but crossing time zones makes sleep complicated. Not to mention Sweden’s lack of dark which made for sunset at 11 pm and sunrise at 4 am.  (But Sweden was good for exercise and aspirational bike rides.)

You might think–as my Samsung health app does–that I ought to track my sleep. It turns out you’re both wrong.

That’s because not getting a good night’s sleep is bad. Knowing about it is even worse.

And the converse is also true. Thinking you’ve got a good night’s sleep even when you didn’t turns out to improve performance on cognitive tests. See Placebo sleep improves cognitive skills.

If you can’t get real sleep, perhaps you can make up for it with placebo sleep. Or such is the suggestion of a new study that found that people did better on cognitive tests after being told that they got a high proportion of REM sleep, even if they didn’t.

It turns out that those who were told they got better sleep did better on a test of information processing speed called the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT), which involves adding many numbers together, as well as on a verbal fluency test called the Controlled Oral Word Association Task (COWAT). Those who were told they got lousy sleep did worse. The same relationship didn’t hold for self-reported sleep quality–those who thought they got better sleep didn’t generally do better on the PASAT than those who thought they hadn’t had a good night’s slumber.

Placebo effects are pretty powerful. Should you decide to take a drug for sleep issues most of the drug’s effects turn out to be placebo. And the strangest thing about placebo effects is that they work even if you know that it’s a placebo.

What’s interesting here is that when it comes to health and fitness more information isn’t always a good thing. Maybe what we need are sleep apps that lie to us, tell us we got a great night’s sleep even when we didn’t. If you decide to write the app and market it, please let me know.

And, while we’re on the subject of sleep, I’m still pining for a Jeeves alarm clock.

 

This is the alarm clock that faithfully reproduces the subtle wit employed by P. G. Wodehouse’s most famous character–the valet Reginald Jeeves–as he politely affirms the beginning of the day. The clock plays 126 different wake-up messages in the reserved voice of Stephen Fry, the original actor from the English comedy Jeeves and Wooster. When the alarm sounds, Jeeves speaks softly as he assuages your displeasure that the morning has indeed come: “Excuse me sir, I’m so sorry to disturb you, but it appears to be morning… Very inconvenient, I agree… I believe it is the rotation of the Earth that is to blame, sir,” or asks “Shall I inform the news agencies that you are about to rise, sir?” If you are not roused sufficiently, a series of beeps will ensue; a press of the clock’s rosette cancels the beeps, prompting Jeeves to interject “Sir has a firm touch, but fair” as one of ten possible snooze replies. A press of the rosette at bed time initiates a three-minute relaxation message with ambient music. Made of wood and handpainted in a subdued lacquer. A button on the back illuminates the clock’s face. 

Sleep and social privilege, or why rich white people like me should stop whining about how tired we all are

It’s the second week of daylight savings time and I don’t know about you, but my friends are all still talking about sleep. Mostly they’re all talking about how little they get. “Sleep is the new sex,” etc etc.

There’s also a lot of media attention because it’s World Sleep Day.

In an earlier blog post I argued that sleep is a feminist issue. Women get less sleep than men, even though there’s some evidence we actually need more. Why do we get less sleep? The answers are sadly familiar. They are the same reasons women also get less time for sports and other leisure activities. Women as a group shoulder a greater percentage of dependent care responsibilities and housework. It’s part of the larger picture of the unfair division of work in the home. Something had to give and that thing is sleep.

Being well rested it turns out tracks power and privilege. Surprised? I’m not really.

Men, on balance, get more sleep than women, on balance. (Of course some women get lots of sleep and some men get nearly none. It’s the big picture we’re talking about here.) But sex isn’t the only relevant factor when it comes to power and privilege. In the case of sleep it may not even be the most important one. Race and income matter too. Here’s a report on sleep and the numbers.

A study of the sleep characteristics of 669 middle-aged adults found that people sleep much less than they should, and even less than they think. Published in the July issue in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the study also found that blacks sleep less than whites, men sleep less than women, and the poor sleep less than the wealthy.

It’s not just a little bit less sleep either. Black Americans get a lot less sleep than white Americans. In fact, the difference in sleep quantity between the two groups may be enough to explain the difference in life expectancy between the two groups.

“The racial inequalities in the US are stark, but none are more damaging than the health gap between blacks and whites. On average, blacks die at a significantly younger age than whites.”

Here is a recent report on sleep differences between black and white Americans, Nobody Sleeps Better Than White People, Says Study

Thursday we learned something truly astonishing: White people, unburdened by racism, sleep pretty damn well.

According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 65 percent of Americans polled said they usually get at least seven hours of sleep per night, the benchmark recommendation. It’s self-reported data, not confirmed with any kind of tracking, but it’s fairly consistent with other estimates, the CDC says.

When the responses were broken down by race, they found that non-Hispanic whites had the highest rate of healthy sleep duration, at 66.8 percent. Close to 66 percent of Hispanics got seven-plus hours, as did 62.5 percent of Asians and 59.6 percent of Native Americans. Black people were at 54.2 percent, and multiracial people were at the bottom, with 53.6 percent. Overall, people who were employed and college-educated slept better, too.

Of course, most the media images of the underslept North American worker are of white, professional people. It’s reminding me of all the studies on stress which typically make their way into the media with images of men in suits attached. Stress is pictured as a disease of over achievers.

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But the reality is quite different. Jobs that come without a lot of control are actually much more stressful. I’m reminded of my term serving as head of my academic department. Everyone asked if I found it stressful. The truth was that being in charge was much less stressful than being a regular colleague.

When I was a regular colleague I worried about decisions the Department Chair might make. When I was Chair, I didn’t worry about that all.

So as with stress, so goes sleep. It’s not the over-achieving powerful people who suffer the most. When it comes to sleep, black women get less sleep than white women and black men. It’s all about intersectionality. What’s that?

From the Geek Feminist Wiki, “Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another.”

See also:

The Racial Inequality of Sleep

How Well You Sleep May Hinge on Race

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Stress and slumber

My beloved was away for work this past week. We’ve slept in the same bed so long that when I sleep solo I need to build a pillow person to keep me company. Otherwise I find myself waking up with a start while groping around looking for my partner. 

Sleep is a funny thing for me. If I get horribly stressed I have trouble falling asleep and often wake up in the night. If I’m feeling moderately overwhelmed or lonely I’m very sleepy. 

Sticking to my routine while my partner is away helps me sleep better. I found myself heading to bed about an hour earlier than usual. I’m stil feeling a bit wooly headed from some congestion and I felt tired. It’s hard for me to know if that was just loneliness masquerading as fatigue or that I successfully fended off a nasty bug that’s been going around my office. 

It was very busy at my paid work and parenting my teenage sons seems to take a lot of emotional heavy lifting. I was thankful for the solid nights of sleep. 

I’m spinning indoors, walking to work and practicing yoga. I’ve also kept going for massages and Chiro appointments. Getting enough sleep has been a key part of my resilience to stress. 

I’m thankful of this period of quality sleep. What do you do to get your best night’s sleep when you are feeling stressed? 

no one knows what the pillow person did to me while I slept


Turns out even when I’ve had a good nights sleep I don’t really like mornings!