Keep calm and live life

Nearly a year ago, I downloaded a meditation app on my phone called “Calm”. I used the free version off and on for most of last year. It had nature sounds, scenes, and a series of guided meditation sessions called “7 days of calm”. The sessions introduced different practices of mindfulness meditation; from body scans to progressive relaxation for sleep. Around that time, I also downloaded several other meditation and relaxation apps mainly with the goal of controlling stress and helping me sleep better. But I eventually deleted all of them except Calm. A big plus point with Calm is the voice of the narrator who guides the meditation. The woman has an incredibly calm voice that is instantly relaxing and has done a great job narrating the guided sessions at a slow and even pace. I have deleted some of the other apps just because I couldn’t stand the voice that was used! The narration is also very intuitive and provides just enough instruction so you know what to do.

In January of this year, I decided that meditating regularly was going to be my resolution for this year. One afternoon on a whim I paid the subscription for the full app for the whole year ($40). It is more than I would have liked to spend but because it is a subscription, new content is added every month.

Now a month later, I feel that the $40 per year investment for my mental health was totally worth it. The daily sessions last between 10-12 minutes and that’s all it takes to significantly lower my stress levels. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure that it was helping me. Then I noted an increase in stress, irritation, and anger on the days I didn’t meditate. It became worse if I missed sessions for a couple of days in a row. I believe that a person can change only when they decide that they are going to change. For change to occur you need a trigger. If I didn’t benefit by the meditation, I wouldn’t have started to consciously make time for it. Initially, I would remember to meditate only after the kids get home from school (my guess is that’s when I need that extra patience and calm). But I found it so much harder to meditate for even 10 minutes when the kids are at home. Even if I told them that I was going to meditate and would like not to be disturbed for 10 minutes, they would decide that something was too urgent to wait 8 more minutes and would always interrupt me. So it took me a few days to realize that I needed to move my meditation time to earlier in the day – before the kids came home.

Nowadays, meditation is the first thing I do after the kids leave for school. Today, I celebrate 10 continuous days of meditation! So far, its biggest impact on me has been from the sessions that focus on “non-reactivity”. Increasingly, I find myself capable of realizing it when something upsets me and stepping away from it. I am learning to not react to such situations and instead, take the time to think about it and realize its not such a big deal after all. I am willing to wager that my cortisol levels are lower than they used to be. I can just feel calmness flood over me whenever I am able to do that.

There has been a wonderful side affect to this app. Back when I was meditating at the end of the day, I would sit and do it with my kids lying nearby reading. Soon, they became drawn to it and started meditating with me. I noticed that sometimes my son would be listening to it and fall asleep much faster than usual. My daughter says that it helps her to shut down at the end of the day and fall asleep. So, now I share my app with her. She takes it to bed with her (there are special sessions that guide you to sleep) and falls asleep listening to it.

If you are interested in really getting into meditation, I highly recommend “Calm”. Their website features also some freebies that are worth checking out. So, keep calm and live life.




If I were a bird, I would be an Owl

After trying and failing many times before, I have successfully completed a week of regular meditation. Seven consecutive days with just 10 minutes each day. So far, I haven’t noticed a difference in my stress levels or a feeling of ‘zen’. However, I did notice that meditation itself became easier each day. My mind does not wander as often as it used to and when it does, I catch myself much faster. It is also easier to refocus.

My sustained motivation to keep meditating this time is because my insomnia has recently taken a turn for the worse. I suffer from severe and chronic insomnia. It takes me an average of 45 minutes to fall asleep and I almost always wake up after 4 hours of sleep. It is easier and faster to go back to sleep the second time around but, there have been days when it has taken me more than an hour to fall back to sleep. Naps are a different cup of tea. Depending on how sleep-deprived I already am, I will fall asleep in about 20 minutes or not at all. The concept of a power nap or even a nap shorter than 2 hours just never made sense to me, because I just can’t fall asleep that fast. On weekends, especially Sundays, I will take a 2 hour nap.

A few months ago, I had a pretty the levels of vitamin B12 in my body hit a long time low. During that period, I used to be so exhausted all the time that I would literally fall asleep at my desk at work. Unlike most people, my dip in energy does not come after lunch. For me it hits earlier in the day around 10 to 11 AM. If I can get through that hour of the day without falling asleep I don’t need/ won’t be able to sleep at all during the day. Now that my B12 levels are back up I don’t feel that pull of sleep as much during mid-morning.

I think my weird sleep patterns primarily stems from my innate night-owlness, which makes it so hard for me to fit into a world that largely works in favor of morning larks. I just don’t feel sleepy at bed time. In fact, I feel fresher and more active and creative in the late evening. When I was younger and could get away with it, I would just stay up until I felt sleepy, usually around 2 AM.  When I lived by myself in Australia, I regularly went to sleep at 3 AM and woke up at 11 AM and it worked so well for me. Unfortunately, it just was not a long term option.

To make matters worse, being a night owl is looked down upon in Indian culture. All my life, I have had my parents berate me for waking up late and going to sleep late. So much so, that I instantly feel guilty if I wake up past 7 AM on any day. If I am up past mid-night, I have a nagging fear in the back of my mind that my mother will wake up and come and yell at me to go to bed. This happens even if my mother is half a world away! When I was in 12th grade, my mother would wake me up at 5 AM, hand me a cup of tea, and leave me in a room without a bed so that I can study. In 10 minutes, I would be asleep in the chair and will wake up with a start to face her wrath when she got up an hour later. My mother is a big believer of “its better to study in the early morning because your mind is fresh at that time”. She herself is a Lark and just could not figure out that I got my deepest sleep between 3 and 6 AM. Out of sheer desperation, she dragged me to a doctor to find out why I was incapable of waking up or staying awake at 5 AM. That doctor did me a big favor and I am still grateful to him. He sat my mother down and explained that being a night owl was just hard-wired in to me and that I would probably learn better at midnight than at 5 AM. He encouraged her to allow me to study late nights instead of early mornings and it made all the difference when I was in college. My mother trusted the doctor, but I think even now she is not fully convinced that it is not just a bad habit or laziness.

For the longest time, I struggled only with a displaced sleep. I tried everything I could to set it right. I would go out into the sunlight in the early morning, dim lights in the evening, follow a bedtime routine, have a warm shower, drink a glass of warm milk, take the herb feverfew, the works. The one thing I could not do was keep the same bedtime. I did not take any sleeping pills for a long time and just stumbled along. Motherhood made me an even lighter sleeper as my firstborn used to wake every 4 hours until she was 11 months old. Then, about 5 years ago I was diagnosed with carpel tunnel syndrome. My hands would go stiff and hurt all night long and it made me more sleep-deprived than usual. My GP prescribed a common sleeping pill to me- the magic of a good night’s sleep in a little blue pill (here in India, its a bright orange pill). No sleeping pill is meant for long term use, and the doctor should have cut me off after 6 weeks, but he didn’t. A year later I had carpel tunnel surgeries in both hands and the pain was gone, but I still take that pill.

I have successfully weaned myself off that pill twice in the last 5 years. The second time, I actually shaved a little bit of the pill every night to lower my dosage. However, every time life hits me with a stressful event, my sleep is the first to go and eventually I go back to that little pill. A couple of years ago I discovered Melatonin, which is non-habit forming and does not seem to have any known dangerous side effects. With my medical history, it is likely that I might be melatonin-deficient.  Melatonin also helped me get off that pill. You cannot get Melatonin in India and I ran out of my stash a month ago.

I have not had a full night’s sleep in a month, even with my bright orange pill. For the first time in my life, I increased its dosage on Friday nights just to get one good night of sleep a week. I am starting another stressful journey in my life right now. The big move back from India to the USA. Did you know that moving is a life event that causes very high stress levels? Only death and divorce are greater. So moving from one country to another is a pretty big life stressor and like always it is eating into the little sleep I get.

My brother sent me some melatonin yesterday and I got a good night’s sleep after a long time. For once, I woke before the alarm feeling rested instead of wondering how I was going to get through the day. But, I am sick of being dependent on medication for sleep. I also know that is is very harmful to me. The pill I take is known to cause memory loss and that is one of my biggest fears. So this time, I decided I needed to do something else, something safe and long lasting. Hence, the motivation for the meditation. It does help slow down the monkey that is my mind at bedtime. So hopefully with its help, this third time will be the charm and I will finally get rid of getting my sleep in a pill or a capsule. Wish me luck!

I believe that those who are truly blessed in life are those who fall asleep the minute their heads hit the pillow!