Amanda Cade

Worth It! (Things to try, read, watch, hear, and discuss)

The other day, a friend asked me if I’m still waking up super early now that I’m working from home. When I told her I am, she said, “That’s crazy. This is the time to stay up late and sleep in.” This was far from the first time I’ve been told that people’s sleep schedules are all over the place during the stay at home orders. However, you might want to think twice before you throw off your routine.

Why it’s tempting

staying in bedEven if you’re still expected to be “at work” at the same time, there are normal morning activities you no longer have to do. If nothing else, you get to skip the commute. My job is being super flexible in terms of when we get things done, as long as they’re done within a specified timeframe. I have several daily meetings, but the first one doesn’t start until 11am. Some of my colleagues have gone from getting up at 6:30 to getting up at 10:30. Sleeping in is a luxury we don’t often get, so it’s hard to resist hitting snooze, or changing the alarm. After all, the more sleep you get, the better…right?

Why it’s bad

so tiredEveryone has an optimal amount of sleep to get. For adults, it can be between seven and nine hours. For teens, it’s 8-10. Not getting quite enough sleep leaves us feeling irritable, groggy, and unfocused. The truth is that most of us don’t get that much sleep, resulting in a condition called sleep debt. Using lockdown as a chance to finally get enough sleep finally is absolutely a good and healthy decision. Getting enough sleep is vital for our health and well being, and it’s especially important for our immune system. However – and this is a very important however – you should be sleeping in the same timeframe every day.

Why? Because your body has a biological clock. In your ideal state, it should be tied to the day night cycle, but even lockdown life doesn’t always allow for that. So a sleep schedule helps you simulate that. You train your body when it should get tired and when it should wake up. The more regular you are about it, the better your overall sleep quality will be. Even if you are getting 8 hours a night, proper sleep routines mean you’ll get a better rest than you would if you have a poor schedule.

How to avoid it

bedtimeAlarms are your friend and ally here. Not just to wake yourself up, but also to remind yourself of when to sleep, and when to start preparing to sleep. If you’re like me,  your caffeine intake has gone way up during the lockdown. To combat this, I’ve set a daily alarm six hours before bedtime to remind me to switch to decaf. It helps to have another alarm three hours before bed as your “last call” for food, because eating too much before bed can keep you up, but going to bed hungry is also hard. Then the final alarm, one hour before bed, is when you stop screen time. Read a book, listen to music…anything that takes you away from a computer or TV screen. Then – and this can be the hard part – once that hour has passed, actually go to bed. Once you reach (or reestablish) the point where this routine is second nature, you might not need all the reminders, but early on they’ll help you set the habit.

good morningYou also have to have good habits in the morning. An alarm here is going to be important, even as your body starts adjusting to the point where it wakes up on its own. Once your alarm does start beeping, actually get out of bed. If you don’t get up, you’re likely to find yourself drifting back off to sleep, defeating the entire purpose. Oversleeping is almost as bad as undersleeping, and causes some of the same long term problems. When you get out of bed, do something that wakes you up. Preferably something you find enjoyable. Caffeine can be resumed here, or exercise if that’s your jam. A nice hot shower is always good, and if you’re working from home and therefore have more time, you could even indulge in a hot bath. Cook breakfast as opposed to blearily shoving a donut in your face. (Or do the bleary donut shove, I won’t judge – my donut love is well documented.) Whatever you do, have a routine, because your body will start associating those activities with waking up, leading you to actually perking up much quicker and feeling infinitely better about your day.

healthy helpful calm

How are you doing at keeping a routine (for sleep, or any other activities) while you’re at home?

In the past week, several friends and coworkers have reached out specifically to check on how I’m handling the stay at home order while living alone. I really appreciated their thoughtfulness, especially while their husbands/roommates/kids/etc. were driving them crazy. So before I forget, I’d like to urge you all to think of people you know who live by themselves, and consider checking on them, because total social isolation can be rough on people.

video chatThat having been said…I’m doing just fine. As an “extroverted introvert” (click here for a breakdown of that seeming oxymoron), I love spending time with others, but I’m also totally comfortable with, and really need, my alone time. I’ve been known to come home from work on a Friday and not leave the house again until Monday morning, by choice. So while I do miss seeing people, I’ve had a lot of practice hanging out by myself, and since I have phone calls and video chats, I’m pretty comfortable overall.

However, that doesn’t mean I haven’t, at times, gone a little ridiculous. Even though I’m nowhere near the “talking to a volleyball” stage, there are a few things over the past few weeks that have caused me to realize that I’m not immune to cabin fever moments. For example…

Party Like It’s 1989

A lot of my friends are big video game fans. I am not. I was, once upon a time, back in the dark ages called the 1980s/early 1990s. I actually spent a lot of time in arcades, and when my parents bought us a Nintendo, I played obsessively for several years. Then I started high school and started focusing on other interests. I haven’t owned a video game system since, and haven’t had any desire to, especially since I’m so far behind the curve. The few times I’ve tried to play with friends, I’ve discovered that the games (and the controllers) have moved way beyond my skill level.

NintendoFor some reason, though (probably because I have a lot of extra time these days), I found myself thinking about how much I loved those old NES games, so completely on impulse, I ordered the NES Classic from Amazon. This adorable miniature game console comes with thirty old school games, and I thought it might be something fun to play around with during quarantine, and a cool addition to the party I plan to have once all this is over. 

It arrived on a Friday, but I didn’t get around to opening the package until Saturday morning. I figured I’d hook it up and mess around with it for an hour or so, then do something productive. I made coffee, selected The Legend of Zelda, and settled on the couch. As I started playing, I was amazed at how well I remembered this game. It’s been about thirty years since I’ve played it, but so much of it came flooding back. I mean, I can never remember where I parked my car at the mall, but right from the get go I knew which walls to bomb and trees to burn to find hidden rooms and bonus items.

So did you know that with a decent level of familiarity with the game, it’s fairly easy to beat The Legend of Zelda in about eight hours? I didn’t…until I did it. My one hour of “messing around” turned into an all day marathon run, leaving me feeling both ridiculously proud and thoroughly confused. In the end, I chalked it up to cabin fever and decided I’d better set a timer for future forays into Hyrule (or Castlevania, or Zebes…).

All Dolled Up and No Place to Go

One evening, I was chatting with a friend and mentioned that I was feeling ambivalent about my free time. Since I have so much more than normal, I’ve hit a few points where I don’t feel like reading, watching TV, cleaning, or anything else I usually do during down time. She said, and I quote, “Maybe you should learn to do something with your hair”. For a second I was taken aback, but then she clarified by saying, “I don’t mean it looks bad, but you have so much that it might be cool to go beyond braids and ponytails”.

Well…fair enough. My hair goes almost down to my waist, and I typically either let it hang loose or just quickly get it out of my face. One reason for this is expedience, and another, I freely admit, is a complete lack of skill. So, challenge accepted. I went to the source of all knowledge (YouTube) and searched “long hair tutorials for beginners”. I decided to try a style called a “headband braid” because it would only involve part of my hair and didn’t look incredibly complicated. The tutorial is below, if you’re interested.

As we all know, though, lots of things look easy until you try them. After nine attempts, I thought about giving up, but sheer stubbornness kept me going. After fifteen attempts, I was seriously considering shaving my head. On my twenty-eighth try (by the way, I’m not making those numbers up…I actually kept count), I finally succeeded in a braid that looked…acceptable. I reveled in my victory, and then unbraided it because I wasn’t going anywhere and it was close to bedtime anyway.

I have tried to duplicate this feat twice since then, with dismal results, so I’ve decided that ponytails and basic braids are not only awesome, but I’m officially designating them my “signature styles”.

So Much Cake, So Little Company

Screenshot 2020-04-04 at 7.57.14 PM

Baking is an excellent way to spend an afternoon. Trying to figure out what to do with an entire cake when you’re by yourself is an excellent way to end up with a stomach ache. No, I didn’t eat the entire thing. No, I won’t tell you how much I actually did eat. Like the number of donuts I ate during that crazy week last May, that’s a secret I’m taking to my grave.

mario

Have you done anything crazy or unusual while you’re staying at home? Tell me all about it!

It’s about a week into the St. Louis lockdown, and I’m doing fine. I still have my job, and working from home, so far, has actually been less stressful than being at work was for the last few weeks. I’m set for food and supplies, and have been able to restock a few items when I needed them. I’m not sick, and neither are any of my family or friends. Only one person in my circle has been laid off, and at the moment she’s ok financially.

In other words, I’m very lucky and blessed during this crisis. Because I’m focusing on that, I’ve also been staying calm. I hope that all of you are also safe, stable, healthy, and at peace. If you are, it’s possible that you’ve also given some thought to how you can help and support people who aren’t in as great of a position. Here are a couple of things I’ve been doing:

Donations

computer-buy-money-banknotes-163056My parents live close to one of the largest food pantries in the metro area. When they got the word that demand was increasing while supplies decreased, we all made online donations, and spread the news to others in our social circles. Wherever you live, there’s a very good chance that there’s a local organization that could use help meeting the needs of your community.

After donating to the pantry, I sat down and calculated all the money I’m not spending because I’m at home for 30 days (gas, Starbucks, lunch at work, social activities, etc.) and then gave it away. I chose two organizations:

  • No Kid Hungry, which is taking action to make sure that students have access to good meals while their schools are closed.
  • Donor’s Choose, an organization I have supported for a long time, which helps teachers of low income students obtain classroom supplies and materials. Right now, they’re working to get necessary learning materials directly into the hands of students at home.

If your financial position is solid right now, I’d encourage you to investigate ways you can help.

Communication

A lot of people in my life are scared and stressed right now. One of my friends is in an essential industry, so he’s going to work every day and has concerns about his health. I have an aunt who is undergoing radiation therapy, and new regulations mean that she has to go to her treatments by herself. A lot of my friends are having trouble working from home while their kids are there. My sister Audrey is having some difficulty coping with worries about the future and how the world is changing.

call a friend 2

So right now, I’m doing a lot of listening. In phone calls, text conversations, and video chats, I’ve been giving the people I love the opportunity to voice their fears and frustrations, and offering advice when appropriate. I’ve been reaching out to people I haven’t talked to in a while, checking to see how they’re doing and catching up on life events. Staying in touch is important for staying emotionally healthy, regardless of how well you’re coping on your own.

how ya feeling

How are you doing right now? What kind of support are you giving or receiving?

So last night I read that one in four Americans are currently under a “shelter in place” advisory or mandate. Across the world, schools are closing or doing virtual instruction. Many businesses are closed, running with limited staff, or having their employees work from home. Add store and restaurant closures, restrictions on public gatherings, and social distancing, and we’re in a situation where home is where the everything is.

My employer closed the doors at the end of business on Tuesday, and instructed us to work from home until at least April 6, with more information, and a possible extension, to come later. Yesterday, St. Louis, where I live, issued a 30 day order to shelter in place, starting tomorrow. So I won’t be going back to work for a while. At the moment, I have enough to keep me busy, as my overall workload had reached epic proportions and I had been working evenings and weekends to try and catch up. However, as the day to day stuff has already slowed considerably, and I don’t have the commute, meetings, or distractions, I’ve already made a huge dent in the pile in just a few eight hour days.

It’s a scary time, and there is the risk of cabin fever, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and have come to the conclusion that there are ways to take advantage of this time and avoid going stir crazy. So here are my thoughts on the subject:

Get Ahead of the Game

done and doneThere are often things in our personal and professional lives that we can anticipate and do in advance, so they’re off our plates when things get busy again. I’ve made a list of things that are due in a few weeks or months, and have started working on those a little bit every day. I’ve also been researching for future blog posts and ordering gifts for upcoming birthdays and other events. Since I’ve been spending a lot of time in survival mode these past few months (see my survival mode part one and part two posts), this is an opportunity to try and plan ahead and avoid getting back in that situation in the future.

Tackle Things You’ve Been Putting Off

cleaning 2Over the past year, my guest room has turned into a junk room. It started with casually putting one or two things in there to “find a place for later”, and then snowballed. Since I haven’t had any overnight guests lately, I let it get way out of hand. I’ve been planning to deal with it when I had time…and now I do. Once I started working on organizing the guest room, I began to think of other areas in the house that could use cleaning out, and have made a list. I’ve also made a list of personal goals and pursuits that have fallen by the wayside. For example, I’ve been trying to do more writing, but keep getting distracted by other things. I have a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle in the basement that has been 85% completed for months. I’m starting to feel like my piano is glaring at me every time I walk by it without even brushing the keys. So I recommend stopping to think about the things you’d like to spend time on, both productive and recreational, and devoting some time to them.

Catch Up on Entertainment

new readingI’m not suggesting that we all turn into couch potatoes, but doing some controlled binge watching isn’t the worst idea right now. In the past few months I’ve missed a lot of movies I wanted to see, and many of them are now available to stream, so I’ve updated my watch list and have allotted myself a few hours of TV time every day. I’m spending even more time reading. Regular visitors to the blog know that I’m a voracious reader, and an advocate for increased reading for everyone (see part one and part two of my posts on the subject), so I definitely want to take this opportunity to advocate upping your page count. Reading has also been proven to reduce stress, and we could all use some anxiety relief right now.

welcome back

Are you, like me, staying at home? How are you spending your time?

coldI think I’ve mentioned, or at least hinted, that I’m prone to sinus infections and bronchitis. So when I started developing symptoms a few weeks ago, I did what I always do and went to the doctor. I took a few sick days, and have been taking medication and getting lots of extra rest, as recovering is a slow process (I was pretty sick at first). Early on, there were a few jokes at work about COVID-19, aka the Coronavirus, but I assured everyone that I didn’t have it, and wasn’t contagious, and we moved on. At that point, no one was actually concerned (except for concern for my health, because my coworkers are nice people).

This past week, we began seeing cases of Coronavirus here in Missouri. Last I checked, we were up to five, with two of them in the St. Louis area, where I live. Colleges have closed campuses, some public schools have extended their spring breaks, and on Friday, the governor declared a state of emergency. In neighboring Illinois, which has more than sixty cases, all public schools are closed until at least March 30.

medicine-thermometer-tablets-pillsMeanwhile, I still have a mild cough and am feeling a little run down. By the middle of last week, I started noticing people looking at me funny. It’s been happening a little at work, and a lot when I’m out in public. I’ve been doing all the right things, like keeping space between myself and others, coughing into a tissue, using hand sanitizer, and so on. I’ve also been preemptively explaining to complete strangers that I’ve been to the doctor, don’t have Coronavirus, don’t have a fever, am not contagious, etc, because I totally get the concern.

Still, it’s a little strange, and so I’ve decided to avoid going out as much as possible, a decision that also makes sense because I still need to fully recover, and I shouldn’t risk exposing myself to new germs. In the meantime, I promise that my cough is just a cough.

are you ok

Is COVID-19 affecting your area, or impacting you in some way?

In last week’s post, we looked at the dangers of spending extended periods of time stuck in the stress response-aka survival mode-as well as how to recognize it. This week, let’s discuss how to respond.

Short Term Response

breathingJust like the stress response is physiological, our bodies have a counter mode: the relaxation response. This is what happens when our brains send the “all clear” message to our bodies, allowing all those fight or flight processes to turn off and stop messing with our balance. Obviously, the most effective way to trigger the relaxation response is to stop feeling stress, but that’s easier said than done. Instead, there’s a way to work it backwards, and that’s with breathing. Slow, deep breaths signal the body and the brain that it’s time to drop out of crisis mode. I wrote a post back in September about dealing with stress in the moment, which gets into a more detail about breathing, as well as a few other techniques.

As far as the tasks you have that are stressing you out, what becomes important is triage. You need to identify what tasks are most critical or urgent and resolve those first, so you can try to avoid falling further behind. You also need to give yourself permission to stop. One of the most damaging elements of crisis mode is that we become convinced that every second is critical, and so there’s no time for rest, breaks, personal needs, etc. However, not only is that attitude bad for our health, but it also makes us less effective in accomplishing those critical tasks, because we’re burnt out and exhausted.

Mid Term Response

Survival mode isn’t just a moment to moment thing-it’s a cumulative result of multiple repeated stresses, and a pattern of mental response. So the fixes also need to go beyond the moment. One of the hardest things about these is that they take time, and when you’re in survival mode, time is something you don’t feel like you have. However, time spent taking care of yourself will definitely help you break out of the cycle. Getting a good night’s sleep will always more than give you that time back in increased productivity. Exercise is also important for managing stress, because your body is producing chemicals saying you need to engage in physical activity – fighting or running – so exercise tells your body it’s doing the right thing and therefore doesn’t need to keep trying to make you fight or flee.

vegetablesDiet is crucial as well. When you’re stressed, your body starts to demand carbohydrates, since it’s convinced it needs them to help you deal with the physical danger in front of you (remember, your body always assumes you’re in physical danger). Again, we can blame this one on our ancestors, as they were often in physical danger, plus there were times of famine. In both those cases, favoring sugar and fat helped them survive. In the modern world, however, sugar and fat definitely aren’t in short supply, so our physiological response is in direct opposition to best practices. Our bodies want us to mainline sugar, like, just as a random example, eating a dozen donuts in the course of one morning. Ok, so that example wasn’t so random; in fact, it’s what inspired me to really dig into the relationship between food and stress. I wasn’t surprised to find that eating a balanced diet is important, but I was pretty interested in the science behind it.

Let me summarize the research for you. The gut microbiome has a huge impact on how we feel. Many of the bacteria in our stomach that feed off sugary and fatty foods also produce chemicals that make us feel stressed. When we give them what they want, instead of being satisfied and shutting up, they produce more stress-inducing chemicals, because they’re greedy little buggers. On the other hand, many of the bacteria that eat fiber, meat, vegetables, and fruit produce chemicals that help us relax, so when we starve them, they aren’t in a position to help us out. This creates a feedback loop, and is part of why long term survival mode can trigger the serious health problems I mentioned last time. By making yourself eat a balanced diet, you stop rewarding the stress bacteria, and foster growth of the ones that produce relaxation chemicals. 

Long Term Response

listThis is where you assess and try to make changes. Reflect on what caused your life to get overwhelming, and consider how to prevent it in the future. Were there warning signs you can look for next time? Are there preventative measures you didn’t know enough to see before? Can you delegate or ask for help moving forward? Are there things that you’d do differently now that you’ve been through it?

Additionally, making the short and mid term responses (breathing, rest, diet) a part of your everyday life will make you less likely to fall into survival mode, and being aware of the warning signs will make it easier to head it off at the pass.

we got this

How do you avoid living in “fight or flight” mode? Add your suggestions in the comments!

In the past month, my coworkers, several of my friends, a few family members, and yours truly have all been echoing variations of the same refrain: “I just need to get past X”. You know what I mean…”let me survive this meeting/project/day/week/month/whatever and then things will even out. Once X is over, I’ll be back in balance and everything will be looking up”. Unfortunately, X is usually followed by Y and Z.

In other words, we’ve all been in survival mode, and chances are many of you can relate. So let’s talk about it.

What is it?

scaredSurvival Mode is what happens when you are undergoing a prolonged stress response. Stress response is how our body processes dangers, by activating the “fight or flight” reflex (more on that here). Basically, when our brain perceives a threat, it triggers our bodies to release hormones and give us a burst of extra energy. It developed to help us survive the immediate physical dangers that our ancestors faced routinely, like volcanoes, tigers, and aggression from others. The stress response happens faster than we can consciously process information, and it’s why we can, in times of immediate danger, move before we’re aware of what we’re doing, and be stronger, faster, etc. when we really need to be. 

Unfortunately, while our automatic processes are great at reacting to danger, they aren’t great at parsing that danger. Our brains and bodies produce the same response whether the threat is a dangerous animal or a looming deadline. That’s why being nervous and uncomfortable often makes us feel sick, since our bodies are prepping for intense physical action that isn’t actually coming.

The stress response is not designed for the prolonged stresses of the modern world, such as workload, bad bosses, and financial difficulties. In these situations, your body is running in sprinting mode, but you’re mentally trying to run a marathon. However, the fast pace and increasing demands on our attention can create a situation where we are constantly flipping into stress response, and only focusing on making it through the current crisis so we can race ahead to the next one.

How does it affect us?

too muchSurvival mode typically leads to feeling overwhelmed and an inability to enjoy, or sometimes even accomplish, everyday activities. What’s worse is that the effects of survival mode often directly work against our ability to break out of it. As Edward Hallowell wrote in an article for The Harvard Business Review, “As long as our frontal lobes remain in charge, everything is fine…But when you are confronted with the sixth decision after the fifth interruption in the midst of a search for the ninth missing piece of information on the day that the third deal has collapsed and the 12th impossible request has blipped unbidden across your computer screen, your brain begins to panic, reacting just as if that sixth decision were a bloodthirsty, man-eating tiger.”

Hallowell argues that this can cause a state that interferes with executive function, the mental processes responsible for planning and decision making related tasks. He calls it “Attention Deficit Trait”, a psychological condition where long term stress can cause  problems similar to the neurological condition of Attention Deficit Disorder. This difficulty in concentrating usually causes an additional increase in stress, as the challenges continue to outpace our ability to handle them.

Physical symptoms include headaches, difficulty sleeping, and digestive issues. Long term survival mode can lead to heart problems, obesity, high blood pressure, and a compromised immune system (more on that here).

How do you recognize it?

super stressedFor starters, be aware that it’s going to creep up on you. One big, terrible thing happening causes a trauma response, which is a whole different animal. Survival mode is a risk when little things are triggering that fight or flight reflex over and over again. You need to take time to assess where you are and how you’re feeling. If your days tend to be filled with repeated pressure and emotional spikes, that’s a warning sign. If you’re familiar with the symptoms I talked about above, that’s another. And if the “just let me get through this, and then this, and then this” attitude I talked about at the start of the post sounds familiar, you should definitely reflect on your situation.

The good news is, you can manage survival mode. It’s done short term by handling the initial stress response, and long term by dealing with underlying issues. Next week, we’re going to look at how to do that.

hang in there

How’s your stress level lately?