The last two days have been washed in heavy winds. The leaves, just turned golden-yellow, are being stripped off of their branches to accumulate near the front door, where they’re much less pretty. It’s a small thing to be disappointed about, but it seems as though so many things in the world suck right now. For one thing, our Home Depot skeleton, David S. Pumpkins, is constantly buffeted by wind on the seat from which he offers a cheery wave. Every morning, I find him slumped over as if we force him to sleep outside on the park bench, when really, he just doesn’t have the muscle tone to stay upright. What must the neighbors think? He likes it out there, I promise.
You know what else sucks? Depression. I recently had my regular mental health bloodwork done to make sure my lithium level is within the appropriate range, as well as to measure my thyroid function. All is well. Lithium can cause hypothyroidism, which can cause fatigue. We thought it would be worth investigating as a potential cause of my excessive sleeping, but no – that’s just depression. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I don’t have to make adjustments or take new steps to deal with a whole new problem, but reducing my lithium dose or adding a thyroid med sounded like a simpler answer. Instead, the answer is just to carry on treading water in the sea of treatment-resistant depression. Just keep swimming, right?
So, let’s make some teeny tiny inflatable water wings to keep us afloat. Here’s what hasn’t sucked lately.
My houseplants are doing great. Man, they look healthy.
I learned how to use my new, short ChuckIt to throw a tennis ball like I’m skipping rocks rather than overhead. (My rodent-obsessed dog prefers to chase things that go along the ground.)
I unearthed two whole sets of flannel sheets that I forgot I had.
I swapped out the hummingbird feeder for the regular bird feeder, and it’s becoming quite popular.
The coyotes woke me up with their howling the other night. I always find it eerily mesmerizing. 7/10 spooky.
Over the last week, I have taken a grand total of one nap. ONE. This is grossly reduced from my usual minimum of six depression naps per week, each spanning roughly three hours. I cut back on naps this week because I was spending time with my family, instead. Between running errands, cooking, cleaning up, and catching up, there wasn’t much time to sleep during the day, and if there was, I prioritized family time.
The week is over, and I’m learning that I’m capable of being more active than I feel I am. My depression and the medication I take to treat it make me tired, and I might need a whole ‘nother week to recoup from this napless week, but I can function without naps. I think I should take this to mean that doing more is more sustainable than I thought.
I’ve been nervous that adding activities outside the house would be a disaster, because how could I go out and do stuff when I sleep for three hours every afternoon? This is probably a cart and horse problem; I’m worried that I won’t be able to fulfill my commitments if I still feel the need for excessive sleep. But perhaps adding more commitments to my schedule will make me less depressed, and therefore, I would sleep less. There’s bound to be an unhappy medium in the middle, but it would probably settle out eventually. In (wildly simplified) essence, be tired and have nothing to do, do more and briefly be more tired, then be a normal amount of tired and have fun doing whatever you want. This is something that everyone in my life has been saying forever, but sometimes it takes a while for you to come to the same conclusion, right?
A large part of my robust depression nap schedule is due to the lithium I take in the morning. However, I’m sure that another part of it is, at this point, a habit. My brain has learned that every day at the same time, we go to sleep for a few hours. It’s come to expect it. Breaking out of that habit is tough, but if I eliminate that and reduce my depression as much as possible, I’ll be left with just the lithium tiredness. That’s manageable, and as I’ve learned this week, very possible to function with.
Before I was even taking any medication, I slept as an escape. I went to bed before dinner because I didn’t want to be awake anymore, and I took long naps because I couldn’t stand the feeling of experiencing an entire day. Maybe this was what I needed, for a time. It helped me face my existence in more manageable chunks, but then it spiraled into something more damaging. I’m not going to stop taking naps entirely. I feel best when I give in and curl up on my bed for a few hours, sleep it off, and wake up partially refreshed. But I’m also going to remember that I don’t have to do that.
Ever since I welcomed my puppy, Stella, into my life, I’ve noticed some things about how she treats her body. Unlike Stella, I have trouble recognizing what my body needs; Sensory Processing Disorder can make it hard to discriminate one feeling from another, and to identify what actions would fix an uncomfortable sensation. My dog, however, is especially in tune with her body. Sometimes I marvel at how good she is at giving herself what she needs. In honor of that, here are three things I’ve learned from Stella about listening to my body.
Test Your Surroundings
Stella has no qualms about finding a new place to hang out, no worries about offending others by moving. She goes from place to place as she wants. If the bed becomes too hot or too soft, she switches to the floor. If she feels too exposed around loud noises, she finds somewhere sheltered to lay.
The number of times I’ve kept myself from moving or adjusting my surroundings because I might stand out is too many to count. The little things can make a big difference in how you see your environment and how you feel in your body. Small adjustments help us regulate our nervous systems– a cold drink can wake you up while a warm one can calm you. Do you like your feet to feel secure, or do you prefer the freedom of open-toed shoes? Break up the monotony of your schedule by riding your bike to school or work every once in a while. I work on the computer a lot, and when my slouch has reached extreme levels, I know it’s time to get up and stretch. Take a page from Stella’s book, and feel free to get comfortable in your environment.
Express Your Emotions
Dogs don’t lie about how they feel; if you know how to read their body language, it’s easy to tell when they’re feeling happy, anxious, confident, or any other reaction to outside stimuli. There’s a certain amount of uncomfortable stimuli that we all must face every day. Maybe you hate the feeling of brushing your teeth, yet you do it because it’s important for your health. Maybe you’re sensitive to temperatures and dislike walking to work in the heat, but have limited transportation options. There are times that we have to prepare ourselves for and recover from unpleasant feelings that are unavoidable. There are also times when we suppress our instincts because we think we “should” be able to handle something. If there’s a way that you or someone else can adjust your surroundings to make you more comfortable, speak up!
Look for Joy
Stella loves a lot of things; she loves barking at rabbits, playing in sprinklers, and rolling in the grass. The things that she enjoys the most are the ones that require spontaneity. She approaches every dog she meets with a play bow; there’s no time like the present to make a new friend. She lives entirely in the moment, and whatever feels right to her is what she does– (sometimes to my immense frustration).
Look for joy in the little things. Find ways to have fun with boring activities. When no input is exciting or fun, we become understimulated and listless. So, jump in those puddles, paint with your fingers, and put your waste paper basket far away so you have to toss things from your desk. I don’t know, whatever brings you joy.
In the depths of depression and throughout the hills and dips of recovery, apathy is a frequent visitor. It steals motivation and leaves nothing behind. When this happens, it’s tempting to let it overtake you. I’ve found that continuing with a task despite apathy can help end a spell of it. Here are some of the ways I use to get me through a period of apathy.
Whatever gets you even a little bit motivated can be useful when battling apathy. Granted, if you’re feeling apathetic, even the usual rewards might not have much of an effect. For me, I sit in the shade with a book and my dog. Maybe for you, it’s watching your favorite show or treating yourself to a delicious snack. Whatever it is, reward yourself for your hard work; apathy isn’t easy to overcome.
A Conversation With Future You
You might not care right now, but you might care a lot in the future. We like to think that we can predict the future, but the truth is that none of us really know what’s going to happen in a week or a month or a year. So, while this one requires a little hope for the future, sometimes all it takes is to allow for the possibility that things might get better; to admit that you’re not a fortune-teller. In fact, I’m working on this one right now.
I know what you’re thinking–well, I don’t know. (That’s another distortion.) But you might be thinking “obviously, if I’m feeling apathetic, I don’t want to do anything because I don’t get satisfaction from completing a task. Why would I do something that gives me no intrinsic reward?”
Well, that’s a good point. I’ll counter with this: an oyster creates a pearl when a grain of sand becomes lodged in its tissues. Layer by layer, the mollusk coats the grain of sand with calcium carbonate to protect itself from the irritating particle. What began as a negative from the oyster’s perspective is turned into something valuable.
Motivation often comes from the desire to solve a problem. Whether it’s a seemingly small problem like noticing that your hair needs to be washed, or a larger-scale problem like slipping grades that could affect your graduation, everything we do, we do to solve a problem. Every time you do something that moves you towards a goal, you’re building a metaphorical layer around the underlying issue. Every time you go to class even though you don’t want to, you’re building up to something great. Every time you go for a run even though you’d rather sleep, you add another layer of persistence to your pearl.
Often, it’s only after many layers, many instances of forcing myself through apathy, that I begin to get a glimmer of satisfaction. Sometimes, the only way to reach the other side of apathy is to just begin. Momentum only comes when you start to move.
I’ve been traveling a lot lately, and I’m worn out. While waiting to board my latest flight home, I pretty much sat at the gate in a sensory stupor while the gate agents droned on the speaker about checking your carry-on bag. Because I have Sensory Processing Disorder, I needed an afternoon (or more) to reset my nervous system and return to the real world as a functioning human being. Unfortunately, airports have very few places in which to hide from the noise, movement, and general chaos of airport activity. (But for help finding those rare spots, check out sleepinginairports.net)
Dyspraxia, SPD, and Airports
And, it’s not just the crowds of people that are overstimulating- it’s also the tasks you have to do in order to get onto your flight. These tasks fall under the concept of praxis. In the context of Sensory Processing Disorder, dyspraxia refers to difficulty with planning complex movements and tasks. It falls under the Sensory-Based Motor Disorder subtype of Sensory Processing Disorder.
Tackling Motor Planning Challenges
I have symptoms of dyspraxia, so encountering uncertain situations can be stressful and draining for me. Standing in lines is okay for me; it’s ordered, it’s neat, and the most difficult part for me is identifying which kiosk just opened up (might take me a little longer, but I’ll get it eventually). Security is a mess. People crossing from the main line to a security line across the room, the choices involved in preparing your things to go through the imaging machine (should I take off my shoes first? What about my belt?), and then all of a sudden the line has moved ahead and I’m the dam holding back a flood of grumpy people trying to catch their flights. At least, that’s what I always worry will happen. In reality, it usually goes more smoothly than I expect, and I imagine we look more like ants, focused on our own tasks with occasional hiccups but somehow hurrying around one another to reach our destinations without incident.
Airports Have All the Sensory Stimuli
Airports are visually busy, and with loudspeaker announcements, children crying, businessmen talking shop on their cell phones; it’s a barrage of auditory assaults for people with sensitive nervous systems. Not to mention the vestibular hurdles- the moving walkways clogged with people, the escalator that somehow jostles you up and down while also transporting you diagonally to the next floor. Too much of this, and I begin to get vertigo, letting me know that I’m nearing my limit.
Tips for Traveling with Sensory Processing Disorder
Airports are challenging places to navigate for people with Sensory Processing Disorder. Luckily, there are strategies you can use to make your airport experience less stressful.
Get organized the night before to set yourself up for success.
Print your ticket.
Organize your belongings so that essential items are easy to grab.
Double check your arrangements for transportation. Have parking, shuttle busses, or your ride from a friend figured out in advance.
Consider writing down important information in one easily accessible place. Having your terminal, gate, airline, flight times and numbers, and your itinerary at the ready can help you feel prepared.
Wear clothing that makes getting through security simple.
Bring things that ground you.
Mints, hard candy, gum.
Strong smells such as in diffuser jewelry or a travel deodorant.
Weighted lap pad, compression socks, hats, and other clothing that calms you.
Headphones and a supply of music or your favorite content.
Give yourself time to recover after your flight.
Be patient with yourself and others.
Take care of the needs you can control.
Food and water.
Bring travel toiletries.
Try to be rested before your adventure!
Traveling with Sensory Processing Disorder may take a little more planning and some extra self-care, but with any luck, you’ll get to your destination as cool and self-regulated as possible.
I’m hoping to make this the first post in a series called “Science Saturdays” (now taking suggestions for a more creative name) where I dive into the research at the intersection of mental health and (fill in the blank). I dipped my toes into these waters with previous posts like “Pets and Mental Health“, “Can You ‘Grow Out Of’ Childhood OCD?“, and “What’s the Deal with MTHFR and Psychiatric Conditions?” My intention is to take an objective look at recent research, let it percolate through my noggin while I sift through the dozens of tabs I’ve amassed in Google Scholar, then report back with what I think are some important takeaways.
Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re perched on the cusp of spring, and boy, am I ready to get outside. I live in Colorado, and hiking is one of, if not the most, enjoyable ways I spend my time in the warmer months. I’ve been gazing longingly at the mountains, perusing dog backpacks (that’s backpacks for dogs to wear) on Amazon, and figuratively dusting off my trail map app in anticipation. It could just be that I’m particularly drawn to being outside because of my personality and upbringing, but I’ve recently come across some buzz surrounding the positive effects that nature has on our emotional and physical health. So, I figured, what better way to become even more entrenched in spring fever than to spend a few hours reading about the outdoors?
Nature and Physical Health Studies
Nearly every article I’ve read so far has referenced a study published in 1984 by RS Ulrich. The study looked at a group of 46 hospital patients, all of whom had their gallbladders removed and were monitored postoperatively. 23 patients stayed in rooms with views of trees, while the other 23 had views of a brick wall. The now classic study found that the patients who had views of trees recovered faster and required less pain medication than the other group of patients.
Increasingly, researchers are investigating the relationship between biodiversity in green spaces and psychological benefits. Several nature and mental health studies have found significant associations between higher plant and bird diversity and positive mental effects. A 2007 study by Fuller et al. found a positive correlation between plant species richness and participants’ sense of identity and ability to reflect. The 312 participants were fairly accurate at assessing plant species richness, which muddies causality. The question then becomes: are the benefits derived from species richness or perceived species richness?
Here’s another study to elaborate on that distinction. Researchers here found that psychological benefits of nature exposure were correlated not with biodiversity, but with participants’ perception of biodiversity only. In this study, participants were apparently not at all good at estimating species richness, and it affected their experience of being outside, regardless of how many species were actually present.
Frequency and Duration of Nature Exposure
So it seems that the more varied and species-rich the environment, the better. But is glancing out a window now and then the same as going for a walk outside, psychologically? I’d say no, but that doesn’t mean that short exposures to nature don’t benefit us. After all, just a 40-second break to look at a green, plant-filled roof has been shown to improve attention and performance on cognitive tasks, as compared to a break of the same length with views of concrete roofs.
In a sample of over 1500 Australian respondents, longer duration of nature excursions is associated with decreased prevalence of depression and high blood pressure. More frequent visits to public green spaces are associated with a greater sense of social cohesion, which I imagine contributes positively to mental health in general.
Criticisms of Nature and Mental Health Research
Few studies on the topic of nature and mental health take an epidemiological approach, leading some to point out that we have very little data on long-term, population-level health effects of nature exposure. Criticisms of some studies also include sample size, lack of adequate controls, and statistical rigor. However, the number of studies that demonstrate a correlation between nature and mental health benefit vastly outweigh the number of studies that show no relationship. While this does not negate the weaknesses mentioned previously, it does seem to suggest that there is validity to the idea that nature is emotionally beneficial.
The Daffodils are Blooming
All the signs that winter is ending are here; the daffodils are blooming, more birds are singing, the neighbors are cleaning out their garage, and before spring really gets underway, Colorado is scheduled to get one or two more last-minute dumps of snow.
Speaking of, now that I’ve gotten myself extra excited to get outside and let my brain soak in the wonderful sights, sounds, and smells of spring, it’s time to prepare myself for tonight’s snowstorm.
I recently wrote a post about SPD and dyspraxia, in which I mentioned using a weekly plan to help me deal with uncertainty and change. In all honesty, I haven’t used my weekly plan in a while, so I’m hoping that reflecting on what worked for me and what didn’t might encourage me to get back into it.
How to Make a Weekly Plan
There really isn’t one right way to make a weekly plan. I like to create mine with an hourly-organized template so that I can schedule each part of my day. It helps me stay on track and prevent procrastination. Sometimes I take more of a loose, overarching goal approach where I identify a couple of tasks per day or week that I want to accomplish, and then fit those in around my normal routine.
I’ve tried a paper planner and a digital notes app, and I’d say I prefer the digital method; I can refer to it anytime because, like a typical millennial, I’m never far from my phone. It’s also easy to alter by replacing items or copy and pasting them to another day/list. The digital method also appeals to me because replacing tasks leaves no evidence of the previous one, as with paper and pen, which brings me to another point:
I had to dedicate several weeks to trial and error when starting my weekly plans as part of my occupational therapy. I tend to avoid making choices as much as is humanly possible (thanks, sensory discrimination challenges), so when I’m faced with a decision like “digital or paper?” I won’t know which one I prefer until I try both and compare them.
Here, we come back to the “digital changes leave no trace”. This is a relic of my own high expectations for myself and my reluctance to change plans. I found that erasing (or worse- crossing out) tasks in my weekly plan when I couldn’t complete them brought on a sense of guilt and failure. Nevermind that I imposed the plan in the first place and may have bitten off more than I could chew. Once it’s in the plan, I have to do it, right? Nope- moving things around and postponing some tasks is often necessary. Something takes longer than you anticipated, an unexpected problem arises, or you’re really just not up for tackling a particular task that day. I think eventually, I’ll get better at finding the balance of flexibility and rigidity, but until then, a digital format works best for me. That way, I don’t have to see the faint outlines of my overly ambitious, past plans.
Too Much Detail
Honestly, this is still something I struggle with. It’s tricky to know how much is reasonable to plan into one day, especially because, as with the previous section, sometimes things come up and you’ve got to shift gears. When I started figuring out my weekly plans, I started seeing improvements in my productivity, and consequently, my mood. Riding the wave of that success, I was perhaps a bit overzealous in my weekly planning and crammed as much detail as possible into each day. Every hour was occupied by some task, either work-related or relaxation-related. (You can imagine that that approach wasn’t very conducive to relaxation.) Ultimately, too much detail would lead me to fall “behind” on my plan, start to feel discouraged, and sometimes just give up on the day altogether. Now, I like to leave a buffer zone around work tasks and intentionally leave at least a couple of hours empty to take care of little chores or just sit around and do nothing.
My Ideal Plan with Sensory Processing Disorder
I think that anyone can benefit from a weekly plan; even if you try it and decide it’s not for you, you’ll likely learn something about yourself in the process.
I’m over-responsive to a lot of stimuli, and I have some issues with discriminating sensory information, so I do best with predictability. Routine is how I function best, and spur-of-the-moment action makes me anxious. For me, my ideal weekly plan is one that looks pretty similar to the previous week’s. Whether I write it out or keep it in my head, my day-to-day routine is remarkably consistent; and that’s how I like it. For someone who seeks more stimulation, this might be incredibly dull, so it’s certainly not for everyone. I keep most of what I do every day the same, and then sprinkle in equal amounts of fun and dreaded tasks. Going to the dentist on Tuesday? Make Wednesday a library day. Need to go grocery shopping? Pick up a treat as a reward. When things start to get a little too consistent, I go back to the drawing board and make an effort to incorporate new activities.
Keep a running to-do list for when you’re at a loss for what to do.
Pick a day of the week to sit down and plan the next one.
Break large tasks down into smaller chunks to be accomplished over time.
Don’t take it too seriously- it’s a tool, not a rule.