Health

Have you ever laid in bed desperate to go to sleep, only to be kept awake for what feel like hours by a rotation of racing thoughts?

Me too.

What are we supposed to do when counting sheep and breathing deeply isn’t cutting it?

According to Sari Bahcall, PhD in Physics at Stanford and author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, we could try hypnotising ourselves.

Hypnosis, as he describes it, has less to do with chicken dancing audience members, and more to do with focus.

A study titled, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two
Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information
is famous for asserting that the human mind is capable of interpreting approximately seven items of stimulus at any one time.

Hypnosis is the process of focussing all of the brains resources on to one piece of stimulus.

How do we apply this to sleeping?

Bahcall has a few sleep exercises he recommends, but the following has two are the easiest to start out with. Apparently they have a pretty high success rate depending on whether you’re a more visual or auditory person.

Visual Sleep Exercise

The first exercise involves focussing on the images or shapes you see when you close your eyes.

He says that the most important thing about this method is that you allow yourself to be genuinely curious about whatever you see.

Once you see something, anything at all, investigate it. The thing you see could be as simple as a square, or as complex as the face of a distant cousin. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re not thinking about it.

Now get curious.

Notice things about it. What are its features? Does it have colour? Where are its edges? Focus and refocus, noticing new things about the image, making it clearer and clearer until your brain jumps to something else.

Then investigate that.

Repeat this process for long enough and your should nod off once you get into the rhythm of gentle noticing.

Auditory Sleep Exercise

Despite its name, the auditory exercise doesn’t have anything to do with making sound. It’s for shutting up the voice in the back of your head, not for sounds outside of it.

This exercise is ominously similar to the sheep counting we’ve all tried, but has a few key adjustments which make it applicable to the adult brain.

Once your eyes are closed, allow your brain to randomly generate two digit numbers between 11 and 100, then visualise each number.

You can get creative about how you visualise the numbers, it doesn’t matter. Bahcall likes to imagine them shooting out of a cannon into the sky. I like to imagine them slowly forming from ripples in a pool of water. You do you.

Then… Well that’s pretty much it.

It’s important that you’re able to set your mind on auto pilot generating these numbers.

Hypnotism is possible because of the constraints around the numbers which we’re allowing ourselves to generate; the numbers are in random sequence because if we were counting, we would get bored. If we get bored, we stop focussing, and the process doesn’t work.

The numbers are double digit because we’re so familiar with 1-10 that we can generate them while allowing other thoughts or stimulus to come in. In other words, thinking about 1-10 is too easy.

On the other hand, anything more than two digits and we run the risk of overcomplicating the task. Your mind needs to put less effort into generating the number 74 than it does the number 1382, but more than it does to generate the number 3. Two digit numbers are the sweet spot.

I’ve been trying these out, and will likely do a follow up post to report my findings. If you try either of them, be sure to let me know.

When (not if) we make mistakes that need to be avoided in the future we have two options; tell ourselves that next time we’ll be more careful, or build a better system which limit the chance of the mistake happening again.

Being careful might prevent us from making the mistake short term, but what happens when we become complacent again? What happens when enough time has passed for us to forget the consequences of the mistake, or when someone new comes along who hasn’t made the mistake before? Careful is important, but it isn’t enough.

This is why we build systems.

‘If it matters enough to be careful, it matters enough to build a better system.’

Seth Godin

Some systems are huge, others are tiny. Systems become more complicated when the cost of the mistake is high, or when the number of people who could make the mistake is large. You can build a system around any imaginable problem.

Have trouble getting out of bed when your alarm chimes?

Telling yourself you’re going to make sure not to do this on workdays and disabling your snooze option is being careful.

Putting your phone on the other side of the room before you go to bed is a small system.

Neither caution nor a system can guarantee that a mistake will be avoided. But systems are dynamic. Caution is not.

Let’s say setting your alarm on the other side of the room works for a while, but your morning zombie-brain adapts. You’ve discovered that if you go to the end of your bed and stretch far enough, you can turn the alarm off without even needing to get out of bed.

The system is failing. It needs to be adapted. So, you implement a new rule:

You’re not allowed to turn off your alarm until you’re dressed.

This one simple change to your routine implies that you’ll need to get out of bed, turn on a light, take off your pyjamas, and dress yourself before you’re allowed to turn off your alarm.

Couldn’t you still just turn the alarm off at any time and just go back to bed? Of course.

But if you were willing to put the effort into being careful, wouldn’t you also be willing to put in the effort to implement a system?

Systems take effort to implement, but once they’re in place they dramatically decrease your likelihood of making mistakes.

You can take a systems based approach to everything important to you.

Be careful, but be smart about it.

I love a nap almost as much as I love an espresso.

Recently I discovered that the two can be combined to great effect.

If you drink a coffee just before taking a 20 minute nap, the wakeful effects of each will compound.

This seems counterintuitive, but makes a lot of sense when you look at how caffeine and sleep each affect the brain.

As our bodies generate energy, they are constantly producing a neurotransmitter called adenosine.

Your brain has a number of adenosine receptors which are triggered as adenosine binds to them. These adenosine receptors are your body’s way of knowing it needs to sleep.

The more adenosine receptors activated, the sleepier you become.

When you sleep, your body produces less adenosine than it breaks down, which is why you usually wake up more alert that you did when you went to bed.

But what if you’re tired and sleep isn’t an immediate option?

This is where coffee steps in.

Lucky for us, caffeine has a similar structure to adenosine.

(Caffeine and Adenosine side-by-side)

Caffeine’s structure is similar enough that it can bind to the adenosine receptors without activating them.

This essentially blocks adenosine from binding to your receptors and telling your brain that you need to sleep.

Caffeine takes about 20 minutes to absorb into your bloodstream. By spending that time napping, your body naturally breaks down some of the adenosine in your system, which frees up more adenosine receptors for the caffeine to bind to.

A short nap primes your body to maximise the wakeful effect of caffeine.

If you’re a coffee drinker and haven’t tried this before, give this a shot.

The way we hold ourselves, gesture, and move through space; our nonverbals, influence how others perceive us, but also how we perceive ourselves.

Symbolic gestures of pride are universal across the animal kingdom. Gorillas, gymnasts, and blind athletes all spread their arms high and wide in celebration of a victory; they take up space.

While mostly sub-conscious, we are constantly navigating the power dynamics between us and our environment.

Our nonverbals are one way we manage this; they govern how we think and feel about ourselves, and how we move in relation to, or in the presence of, others.

Why is this important?

Because you can train yourself to feel physiologically powerful, and it has immediate effects on your brain.

People acting powerfully are more assertive, confident, have an easier time abstract thinking, and display risk-taking indicators.

Power is about how you react to stress.

Good leaders are less stress reactive than the people they lead.

The science behind how this functions is fascinating. Researchers have used ‘power pose’ experiments to measure physiological effects.

Low-power poses spike cortisol.

High-power poses spike testosterone.

If you clam up, you are chemically reducing your ability to be present or influential.

If you force yourself to make a habit our of; sitting straight, rocking your shoulders back, keeping your chin up and not crossing your arms and legs, you might not just look more powerful, and be treated as such by those around you. You will likely feel more powerful.

Sometimes your presence is more important than whatever you have to say.

Maintain it.

I made pasta from scratch for some friends today, and remembered why I love to cook.

As I was kneading the dough, turning eggs and flour into a warm, stretchy ball, I thought about how many people had done this before me. I thought about my Nonna, about her Nonna before her, about all the hours of kneading dough accumulated in my DNA.

How many hours have human beings accumulated stretching dough with their hands?

How many meals have we kneaded?

How many satisfied bellies have we filled with the fruits of our labour?

Taking ingredients and spending your time and energy transforming them into something which brings joy into the world is one of the fundamental pleasures of being human.

I forget this sometimes.

Many of us get lost in our heads too often. It has become possible to live a completely online existence, separated from the most basic of physical enjoyments. Some of us work, order food, and do our shopping from a computer screen.

This is convenient, but not necessarily worthwhile.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since starting to write with a fountain pen; there is a character which my handwriting possesses that my typed work will never have.

We take our hands for granted. They need practice to maintain their capacity to create, so don’t lose touch with them; work dough, work clay, work wood, work whatever it is they like to touch.

Just let them work something. It’s what they’re built for. Allow them to craft joy; for you, and for those you love.

Make something.

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book V

It seems some things never change.

The reflections on sleep in Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (121-180AD) communicate a struggle many of us modern folk experience every day.

You’d think that almost two thousand years on, in the age of alarm clocks and automated light globes programmed to mimic the sunrise, good sleep hygiene would be conventional wisdom, and we’d all be leaping out of bed with a spring in our step, ready to tackle our days.

How is it that we are yet to master the thing we each spend one third of our lives doing?

In his private musings never intended for publication, Marcus wrestles against his better nature in defence his bed’s warm embrace;

“-But it’s nicer here…

So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants, the spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what nature demands?

– But we have to sleep sometime.

Agreed. But nature set a limit on that-as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit.”

He argues that to deny the world your contribution is in contradiction to what it is to be human. It is human nature to contribute. That no matter who you are, you have something to offer – so offer it.

Perhaps harshly, he continues to reprimand himself;

You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for the dance, the miser for the money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.

It is from this section I believe we have the most to learn from Marcus. His purpose – his art, was helping others. It was his mission. It’s what he loved to do. He charged himself with a lifelong sentence; help others. Falling prey to sloth got in the way, so he disallowed it.

We all have an art. We all have a purpose. We all have something to give.

I’ve tried all the gadgets, apps, and sleep-hacks you can think of to rise early and do work which I don’t love. None of it worked.

What I’ve discovered is that I can get out of bed at 5am every single day for one of two reasons; to write, or to do Jiu-Jitsu.

Currently, these are my missions. They energise and motivate me like nothing else. This is what I love to do.

Tell me, what are your missions?

If they aren’t worth prying yourself out of bed for, allow me to suggest that perhaps it’s time to revise them.

Make some ruckus. The world is waiting.

Imagine being able to work happy and fast for 18 hours straight without complaint, as long as you have a new and rewarding task to complete every few minutes.

That’s my brain.

When I worked high-intensity catering gigs, my legs would give out before my focus would, and I became an asset to the small business I worked for as a result.

If you can give me a dish to serve, a drink to pour, a guest to guide to the bathroom, a box to pack, a smashed glass to clean, something, something, something, all the time, I’m good.

The only problem: once I’m on, I can’t stop working or continue one task for too long, or I turn off.

And once I’m off, it’s a train wreck. The simplest tasks are met with more resistance than I can rationalise.

I’ll get frustrated at myself for not wanting to do the thing I’m avoiding doing, start doing it, then start something else, which I’ll also be resistant to doing… And it cycles. Which sucks.

I’m diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but keep in mind that an attention deficit diagnosis is far from black or white.

There’s a huge spectrum, and no two of us display exactly the same cocktail of inattentive, hyperactive, or impulsive behaviours.

Also, almost everyone not diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder will illicit some of the behaviours which are key signposts of an attention deficit diagnosis.

Everybody loses their keys, fidgets, or shows up late from time to time.

But not everybody gets so wrapped up in a project that they regularly forget to eat for three days even though they fully intended on cooking, and were really looking forward the (now inedible) salmon they bought themselves a week and a half ago, which they also forgot to freeze four days ago.

People with ADD/ADHD just experience this stuff more regularly, and more severely.

My brain has worked this way for as long a I can remember, but didn’t consider the possibility that I even could be on the spectrum until I was into my adulthood. I was lucky to be a bright kid, and I could always hyperfocus in tests and exams, so nobody really noticed.

It wasn’t until I was unintentionally domineering a conversation with a new friend at a bar, completely bombarding him with all the things I had going on, when he gently and respectfully asked if I was on the ADD spectrum.

He meant no offence (although I caught myself wanting to take some), so I brushed it off and continued to revel in how busy I was.

Or I thought I brushed it off – it ached like a thorn in my head for weeks, which I continued to dismiss.

After all, I knew what ADHD looked like. I knew hyper kids who couldn’t sit still, did poorly at school, who acted out, these were the kids who bullied me.

I, like most of the people around me, falsely associated ADHD with disrespectful, troubled kids.

If I hadn’t, I might have been able to find better ways to organise my life at a much earlier age. I probably wouldn’t have been messing with polyphasic sleep schedules to get through high school.

By no means do I blame myself for these assumptions. Attention deficit is not something that the majority of people are well informed on. The stigma surrounding the condition is thick.

To muddy matters further, I grew up in one of those typically misinformed, ‘big-pharma is the root of all evil and want to numb everyone’s personalities with poisonous drugs,’ households.

While I’d separated myself from those views on an intellectual level, I certainly hadn’t done so emotionally.

I didn’t realise it until later on, but I had a hardwired distrust of psychoactive medication, as well as anyone involved in the production, distribution, or advocacy for it.

Still, the thorn continued to ache and I needed to pick it out. So I started reading.

I vividly remember going through a grief cycle the first time I read a symptoms list.

I cried sitting at my computer.

I always just thought that either this was something everyone experienced, or I just wasn’t smart, or organised, or dedicated enough.

This turned out not to be true, and my first response was shame.

The more I read, the more certain I became, until I booked an appointment with my GP.

A year or two down the line, I feel incredible. I’ve managed to put systems in place to maximise the blessings of my ADHD, while avoiding my distractive triggers and shitty impulsive cycles.

Becoming aware of my ADHD allowed me to take control of it.

I’ve lost more than 10 kilograms. I’ve been more productive than I’ve ever been. I’m starting things, and finishing them. I’m reading – something I hadn’t been able to do consistently since my early teenage years. I get up at ungodly hours of the morning, often to exercise (what?).

I have many content creators to thank for helping me to reframe the way I think about ADHD, and I’d love to share just a couple.

The first, and most motivating, voice I encountered in this space was Peter Shankman. Peter is the author of Faster Than Normal: Turbocharge Your Focus, Productivity, and Success with the Secrets of the ADHD Brain. Which is full of Dad jokes, but is a really accessible read which I recommend highly.

This book convinced me that ADHD was a blessing, not a curse.

His podcast, also called Faster Than Normal, is great place to start if you want to know more about what ADHD looks/sounds/feels like from professionals in the field, or successful people who manage their ADHD in interesting ways.

My favourite episode is this one, where he interviews Seth Godin (the inspiration for this blog) about his own ADD.

Seth brings up the famous Hunter vs Farmer analogy, which is popular in marketing circles, but also perfectly describes the difference in natural intensity and focus between ADHD and non ADHD folks. You can read Seth’s thoughts on this in his blog post, Hunters and Farmers.

We barely ever utilise the full capacity of out lungs, even though we aught to.

I first realised this in the warm-up of a voice acting class. To start, the tutor had everyone take a deep breath in through their nose. Just as we thought we were reaching limit of our inhale, instead of saying and out through your mouth, he said;

Keep breathing in.

.

And in some more.

.

.

Inhale until you can’t anymore.

.

Now hold.

.

.

.

And in some more.

Our lungs can take in way more air than we think they can.

Divers and opera singers take advantage of this every day, and while we might not remember, at some point we did too.

Have you ever payed attention to how a toddler breathes?

Next time you see one, watch their little belly bloat slowly as they inhale, pause, then contract all the way as they breathe out.

This type of breathing goes by different names, and is something we should all consider daily.

Some simply call it belly breathing.

Medically it’s often referred to as diaphragmatic breathing (the diaphragm being the involuntary muscle at the bottom of the lungs which pushes against them when you exhale).

It also gets called abdominal breathing because while we have no direct control over our diaphragms, tensing our abdominal muscles gives us some indirect control over the muscle. As our abs contract, our diaphragm pushes against our lungs and squeezes more air out than we could otherwise.

Whatever we call it, somewhere along the line most of us grew out of breathing properly.

Why does this matter?

Because breathing properly reduces stress, slows the heartbeat, can stabilise blood pressure, and is easy to do.

Our posture has a huge impact on our ability to breathe properly. And it’s not good news those who work from a desk.

Lung capacity and respiratory flow are negatively impacted by slumped postures, as well as sitting down when compared with standing.

This explains why good posture is so important to most breath focussed meditation practices, especially those which require a capacity limiting seated position.

We come into this world with only so many breaths. We can choose to take them quickly and live a short life, or take them slowly and live a long one.

Ancient Yogis, apparently.

The acting tutor used the same trick when it was time for the class to exhale. The exhale is the easiest part of the breath to focus on if you want to test the limits of your own lung capacity.

Try it out now;

Breathe out through your mouth.

.

Keep going.

.

.

Breathe out until you can’t anymore.

.

.

Hold.

.

Breathe out a little bit more.

.

Contract your abdomen.

.

And more.

.

.

Push out any stale air you can find trapped in your belly.

.

Out a tiny bit more.

.

Until there’s really nothing left in there.

.

.

.

And in through your nose.

If for no other reason, you should do this from time to time just because it feels good.

We did this over and over, each time making small postural changes which made space for a little more air.

To start getting a feel for this, next time you take a deep breath, don’t focus on sitting up straight. Don’t focus on your spine. And definitely don’t imagine that you’re filling your chest, because that’s not where your lungs are.

The large portion of our lungs exist below our ribcage, so we need to imagine breathing lower.

To try this, close your eyes and try to direct your breath somewhere below your pelvis. Breathe to your tailbone, breathe to your groin, breathe to your butthole, it doesn’t matter. Just focus on filling every inch of space you can find or make… Then breathe in a little more.

If you want to learn more about breathing properly from an expert in the field, check out this interactive TEDx talk by Belisa Vranich.

Breathe well, friends! All the way to your buttholes.