Something to Celebrate

Since April, I have gone for plenty of lab tests. Since the summer, it’s been every 4 weeks. And every time, I eagerly check the online lab results page to watch like a scientist working on an n=1 experiment.

In the past, seeing the online lab results has been a source of confusion, relief, frustration or even concern. Close friends have encouraged me to ease off logging in or even not log in at all. I explain that I understand their suggestion, but that no, I know myself well enough to know that if the results are available to me, I’m going to look. The alternative might cause more stress.

Since my first test in the Spring, I have always been able to tell when the results are in since they are marked with a red exclamation point. Like this one:

labresults

As one might suspect, this is not a good thing. It means one or more results are out of range.

And, every single test, I see the little red exclamation point and know my results are in. So when I checked in last night and didn’t see the red exclamation point, I figured it was too soon. And not surprisingly, only the Haematology results were back, and there were no red flags. This good since I need to watch my white blood cells.

Fast forward to this morning when I check in again. No red flag. Still too early for the Chemistry and Thyroid results. But wait, I’m wrong. Most of the results are back – everything except my thyroid antibodies. And no red flags yet. For the first time since starting these tests, my Thyroid Stimulating Hormone levels are back in range. Excellent news.

A few hours pass and I log in again, expecting to see a red flag telling me my thyroid antibody results are back. No red flag, but I look anyway. And to my surprise, the result is not only in but also in range.

So for the first time during this process, all my lab results are completely normal. In other words, the elusive euthyroid state has been achieved.

Definitely something worth celebrating.

 

Falling Back & Sleep Patterns

Today marks the day we fall back one hour, thus gaining an extra hour (the good) and the start of leaving at the end of the workday in the dark (the bad).

For me, it also means an opportunity to play with my sleep schedule and commence an experiment to learn about my sleep habits and patterns. Yes, a new project.

Over the next few weeks, I will attempt to learn my optimal sleep duration and pay attention to how other habits of mine impact my sleep quality. To measure this, I will be using my Garmin watch, which has a sleep tracker. Similar to other activity trackers, it measures my movement and heart rate throughout the night. I can then see how long I spent in “deep sleep” vs “light sleep” vs awake.

Here is an example from last Sunday evening:

sleep-tracking-example

It breaks down the deep sleep, shown in dark blue, the light sleep, shown in light blue, and awake time, shown in pink. On this night, I got 5:02 hours of deep sleep, which I consider pretty good, especially compared to some other nights’ sleep. For example, on Tuesday night, I only got 3:13 hours of deep sleep.

It also displays movement patterns, as shown below. Looking at this, I can see that I was out cold from midnight to 1 AM but moving more before waking in the morning.sleep-tracker-movement

I have been asked before how much I trust activity trackers and whether they accurately track your sleep. While I cannot answer that definitively, I figure if they are inaccurate, they are at least consistently inaccurate. Therefore, I should still be able to learn about my sleep patterns by comparing my own data from night to night.

My ideal experiment would be to figure out my optimal sleep time by forgoing any alarm and just see when I wake up, but I don’t think that’s wise given the need to, um, show up for work on a daily basis. I do a version of this on the weekends since I don’t use an alarm, and from what I can tell, my body tends to wake naturally after about 7.5-8 hours.

In addition to tracking quality and duration of sleep, I will pay attention to my activity levels (e.g. steps, activity intensity, etc) and make notes about my energy levels and moods. Over time, I should get a sense of what daily habits impact my sleep. I would also like to test different suggestions for better sleep, like when to cut off screen-time or making the room completely dark.

And so, the sleep project commences.

 

More Social Less Media – Lessons Learned

I’ve wrapped up 4 weeks of the More Social Less Media program. The first two weeks focused mainly on increasing real, in-person social interactions, while the second two weeks consisted of no social media or any screen-based entertainment with a continued emphasis on in-person interactions.

I learned many lessons through this process but wanted to share a few here:

Social media platforms really don’t want you to go.

Having been a regular user, I was not aware that once you stop logging in, the emails start. “See what you’re missing!”, “Here is some activity you are not seeing”, etc. Basically, the posts come to you if you don’t go to them.

It was a good reminder how these companies depend on the psychological element of the platform, and it is in THEIR interest to keep you coming back.

Also, the companies don’t care about you individually – an algorithm automatically notices the lack of activity and tries to correct it using the content of your friends to remind you that you are ‘missing out’. And their tactics are persuasive – I did feel like I was missing out. Not enough to log in. Just enough to feel bad. Thanks for that.

The length of the program is just right.

Having two weeks at the start to begin shifting behaviour by focusing on quality interactions with other people is really manageable. It’s enough time that you don’t feel rushed or pressured, but not so long that you would put off reaching out and making plans. It also simultaneously provided enough time to mentally prepare for the last two weeks while also being distracting enough to not dread what was coming next.

The last two weeks are also well timed because the first week without social media and screen-based entertainment is really uncomfortable. And it should be. Feeling uncomfortable is the most important part, in my humble opinion. In my case, it was even more pronounced since I got a cold and couldn’t engage in social excursions or be all that productive, but the effect is more or less the same. To elaborate…

It’s uncomfortable. 

Removing yourself from social media and all screen-based entertainment is difficult. This is relative, of course, so for a person who doesn’t have cable or a facebook account, this may seem extreme. However, most of my family, friends and co-workers regularly engage in some form of screen-based entertainment and most have some level of engagement with social media.

As for me, I love television. I enjoy movies. I play games on my phone and iPad. I like seeing what my friends and family members are up to on social media. So it was hard.

It was uncomfortable when I was tagged in a celebratory post about a research paper to which I contributed was finally published. I could tell I was tagged since I got an email. And I knew others were excited because I got more emails telling me how popular this post was. I deleted the emails, but felt sad that I couldn’t engage. I had all these thoughts, like “will the poster be disappointed that I didn’t ‘like’ the post – especially since I ‘like’ posts of hers with some degree of regularity?” and “will it seem like I don’t care? I CARE! How will anyone know that I care?!?”

So yes, it was uncomfortable. And yes, I realized that – honestly – no one will notice or care. It’s not that important. The post will still be there tomorrow.

In addition, the final two weeks were also physically uncomfortable at the start. I was fidgety. I felt restless at times. What do I do with my hands?!?!  I thought of taking up knitting. I may still give it a try. And, I did figure out a way to relax when not reading. I busted out my adult colouring book. When talking on the phone, or listening to the radio or music, I could relax and colour. It was great.

But, I had to figure it out for myself. I had to feel the discomfort first. Some people told me I should have quit when I got sick. I was determined not to do that. So I worked through the uncomfortable part, and I got out on the other side unscathed. In fact, I think I came out better. Leading me to my next point,

You can’t simply remove the social media and screens without emphasizing the real social interaction. 

The real, in-person social interaction is, in my opinion, the best part about this program. Don’t get me wrong, I think removing the social media and screens teaches you a lot, but the quality social interactions are critical.

I think if you simply cut out screen-based entertainment and social media for two weeks, you might learn something, but you might also get the impression that life without social media and screens is awfully lonely and therefore should be re-introduced. On the contrary, when you focus on high-quality interpersonal interactions, you realize how lonely it can be when you rely on digital relationships or experience in-person interactions filled with digital distraction.

Being truly present and engaged in the moment with other people is uplifting. It is energizing. And, it does spill over into the digital environment. Strengthening in-person interactions makes for better digital interactions (e.g. texts, calls, emails, etc). Heck, even with those I haven’t seen over the past month, I enjoy our digital interactions more because I’m simply more present. I’m less distracted.

So when people ask why I would give up screen-based entertainment and social media for two weeks, they are focusing on the wrong part of the process.

And finally,

I feel more relaxed.

I would not have guessed it last week, but I genuinely feel more relaxed and peaceful at the end of this process. I still have plenty of things to get done (e.g. house stuff, work, etc), but there is something restorative about the absence of all the extra digital stimuli.

I’m even finding that while I’m excited about watching a few tv shows, I don’t feel a rush to do so. And, frankly, I’m a little surprised by that. Pleasantly so.

I used to try to follow the general rule of no screens after 10pm, and now I’m considering an even earlier cut-off time. And, it doesn’t feel like a punishment or chore. It feels freeing. I feel completely okay with it.

 

Thyroid Update

Those of you familiar with my more recent blog posts will be aware that I was diagnosed with Graves’ disease in the summer. This has been both incentive for me to explore the relationship between diet and autoimmune disorders and, at times, a source of frustration.

I started on medication at the end of August with the knowledge that I would get monthly lab tests done to see how the meds are working and make decisions about appropriate doses. My late-September results had concerned me (liver and white blood cells counts were off, which can be a side effect of the medication), so I sat down with my doctor to discuss whether I should make changes.

Being the nerd that I am, I had read some scientific journals prior to meeting with her. This sounds extreme to some, but I wanted to be familiar with the clinical applications of the medication and understand the process. This may also sound like I am a doctor’s worst nightmare, but the intention was to be prepared to have a discussion with my doctor about my treatment plan. The research was useful as it did calm me down – I found out my liver and white blood cell numbers, though off, were not a cause of concern.

My doctor’s visit was positive, and I was pleased with the treatment plan: I would stay the course with my current dose for another 4 weeks, and if the October thyroid results were the same or improved, I could half my dose – no need to call for approval.

My results came in this week and are significantly better. Liver enzymes and blood cell counts are all in range (including one that had always been ever-so-slightly out of range since the Spring), and my Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) is finally improving after being suppressed and non-existent for 6 months. I still have thyroid antibodies (the autoimmune aspect of the disease) higher than desired, but not a concerning amount.

All in all, I am very pleased with my lab results. And, I’m eager to see how I fare on a reduced dose. Eventually, the goal is to reduce to a very low level then come off the meds and the thyroid levels stay normal, achieving what’s called a Euthyroid state. 

 

 

Less Than Ideal Timing

On Sunday evening, I deleted all my social media apps from my phone. It felt strange, but also refreshing. I say refreshing because not having the apps on the phone meant I was truly committing to trying this thing out – for real. Also refreshing because for a couple of the apps, I knew that I was unlikely to reinstall them after the two weeks are done.

Since deciding to try this program out, an immediate consequence is, well, consciousness.

You are suddenly very aware of how you use your device. You notice how many times you are reaching for your phone. You notice when you have scrolled over the same content. It becomes obvious how the phone is a crutch when waiting in line or when there is silence. Then there is the feeling you get when you do check your phone and see that, no, nothing has changed.

So after learning all of these insights over the first couple of weeks, I was feeling ready to move onto phase 2. The apps were deleted. The TV was off. I was armed with a good book. Heck, I was even out of town for a conference so was even in a new environment. Perfect!

Not quite.

Day 1 of Less Media started off with an ironic twist. The opening speaker of the conference asked who has twitter. I didn’t raise my hand. Then he told everyone who doesn’t have twitter to look to their friends with hands raised so they could teach us lowly ingrates how to download it. Um, no. Then I learned that multiple times throughout the conference, there would be twitter contests! Ugh.

Then, I got sick.

It meant skipping the reception and dinners with conference attendees. It meant a lot of time alone in my hotel room, feeling lousy. In other words, it’s when you want to watch TV or a movie. Just curl up and zone out. Hmm.

I managed to get some good sleep and was able to attend the rest of the conference and even felt alright travelling back home. But I think my body knew when I was home because that’s when the cold really decided to settle in.

And now all I want to do is curl up on my couch and watch Netflix.

Instead, I just nap and read*. And don’t get me wrong, I love reading. And finishing a book every day three days in a row does provide some sense of accomplishment, but it would be nice to mix it up a bit.

My initial vision for this phase was complete with evening walks, projects around the house, some long-overdue sewing projects, and social interaction. Instead, my interaction involves a couple of boxes of kleenex and my pillow.

All this to say, this sure is some less than ideal timing.

*Yesterday I finished the book Love Warrior, a memoir by Glennon Doyle Melton, and it was excellent. I highly recommend this book. It is one of the most honest, raw and insightful books I have ever read. 

 

 

Apps are Not Benign 

I read a very timely article yesterday. Timely because tomorrow I begin the second phase of my latest experiment, the Less Media period.

The Less Media phase involves deleting your social media apps from your mobile devices and no screen-based entertainment for two weeks. I decided before beginning this process that I would allow Jays post-season games so long as I’m with other people, making it a social affair. Having given myself that exception, I was feeling pretty good. That is, until yesterday when I realized next weekend is the season premiere of The Walking Dead, and let’s just say there is a minor cliffhanger that will be addressed at the start of the show. So, I have one week to figure out how that fits into this process.

Now back to this article.

I was reading The Atlantic (on my iPad) and came across an article called The Binge Breaker. It features a silicon valley man whose experience working for companies that design psychologically addictive apps has inspired him to start an organization called Time Well Spent with a mission to create a sort of code of ethics aimed at software developers to encourage the creation of apps that treat people with respect and enhance the quality of the time spent with the product rather than demanding more from the user.

This article reminded me of a statement made by the creator of the More Social Less Media program. During an interview, he said “these apps are not benign”. At the time, I definitely agreed as I understood what he meant. But, reading this article really drove home that many apps (likely most) are designed to pull you in and demand more of your time. And that’s just the design of the app (like buttons, algorithms, etc).

On top of the addicting design features, research has shown there are very real psychological implications of the content posted by users. For example, FOMO, fear of missing out, is rampant as users witness friends engaged in activities and putting up photos of their life. Those photos are carefully selected and curated to tell a story of what the user wants others to see.

And then there are the news feed links posted online. A friend recently told me she deleted facebook from her phone because of the election posts inundating her news feed. And I didn’t blame her. It’s one thing to read a news site, which she does every day, but it’s another thing when your feed turns into an aggregate of every news and opinion piece along with the accompanying comments. A small curiosity of what others think can drag you into a rabbit hole and suddenly an hour has passed.

Lest I sound too harsh about social media, I do see a place for it and there are some benefits. First and foremost, I love that I can see what family and friends are up to. Second, I think social media had an important role to play in social change. I have seen some inspiring and thoughtful posts by friends that have been quite moving. I appreciate seeing thought-provoking posts and the ensuing dialogues that come from them. But, at least on my news feed, these are the exception and not the rule.

And, I know it will all still be there in 2 weeks.

My task in 2 weeks time will be to figure out how to ensure my interactions with social media (and other apps) are time well spent instead of the alternative.

A New Experiment

I’ve decided to take on a different 4-week program, but instead of my usual theme – food – I’m tackling a new area: social media, screen time and in-person interaction.

The program is called More Social Less Media. It’s aim is to get you focused on in-person connections and assess your relationship with technology. The program’s creator, Dallas Hartwig, is one of the co-creators of the Whole30, which is how I learned about it, but it really is separate from the Whole30. This is a recent area of interest for him and is aligned with his background on incorporating behaviour change into a structured program. Fun fact: I found out he also spent his childhood about 35 minutes from where I grew up.

The first two weeks (More Social) of the program are aimed at prioritizing social interactions in real life (not just online or by text). And, when with others, keeping your phone invisible and silent. The last two weeks (Less Media) involve removing yourself from social media and screen-based entertainment. This felt really intimidating at first, but then I quickly remembered that I’ve spent two weeks at a cottage or travelling with little to no screen-based entertainment, and it was blissful. Yes, I love TV, but the shows I enjoy aren’t going anywhere and the break from social media is welcome. The fact I cringed at the idea of the last two weeks told me I’m probably the perfect candidate for this type of program. Also, I started to get excited about all the things I could accomplish when I’m not watching TV or on my phone or iPad.

I am now one week into the program and have already noticed some benefits. I started by turning of the LED light on my phone so it will never blink at me. Then I turned off app notifications – even my gmail – so I won’t be notified of activity. I just have to open the app to see if there is anything new. I also deleted a few apps off my phone. I already feel better with just those changes.

Also, I have had some really high-quality social interactions. In fact, every day. Some one-on-ones (lunch, dinner, walking, etc) and a number of groups. And it has been wonderful. I think it has put me in a better mood overall. Despite being one who loves quiet time, I did feel energized by spending time with people I genuinely enjoy. I think it also makes me appreciate my friendships even more than I already do.

Another bonus is that I have had some good virtual chats as well with those who don’t live nearby. I had a couple of phone calls and some texting, but my mindset was different than before starting the program. It may not be in-person, but it was fostering existing relationships and consciously recognizing the value of doing so.

Although this new experiment of mine isn’t directly related to my angry insides, I think it actually goes really well with the theme of this blog. All part of The Cat Project in which I try new things in the name of self-improvement. And I have no doubt whatsoever that this initiative will have positive impacts on other areas of my life.

I’m looking forward to finding out.