All posts by Arjen Lentz

Erratic sleep can indicate later mental illness

Bed sharing ‘bad for your health’ ?

Sharing a bed with someone could temporarily reduce your brain power – at least if you are a man

A Day Inside my Head

(preamble: generally I think about posts here for a while and so it is with this one – however, it turned out more topical for me now and thus this post is pretty much “real time”. Just so you know…)

Good morning, and welcome to this tour of my head today. Feel free to ask any questions. It’s a bit of a mess right now, I am aware (I try not to fuss too much over that as it’d just be an added stress – just step over).

Jittery? Ehm yes that too – the body that’s attached to this head definitely is jittery this morning as it has been for some days; it’s had (give or take) about 0 hours of sleep last night and that takes its toll. Some nights are better than others.

Any medication that might help? Yep on it, since last week and for the first time in about four years. Went back to the doctor because I don’t regard crying in a corner as not a normal way of spending even part of a day. Cause? Dunno, there are triggers but other than that it just appears to be chemical imbalance (SSRI). Now it might take up to a few weeks (or even months if the dose needs to be tweaked) to hopefully settle things again.

Oops mind those thoughts whizzing past – you’re quite right most of them you’ve seen before recently and in a bit they’ll come around again. Persistent buggers they are, they’ve been thought about and/or dealt with, yet they keep popping back up, bloody useless really. It’ll be great when that just goes away – yep the meds should help with that. The thoughts themselves are of the harmless variety, no fear there. I just prefer to have new thoughts rather than recycling old used ones, you know?

So where were we… ahyes, sleeplessness. Of course those pesky thoughts don’t help but relaxation exercises assist; and in part it can be a temporary side effect of the meds, difficult to tell really with so many factors. I do get up every morning, have breakfast or go for morning walk with an apple to get daylight and exercise as well and try not to have naps during the day – yep all the right things, it’s really good to have those habits mostly in place while things are ok then it’s so much easier to keep them up.

So how do I feel, am I ok? Ehm, obviously not ok really, and how I feel differs per hour (pretty irregular waveform, for the geeks). Can I cope with life, daughter, the world outside and run my business? Luckily, yes. With running my own business, having others work for/with me and not doing emergency type stuff at all, that’s flexible enough to remain manageable. When I started the business four years ago some people were very concerned about the timing (and I’m not disagreeing) but it’s worked out well and reaping its benefits now.

I can joke and laugh and enjoy myself, as I realise it’s not me but just a malfunctioning part of me. I refuse to let that take over. I’m decent company (and that’s not just my own opinion). I do have some bad moments, say akin to a nasty stomach cramp (general feeling of dread), and those are more frequent right now than when things were going ok. It used to just be there every once in a while which was managable, it’s more annoying in its current state; hope that subsides soon. Last time I lost a lot of weight in a very short time, this time it seems stable and as I mentioned a light breakfast is generally doable and other meals are mostly fine.

Judgement? Ah, that’s a bit tricky. It’s not quite right and I’ve experienced examples of this over recent months before I figured out what was going on, so I need to be careful. Ability to observe yourself and often recognise cannot always prevent trouble, because clearly some of the logic applied is affected by the problem and thus currently borked. Self-awareness is good but not a complete solution here. Technical matters = usually ok, personal matters = potentially tricky, emotional matters = quagmire. Being tired I obviously need to take care to not grump or snap, not fair to take things out on other people and it doesn’t help anyone. The immediate nasty symptoms required action. Now that that’s happening… Overall, I’m functional. Of course, more sleep would be excellent!

I mentioned triggers earlier. The other day while on my morning walk I had quite a reaction to seeing a couple walk hand in hand, which is usually just regard as cute. Surprising, but there’s context. First of all and just to be clear, this is not the only type of trigger observed. Second, I know that close companionship has a very stabilising effect on my state and since I’m not currently in a relationship I can’t benefit from that. Bummer. I’m telling this because it may help others. If you have a partner (who understands), you’re likely to be in much better shape. Obviously, initiating a new relationship would be messy to say the least (not impossible though, if you’re both well aware of what’s going on), and even when already/just dating someone (which I am) tossing this stuff into the mix is a rather serious burden. That said, if you want to continue seeing the person you’re going to have to talk about it, as it’s not an optional part of who you are and they need to understand why you are and behave/react the way you do and might be a tad volatile. Oh and if you’re with someone who “doesn’t believe in it” (depression, that is) – seriously get out right now as they’re toxic to you and you’re better off without them.

When I did the little talk 3 years ago that ended up starting BlueHackers, I’d dealt with my own troubles – it was just good therapy for me and potentially useful for others to speak out, make things more open and ensure people didn’t feel alone. I didn’t think I’d find myself “back here” – still, I know I’m not alone!

It’s very annoying when part of your head doesn’t “behave” the way you want and is affecting your life for some period of time. I am able to just disregard the occasional “what am I doing this for” as I know those thoughts/doubts only pop up when that part misbehaves and it’ll disappear when things settle. That’s a relief (and probably comforting to you, the reader, too 😉 but still a nuisance in the mean time.

I’m now using these scribbles here as therapy. I don’t need pity (does anyone?) but empathy is good. I don’t want to have to pretend that everything is alright, because it bloody clearly isn’t and it costs a lot of energy which I need for getting better. I am open with the people around me too, for the same reasons: nice to still get invitations for dinner and doing stuff together with friends even when I’m somehow exuding this odd vibe that might otherwise scare people away.

Thanks for visiting – and now, out of my head. It’s mess enough without so many extra visitors 😉

Brainy info on smarts and depression

From 50 Incredibly Weird Facts About the Human Body an interesting tidbit about the brain:

A higher I.Q. equals more dreams: The smarter you are, the more you dream. A high I.Q. can also fight mental illness. Some people even believe they are smarter in their dreams than when they are awake.

Do check out the links referenced there, it’s at least interesting reading. What do you think of it?

The bit I’m particularly sceptical about is how it relates to IQ. IQ has a cultural bias due to the way it’s designed, but funnily enough people in Eastern Asia actually score higher than West Europeans for whom the test was designed (by a Frenchman, originally). Anyway, depending on how you ask about people’s dreams and the way they are able to express that, you can easily enforce a similar bias and thus come to the above conclusion without actually having a scientific basis for it. In other words, the test may have been utterly borked. Tricky stuff.

Concentration and Focus

You might recognise this… reduced concentration (getting in to a task and sticking with it) and ability to focus (example would be when interacting with people)

I’m not certain whether the original cause is actually related to depression, and/or the fact that I’ve been “online” for 25 years… with more recent technology it’s pretty easy to make the point that through the way we work it, it can easily mess with our ability to focus. We tend to work on an “interrupt” basis, that is we start some task but at any point a number of things can pop up (sometimes literally), ring, go blip or otherwise draw our attention. I believe this is messy and while I don’t want to ditch my online presence I’m thinking about ways to remedy this. I think it’s possible, I just need to act less immediate – basically turn off the blips. It’s often tempting and an excellent procrastination tool, but it’s not good.

With regard to focus, I’ve made the observation that I can’t keep looking at a person I am talking with, specifically while in listening-mode. I hear and take in what they’re saying, but I find myself frequently looking at things nearby before refocussing (head doesn’t move) – that’s in part apparently a thing that visual-spatial people do (school kid looking out the window instead of at teacher may actually be paying really close attention), but I’ve found that it has one very serious problem: you miss the bodylanguage. And that’s apart from the conversation partner possibly getting upset with your apparent lack of attention for them. Whatever the cause(s), I’d like to see if I can improve my focus.

I’ve been looking in to exercises that can help with these things, and most are fairly simple and straightforward but utterly boring things: stuff like focusing on an idea (mentally) or point/item (physically) for a set period of time, timing the duration of the focus you can maintain, refocussing your mind on the topic, and thus training your brain to get better at it. It’s valid, but not much direct fun and that leads to neglect rather than commitment 😉

Today I found another option: juggling. I was at a kiddie medieval festival with my daughter, and one of her things for the day was “jester school” and parents/carers were allowed to partake. We did diabolo and basic juggling. I’ve always wanted to learn juggling but never had a live tutor for it. I think the “task” of juggling covers all the skills that need to be trained (concentration, focus) and it’s fun! Plus, if you get better at the skill, the juggling improves so there’s a very direct external feedback mechanism that can even be shown off to others in an entertaining way… all win! 😉

See this ABC Australia video for some basic hints on juggling. What she doesn’t tell there is that the arm action should keep your elbows still, and the point your eyes should focus on is about in front of your forehead, that’s where the crossover balls get aimed. Google for other tutorials (text/diagram pages might help in addition to videos). At this stage I can’t yet say I can juggle, but even the basic steps are good exercises so I’m going to stick with it and see where it leads!

I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on all of this: jugging as an exercise for other stuff, causes for focus/concentration problems, etc. Everybody is different, and these things tend to not get talked about but it’s stuff many of us struggle with in some way so it’s really important. Thanks!

Presuppositions and Passive Agressives

I was just abused, by someone I care about and they live approx 16000 km away. I now have a headache and a nasty stressed feeling. I’m scribbling about it here as a bit of self-therapy to diffuse my anger at this (which in part is being angry at myself for letting me get so affected at a distance), particularly because confronting the person would not be effective. Also, you may recognise this type of incident and find the post of use. Comments are most welcome.

First, let me clarify what a presupposition is. Consider the sentence “Even Fred could pass that exam.” Those proficient in English will note additional information that is conveyed as there are two presuppositions in there:

  1. Fred gets classified as not being particularly bright/competent
  2. The exam is classified as easy, not challenging

Consequentially, the sentence is actually quite nasty in particular towards Fred, but also conveys a clear negative opinion about the exam.

Passive-aggressiveness is obviously a coping mechanism. It’s frustrating for others, and confronting it in whatever way tends to (at least in my experience) be a waste of time as it just triggers more of the same behaviour. Since it’s just an observable symptom of something else, it’s up to the person themselves to hopefully figure it out over time and deal with the actual issues. Unfortunately and again very frustrating, you can’t fix other people or their problems, you can only affect your own behaviour or responses.

Did the person phrasing a sentence such as the above actually say something nasty, or can they validly claim innocence? I’ve come to regard being offended as a selfish act, as the person triggering the offense tends to not have spent specific effort on offending you. Makes sense? But even with that in mind, I don’t believe sentences with nasty presuppositions are innocent. If you say stuff like that, you should take responsibility for what it means as well as for what it literally says.

Now, back to my own experience. The email I received went something like this: “Since I haven’t heard from you about the gift package, I’m presuming it didn’t arrive and thus will not send any more gift packages in the future, which is a great pity for X.”

It’s astonishing how many snakes are in there, there’s absolutely nothing I can say or do. If indeed the package hasn’t arrived, future consequences have already been decided, to someone else’s detriment (that tosses a guilt-trip on me, I’m now guilty for X not getting gifts). If the package has arrived, then it’s clearly my fault also (disregarding other circumstances) to not have communicated in the preferred manner (essentially a quick email would not do, a phone call is required taking time zones and other factors in to account). If I object to the message, I’m causing trouble. It’s a complete no winner.

Possibly you see another way to respond or handle this, and I’m quite happy to see suggestions – of course the sentence was simplified, and there are many other aspects as well as a long history in play and it’s not suitable to post all that here.

If you’d like to read more about this type of verbal nasties, see Suzette Haden Elgin’s
Verbal Self Defense
home page. Her books are excellent, specifically “The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense” which while a few decades old now is still very usable. It doesn’t teach so-called put-downs, it really teaches understanding and skills to diffuse and avoid triggering problems.

The just get on/deal with it fallacy

I was recently told this – it’s quite common to hear it generically and it ranks high on the list of “very unhelpful things to say to a person with depression”, but I hadn’t had it tossed at me personally in recent times.

The reason it’s utterly unhelpful is that it presumes that a person can just “snap out of it”, “stop whinging” or whatever, and that completely disregards the medical background of the situation. It’s just not how it works. To put it bluntly, it’s essentially denying the existence of depression as a medical condition. And while individuals are entitled to their own opinions, I reckon there’s been enough medical research and experience amassed to safely conclude that depression exists – so I prefer to not get drawn into discussions on that baseline, or be put in a situation where that gets questioned.

I consider myself quite lucky. I’ve always been able to get up in the morning. I don’t necessarily feel so good and my ability to do things during the day may be affected, but I get up. I know that others don’t. Because they just can’t. While that may be very difficult to comprehend for someone who has never been in that situation, a little bit of understanding, compassion and empathy helps.

This is just one example. I’ll soon scribble another post reflecting on what might go on in my head and outside on a day that things are not working so well.

Awareness in the community is important, which is an important reason for BlueHackers’ existence – but those with depression can also take a useful lesson from all this though, because for many of us depression is cyclical – it’s not at the same level all the time, and there are very good periods. There can be obvious negative triggers such as stress, illness, bad diet, lack of sleep (I’ve written about that earlier) some of which you have influence over, and others that we may not know about or can’t directly influence.

If you manage to put things in place during good times, it’ll give you a kind of buffer in bad times. A habit is easier to keep up than it is to get started, that is, change often requires more effort than maintaining the status quo, even though the status quo might be you going for a daily walk. That may seem a bit contradictory at first, but we’re primarily talking about mental energy here, not physical. Now imagine, if you were some able to keep doing that daily walk, that alone may not prevent bad episodes but is quite likely to lower the severity and duration and overall keep you in better shape – in this case literally as well, since it is exercise! But think of a habit of going to bed at a set time, reading a book or doing some relaxation… same applies.

Mind you, I’m not perfect with this – I can be a complete slacker, but every time looking back I can see the results both of doing (some of) this and of not doing it. It makes a big difference for me. So, there we have a possibly useful strategy derived  indirectly from an otherwise useless (or even harmful) comment. Naturally, your milage may vary, everybody is different. But perhaps it’s something you can try, starting at the right time. And if you have experience with it already, perhaps you can write a comment!

The Right Lazy

You know how you sometimes feel lazy, plus guilty about same?

But when you think about it, I reckon some “lazy” is more than ok… why not optimise some things for convenience, saving time/energy for other things? That’s worthwhile. Example:

  • I bake my own bread because it tastes better, my daughter loves it, it doesn’t contain any nasty additives, and as a nice sideline it actually works out much cheaper with more nutrition.
  • I use a breadmaker, because I really can’t be stuffed doing all the kneading. Happily lazy there.
  • I don’t use bread mix, because putting ingredients in the bread pan takes only a few minutes anyway. The biggest effort is actually cleaning the bread pan afterward so no difference there. I big jars with a few types of flour, a box with various seeds and grains and such that I add to some breads, linseed in the fridge, and dried yeast in the freezer. Easy-as.

Healthy eating (unprocessed foods)

The following is from BBC News site: Depression link to processed food

After accounting for factors such as gender, age, education, physical activity, smoking habits and chronic diseases, they found a significant difference in future depression risk with the different diets.

Those who ate the most whole foods had a 26% lower risk of future depression than those who at the least whole foods.

By contrast people with a diet high in processed food had a 58% higher risk of depression than those who ate very few processed foods.

Not really surprising (to me, anyway) but interesting to see some research on this. And the difference is quite significant.

The Equation

Sometimes you get pretty busy, and what’s the first thing to lose out? The daily exercise, being outside (sunlight) for a bit, perhaps the fruit (see the How-To). Sound familiar?

Depending on how you’re going at the time, you may actually get away with it. But it’s a dangerous track to go on… if you happen to get sick or add a bit of stress, there’s trouble. For me personally, I think it works somewhat like an equation, roughly this:

doing ok = ((exercise + daylight + fruit + sleep) >= (stress + illness))

Perhaps someone would care to refine this further?

(I’ve never coded in Lisp but I always use parentheses to keep math clear without implied rules. I know about operator precedence – heck I’ve written little compilers – but being explicit eases code maintenance and reduces bugs)

By the way, we got some press attention this week, see When hackers get the blues. It’s also November again, and that means Movember: the yearly fundraising drive raising awareness for men’s health, this year focusing on depression and prostate cancer. I’ve added it to the links, if you know of other relevant links please let us know!