AAApril: {Anti-Anxiety, All of the Above} April

TL;DR for the month of April, I will be entirely absent from social mass-media & avoiding some unhealthy stuff IRL.

I may or may not write some at https://blog.donaldguy.com. You can still contact me via your favorite person-to-person chat, SMS, email, or good old fashioned face to face. (or telephone, if you must)

Motivation

Lately, I've been having some pretty-bad, pretty persistent problems with anxiety attacks.

On a ~weekly basis, I end up spending some quality time checking my heart rate, doing breathing exercises, giving up hope, and debating with my put upon roommates (and self) whether I am indeed having a heart attack/"dying" or if I am, in fact, fine, and I just need to calm down and wait for it to pass.

So far, my lack of death evinces the latter.

Now: I have talked to my doctor about doing a cardiac workup; I am looking into ~CBT-flavor therapy (again). And if push comes to shove, I guess your garden variety Rx anxiolytics (benzos or TCAs) are on the table.

But I am pretty reluctant to take that last step if I can avoid it and these things take time; while that time takes, I've decided I needed to dig into this here newfangled lifestyle medicine

You see, the truth is that its hard for me to apply Occam's Razor:

When I have left upper-back and chest pain or a feeling of dizziness or kinda blurry vision or twitchy muscles or abdominal pain or even tachycardia these things could be signs of one or more serious medical conditions.

They could also be the results of falling off a loft in 2011, fatigue, fatigue, did I mention fatigue, IBS, and fatigue/social anxiety, respectively.

While heart attack / cancer / renal failure / liver failure / an infected/ruptured spleen could explain why I feel shitty, this is in fact an additional assumption, and Occam might suggest maybe I feel shitty cause I am shitty at living.

Put another way:

Perhaps insert into the above:

reality: lmao. current events are a tire fire

bad-brain: as the only SRE-type, anything that goes wrong at work is your fault

brain: but really though, do you actually know how to sleep?

So I'mma try some things, for a month, arguably again:

Prior Art

In the past I have come to similar conclusions. Monthly vows are becoming a meme for me. I have mostly succeeded in self-applied self-restrictions-with-dumb-names as:

  • Sobertober: No alcohol or caffeine in October 2014, 2015 (which stupidly included my only visit to Seattle, WA)
  • Sobrapril: No alcohol (and a shaved head) in April 2016
  • No Meat November: no meat in November 2016
  • Disconnected December: No reading Facebook, Twitter, Reddit in December 2016

All these have been helpful to one degree or another. But they have all had the issue that they lead to redirection of coping tendencies to something else less than great:

  • I drank more coffee in April 2016,
  • I neglected to eat some days and ate a lot of sugar other days in November,
  • I drank holiday-amounts in December.

Throughout all of it (w/ modification in Nov) I ordered unhealthy meals from Foodler, watched a bunch of TV, watched a bunch of YouTube, and/or binged on what news or social content I allowed myself

And through all of it I've built up a somewhat unapproachable backlog of the "more productive distractions": books both Kindle and kindling-formed, bookmarked conference talks videos, pin-boarded articles, etc. etc. etc. They are only so useful, honestly, but they are another thing I kick myself for not getting around to.

People are good at gaming systems, even those they set for their own benefit. I am, anyway. Part of depression and anxiety is being bad at cutting yourself slack, giving yourself the benefit of the doubt, being self-affirmative and self-forgiving. I am working on these things in a way, but its hard and in the mean time I still feel shitty.

Doing it again

You might read the above paragraphs and understand that I am taking an incorrect approach. You might be right about that.

I know that good habits don't generally happen overnight, but I also know that habits are habits and they take time lived under to really create positive change and thus self-reinforce.

I am good at gaming my systems, but I am also pretty good at following my own rules once I make them (at least knowing the rules have an expiration date)

So, perhaps for the last time, I'm gonna try the monthly challenge again. In this one, I've spelled out the outs and left few of them.

I think the idea of this being an experiment with an end date is helpful to get started, but for some of this—especially the dietary parts—I'm gonna try to try to carry more forward on an ongoing basis.

(If you'll excuse the dumb conceit for the sake of wordplay) I feel like in the metaphorical car that is my life, the check engine light is on. I feel like my battery and gas are running low, and I need a tune-up. With a non-metaphorical car in this sort of situation, a decent choice is to call Triple A.

For my metaphorical car, I am calling "Triple April" (AAApril).

The Rules

The astute reader will notice that April already contains an A and that there are only two extra A's. This AA does not stand for Alcoholics Anonymous (though it doesn't like... the least stand for that), it stands aspirationally for Anti-Anxiety, and descriptively for All of the Above.

For this April, I seek to complete stricter versions of all of my previous October, November, and December challenges simultaneously with some additional rules and some spelled out exceptions. To wit:

For Sleep Quality, Liver/Immune System Health:

  • Rule: No Alcohol
  • Rule: except as below, No Caffeine. No Coffee, Soda, Energy Drinks, or Black Tea
  • Concession: No more than 3 weekly combined servings of unsweetened green tea or hot chocolate—depending on which I miss more: caffeine per se or theobromine & the ritual of coffee shop visits, respectively.

For General & GI Health: A whole food, plant-based diet

  • Rule: No meat
  • Rule: No deep fried food
  • Rule: No refined sugar or processed carbs except whole grain breads
  • Suggestion: Avoid dairy, minimal eggs

Eat: Fruits, vegtables, legumes, nuts, spices, and water

For Mental Health, Focus, Eschatological Anxiety:

  • Rule: No reading Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News, or lobste.rs
  • Semi-concession: NYT, Washington Post, TechMeme are allowed up to twice daily
  • Un-concession: "news alert" push notifications are getting turned off

  • Rule: No sneakily writing to social networks either.

Re: above, the point is not necessarily to avoid any publication of thoughts or engagement with respondents. I'm gonna, for the month, focus on my own thoughts and feelings. If I want to share them publicly I will do so at https://blog.donaldguy.com. I also threw some Disqus comments on there, if perhaps I say something worth having a discussion about.

To Limit Busy-distraction and Encourage Me to Do Something Productive Outside Work:

  • Rule: No more than 20 min daily (including on weekends) of YouTube videos
  • Concession: Unlimited allowance for recordings of conference talks; I may or may not grant myself a pass on work-irrelevant educational videos as well
  • Rule: No more than 90 minute daily (including on weekends) of long form produced television.
  • Alternatively 1 film up to 120 minutes but I'm not much for films

I worry these caps should be lower but explicitly limiting media at all is probably the part of this I find most terrifying.

I haven't set a rule about podcasts, which might be a problem but given that I tend to mostly only listen to podcasts while walking around outside (which I can enforce as a semi-rule), even frivolous content here probably gets a pass. I'll see if this was a mistake.

Why These? How? Etc.

Alcohol

Alcohol is an addictive hepatotoxin that decreases sleep quality and diminishes (probably) internal coping capabilities.

I like beer and whiskey a lot, but I'm pretty sure I can do this one.

Despite the AA- in AAApril I have not tended to have alcoholic tendencies. Though I probably in the last month hit the DHH/SAMHSA definition for "Heavy Alcohol User" ("[5 or more alcoholic drinks ... on the same occasion] on 5 or more days in the past month"), previous intentional exercises in not drinking for weeks at a time have gone fine.

I'll admit one reason April seems like an opportune month for all of this is the lack of any major social events that I can think of, unlike in May/June.

Caffeine

Caffeine is an addictive CNS stimulant, that raises heart rate, inhibits sleep onset and lowers sleep quality. It is, like, bad for anxiety.

This is gonna suck though...

I've never drank soda. I didn't drink coffee or tea or energy drinks regularly for 22 years, but I've made up for lost time last 5.

In previous sober-tobers, I have missed the chemical effects less than the ritual of going to a café and being part of that zeitgeist.

In previous outings I did not set explicit rules regarding hot chocolate and have drank it daily for week+ stretches, and felt guilty about it.

Its caffeine content is very low (about 5% of coffee), so here I am less worried about that than the refined sugar. This is why I offer myself green tea (with caffeine levels around 25-50%) as an attractive alternative.

Maybe I'll give decaf coffee (~10%) a try - it doesn't sound that appealing though. Green tea has some interesting phytonutrients which I can pretend are helpful with the following

Food

This is the big one. I have a bad diet. I just do. I was (even more of) a picky eater as child with tendencies toward fatty meats and fried foods and refined carbs. I don't really cook, I don't really feel comfortable thinking about food, but I know that my diet is literally killing me.

I have been reading How Not To Die and some materials from the Forks Over Knives. I have been self-indoctrinating on the advantages of a whole plant based diet. These books do a pretty good job of citing their rigorously scientific sources. I am not 100% convinced but I am leaning that way and willing to try it

I believe that I am deficient in important classes of micronutrients, anti-oxidants, etc. I believe that I need to eat many more fruits and vegetables. I am not sure how harmful for health eating animal-sourced products is, but I believe I do so in excess and am willing to try without.

I also appreciate the anti-cruelty and pro-sustainability arguments but they are not a primary driver behind the choice here.

Previous experimentation has suggested that a plant-based diet does a better job of regulating my hunger and satiety hormones than my default diet. On my current diet, I have frequently pretty unclear about if I am hungry when not eating or full (without being overfull) while/after eating. Despite not feeling clearly interpretable hunger, I do still end up feeling shitty both if I don't eat and frequently differently shitty for a decent while after I eat.

This will be very hard, but important. Maybe doable. Giving myself wiggle room to go to The Friendly Toast and get a veggie scramble and some toast, as long as that isn't the norm, may help. That's why I kept eggs and dairy at suggestion level rather than rule. But I've tried to be proactive here about sticking to it, making it easy:

At least at the outset, I have subscribed to Terra's Kitchen, a meal service more or less like Blue Apron but: a) with additional prep work in terms of washing and cutting done for you, b) a reusable, returnable cooler-style shipping vessel. I have subscribed for a "3 meals, 2 people" vegetarian plan and plan to eat the second servings as leftovers.

I'd like to get better at purchasing, cooking groceries but I think Terra's Kitchen is a good place to start anyway to force easy mode "groceries" after a fashion to happen pretty much regardless. I also have bookmarked the vegetarian/vegan meal services GreenChef, Purple Carrot, and Veestro in case groceries still sound to hard, but Terra's Kitchen is not to my liking.

If all of this fails, I still have a stash of the Vegan, plant-sourced soylent-alike Nutberg from when they were still definitely shipping to the US. Its not like ... plan A but its better than not eating anything or breaking the rules. I could also order more Ambronite but its very expensive for a powdered food and the v4 formula was pretty not delicious (I haven't tried v5 yet).

As the above suggests, a sub-goal here is to reduce or eliminate eating at restaurants and from delivery. In some ways I am sad that the no-fried-food plan cuts out most of the major entrées at Clover.

Social Media

There are two problems here:
1. Social media has become a source of unavoidable Trump-related anxiety
2. This anxiety has somehow enhanced the addictive quality (random reward reinforcement operant conditioning) of social media in its base state.

I end up just looping between facebook, twitter, and reddit for minutes on end. Sometimes hours.

I could just try to set limits on this but I think its best to check out for a while again. I don't think it'll be like... that hard.

Ideally I can redirect some of the nervous energy and will manage work my way through some articles that made it from social media to open tabs or pinboard in the past but never actually get read.

I am not that worried about missing stuff on Facebook. I like Facebook but it remains high noise and I feel like important things make their way through the rumor mill.

Twitter is complicated for me because a good portion of my twitter timeline is work related, in terms of keeping me informed of the goings on in the IT Infrastructure software world and "DevOps community". I receive a couple curated DevOps Weekly email digests, so the reality is I doubt I'll miss a ton.

The only sub-reddit I look at regularly these days is /r/politics, so ... yeah.

As for cutting out HN and lobste.rs - this is mostly just a matter of not leaving them to overcompensate with

Leaving the newspapers and general tech news aggregator (TechMeme) on a limited basis is maybe a dumb idea. I might do better to like ... read the Economist. Satire and ~human-interest podcasts will likely keep me decently informed regardless. But like ... I feel like I should stay in the loop? Maybe people will just tell me if anything super important happens?

Anyway, turning off news alerts will be good for me.

Video

This is gonna be like ... so hard. Which is dumb. But the point.

Watching Videos has become like my default leisure activity. It's not the worst use of time, but I am missing out on books and music and peace of mind (casual or meditative).

I have at least 5 weekly (or more) youtube series, but tend to spend another 15-45 minutes clicking random low quality videos after I watch some new release from them. And when they don't have new content... I just do the second part. This happens like ... at least twice a day? Suffice to say a 20 minute cap is gonna feel awful, but probably will help my overall mental health.

I watch probably a high/normal amount of TV. On average, American adults are watching five hours and four minutes of television per day. I like don't think I watch that much? but its kinda hard to say... the TV is just on in our living room. Even though we don't have cable, usually amongst my three roommates and I someone is watching something, and you just end up sitting there, even after shows you care about are exhausted.

Being of mindful of this will be good.

But also many TV shows I watch have new seasons premiering in April:

  • Archer (FXX, April 5th)
  • Better Call Saul (AMC, April 10th)
  • Brooklyn Nine-Nine (FOX, April 11)
  • Doctor Who (BBC, April 15th)
  • The Leftovers (HBO, April 16th)
  • Silicon Valley (HBO, April 23rd)

Plus American Gods (Starz, April 30), but I guess thats almost in the clear if we are just talking April

Add these to like the satire of Jon Oliver and Samantha Bee + shows with dangling episodes in their Fall/Winter seasons and ... I probably watch too much television

I like both internet video and television, I don't aim to quit them in the midst of my dietary challenges, but I need to be more intentional in my approaches. I need to work on watching only a specifically chosen thing and clocks will help. Hopefully after I run them out, I will get myself to work on other in progress projects I would rather I had worked on at the end of the day.

Hopes

So above I talk why nots, I'll also before I cut of this overlong missive briefly list some hopeful whys:

Physical / Mental Health Hopes

  1. I will cease having semi-regular panic attacks
  2. My left back/shoulder/chest/ribs will hurt less frequently. (I am also getting at least 1 massage to work on this, might try to get up-to-weekly if it seems to help)
  3. I won't feel tired for a significant portion of every day
  4. I will lose some weight/fat
  5. I will feel 27 yrs old as relatively young rather than relatively old
  6. I will actively enjoy rather than merely tolerate (some) exercise again
  7. I won't hate past-self for making these restrictions/commitments to further-future-self
  8. I can experience some joie de vivre; noticeably, and not only when I just drank some hot chocolate
  9. I won't find own-food-preperation as intimidating as I have tended to for the past ~2 years

I don't really deign to hope that I might actually feel like I have healthy sleep behavior; but that would be neato.

Material Hopes

  1. I will fulfill my obligations at work in this, a particularly demanding month
  2. I will write some reflections about the experience of the month on my new blog
  3. I will finish at least 1 nonfiction book I have been dawdling over, whether The Machine that Changed the World, How Not to Die, or Mindfulness in Plain English
  4. Will both have re-read further into and done more formal practice from Full Catastrophe Living
  5. That I will make inroads to another nonfiction book I have been neglecting to start in earnest since time immemorial, whether Lean Enterprise, The DevOps Hanbook, Thinking In Systems, In Search of Certainty, Designing Delivery, Kanban Change Leadership, or Realizing Empathy
  6. Will have watched several videos from Lean Agile Scotland 2016, maybe rewatch some from LeanUX 2015; probably also some vids from CNCF/KubeCon Berlin if they are out.
  7. Have a clearer plan for housing in late-2017/2018, if possible
  8. Will have gotten rid of some possessions, to ease in possibly moving apartments in June?

I might hope too much from a single month of artificial behavior modification.

But anyway, this is long(er than long) enough. Wish me luck. Have a good April, yourselves.

Perhaps talk to you this month, see you on the medianets in May

Donald Guy

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