The Brain is a Body Part

The following post is about mental health. These are my experiences and are in no way meant to be prescriptive for other people. I realize that the issues we each deal with are complex and varied, and that my experiences are likely very different than others. This is not a post about how to solve mental health problems, it is simply a post about things that seem to have worked for me and how my body seems to function.

We tend to separate the brain from the body. At best, we see the two as having a symbiotic relationship but we also treat them as independent and operating in a vacuum. When I first realized that I had some mental health issues that needed professional help I saw a therapist and started my own research. There was a lot of information about medication and therapeutic techniques to help both the foundation of my problems and some of the ways it has manifested itself (trichotillomania, suicidal thoughts, depression, etc) but I can’t recall ever having a discussion about overall health practices.

Eating right, drinking water, sleeping enough, and exercising regularly was never mentioned by my therapist as something that I should be doing. Looking back, I feel like that is a huge gap. My brain is a body part and the practices that keep my heart and lungs healthy, strengthen my muscles, maintain a healthy level of body fat, and provide vital nutrients to my organs are also beneficial to my brain health (which is the physical location of mental health).

Looking back, there appears to be a clear correlation between my mental health improving and adopting healthier habits (even though I adopted those healthier habits for other reasons… mostly to get laid). While I think I have a fairly healthy lifestyle now (see below for details), it started very incrementally. Adopting little practices like going for a morning walk for 15 minutes outside before breakfast or replacing soda with carbonated water or turning off computer screens an hour before bed started a snowball effect towards better body health (which includes the brain). I’d guess that it has taken five years or so for me to get to the point I am now, and that journey has had many struggles, but the difference between my mental health now and in 2012 is night and day.

I guess I just think it is a shame that I’ve never had a therapist sit down with me and go over my diet or exercise routine. I know that therapists aren’t dietitians or nutritionists or personal trainers, but having a base knowledge in these subjects (or partnering with professionals in those fields) could be incredibly beneficial to the parents. Medication helps, therapy helps, meditation helps… but other things help as well. Cutting out bad food helps, drinking water helps, getting outside helps, running helps. At least that is my experience.

So, what are my health practices like now? Every day is imperfect, but here is what an ideal day would look like. Looking at the list of daily practices it seems like I do a ton of stuff, but when I cut out Facebook and shitty TV I actually end up with downtime at the end of the day for more reading or an evening walk.

Daily Practices
Outside exercise in the morning (anything from a 10-minute walk to a 7-mile run)
Stoic reading – a short, daily exercise
Write (journaling, blogging, fiction writing, anything at all)
Meditation
Work on a new skill (foreign language, musical instrument, coding, etc)
Sleep from 10pm-6am (8 solid hours, though I’ve been waking up early recently and I’m not sure why)
Weight lifting or yoga
Read daily
Cold shower or bath – sometimes 60 seconds, sometimes 15-minutes
1-2 additional daily walks, usually during lunch and after work

Diet – ~1,800 calories (No, I’m not hungry all day. Yes, I get plenty of protein for health and muscle growth) – Carb/Fat/Protein = 55%/25%/20% (~Grams 260/55/95)
8 cups of water
2-3 cups of coffee
5 cups of green tea
3 servings of nuts/seeds
3 servings of fruit
3 servings of non-leafy vegetables
3 servings of leafy vegetables
2 servings of legumes
2 servings of whole grains
1 serving of nut milk
1 serving of plant-based protein powder
1 serving of nutritional yeast*
B-12 supplement*
Choline supplement*
8/16 intermittent fast (I have an 8-hour window to eat, usually 10am-6pm

So, that’s where I am right now and I feel like my body (including my brain) is the healthiest it has ever been. If you have any practices that you have worked for you I’d love to hear about them, I’m always looking to improve and experiment. Leave me a message on SurveyMonkey.

*These are due to my vegan diet and may not be necessary for others. Though, I highly recommend running your daily diet through a program like www.cronometer.com to discover any nutrients that may be lacking. I was shocked at some of my deficiencies and some of the nutrients I was getting too much of. For me, focusing on calories or the fat/carb/protein distribution was not the best way to find a healthy diet. Instead, I started with the needed vitamins and minerals and build a diet that met all my needs, the rest just fell into place and I ended up with around ~1,800 calories that was 55% carb, 25% fat, and 20% protein (260 grams, 55 grams, 95 grams)

Feedback (Part 8)

This post is a response to anonymous questions and comments I receive via SurveyMonkey (www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH). I love responding to these, so if there is something on your mind, good or bad, please send me a message. No subject is off limits and here is a link to previous questions or comments I’ve received and responded to, and I plan on responding to every single one I receive (unless I somehow become a super famous advice columnest on accident).

Hi Peter, we met years ago in DC in KAP (Koch Associate Program) and I regret we did not become better friends because you never fail to be interesting and thought provoking, and I enjoy interesting and thought provoking. What I wonder is this — why are you so open about your life? I hate for this to sound like a judgmental question, it is just so far from my own personality that I admit to being baffled and curious. Thanks!

Hi stranger!

Thanks for reaching out. First off, I am torn on whether I wish we would have become better friends in KAP. During that time I was kind of douchie and very sex-obsessed and really fighting with my PTSD. Much of my interactions were based on trying to get laid, but I would like to think I’ve matured a bit since then (though some might disagree) and my views have evolved a bit as well. Hopefully, though, you and I can become better friends now.

So, on to your question. Why am I so open about my life?

Hmm, in some ways I’ve always been this way. Growing up I was pretty outspoken about controversial things. Unfortunately, the things that were controversial were my shitty views about homosexuality. I was the type of person who would gather for prayer around a flagpole (which isn’t bad in and of itself) and tell gay people that they were sinners or take cigarettes out of people’s mouths because they were unhealthy. I was a self-righteous dickhole who thought my theological beliefs were the final word on what was good, and that anything I did because of those beliefs was justified. I kind of sucked.

Things changed a bit when I got out of the military. I found myself uncomfortable with American Christianity and conservatism, and I also came to be comfortable with my own sexuality. I believe that much of my angry self-righteousness and internal conflict (that manifested itself in many unhealthy ways) came from essentially living a lie. I had to pretend to believe and be a certain person around family and friends because that is what they wanted or expected. I basically felt like I had to sacrifice my own mental health because if I let the truth be known it would break my families heart or they would worry about me going to hell.

That internal struggle, living in the dark, had to end at some point and (very luckily) it ended with me being open and honest instead of ending my own life. I realize not everyone has this type of public/private conflict, but facing that conflict is part of why I am so open today. I know that there is a difference between living a life true to who you are and standing on a hill with a flag advertising to strangers on the internet who you are, and I definitely fall into the latter category. Well, as I became more open to myself and family and friends (which was far from a smooth process and I lost friends and family during it)

Well, as I became more open to myself and family and friends (which was far from a smooth process and I lost friends and family during it) I started having people who I didn’t know that well contact me. Even when I was more subdued online I still shared controversial articles about polyamory, spirituality, anarchy, drug use, etc. fairly safely by claiming I found the subject “interesting”, and sharing those articles became a stepping stone to expressing my views about them. Sharing those articles became a way for like-minded people to feel safe asking me questions and it was a way for me to help people around the globe (that sounds cocky… I don’t mean it that way).

I guess that is really the reason why I am open with my life at this point because there are some people who can’t be open but need to feel like they are not alone. Like Dan Savage says, the best thing you can do to help other people is to step out of the closet. I have received countless messages from people I knew in high school, the military, college, DC, LA, and basically strangers thanking me because they felt same-sex attraction too and didn’t know what to make of it, or they use drugs or battle PTSD or want to be childless or are no longer religious. I believe that when I live out loud, when I let my freak flag fly, it is the healthiest way for me to live and it is a way to provide support for other people. I don’t know if I would call it a “duty” to others, but I know it is a duty to myself.

I hope that answered the question, but if not, please shoot me another message and I’ll try to do better. 🙂

Strugglebus

Moving to Wilmington has not been as easy as I imagined it would be. Don’t get me wrong, I love this town and I think moving here was the right decision. The amount of freedom and power that I feel from choosing my own city to live in without worrying about school, family, or work is incredible. But, it has been difficult, showing up in a new city with minimal social support makes it difficult to make friends, particularly when I work from home (definitely not complaining about that, but it creates challenges).

My mental health has been on the low end for the last couple months and I’ve been getting back into some bad habits, primarily unhealthy drinking and eating habits and too much time on the computer, and my workout and writing routines had both floundered. My imposter syndrome has hit pretty hard recently and my trichotillomania started coming back (which is never a good sign). To be honest, I was getting pretty down but this week things are really looking up.

I finally feel like I have a decent social routine and I’m making friends. I had friends in town before but I felt like I was often a drain or a burden when I wanted to hang out because they have their own lives and social groups that they’ve developed for years, but things have changed a bit now. I joined a kickball league, found a running buddy, started playing D&D with a fucking awesome group of people (who seem to have some dirty minds… which I love), started going to yoga at a local brewery, and I plan on volunteering with a local organization on Friday. I even might start going to the Unitarian Church near my house. My partner and I have also started going out to bike rides and other local events (though, we haven’t really exchanged numbers with anyone… it is so weird being an adult and trying to meet other adult friends as an introverted person).

To be honest, the only real “hole” in my social network is meeting other people who are poly/sexually open and/or into recreational MDMA use. Basically, I don’t have a “burner” crowd here. But that’s okay, maybe I’ll find people that I can talk to about those issues in person or maybe I won’t. If I don’t find those people in real life I have my amazing Facebook friends to chat with. Right now I’m in a handful of secret Facebook groups made up of like-minded people and it is my favorite thing about Facebook. The newsfeed is always garbage, but those groups are where I feel I can talk about anything and truly be myself. I can let my hair down (well, that isn’t currently a real thing but it will be once my locks return to their former glory… I should never have cut my hair or beard).

Facebook provides a great service but I also feel like it has a dark side for me. The friends I have on there are amazing, but I feel like having that safety net prevents me from actually getting out and doing things in the real world. The network provides enough support to keep my mental health from hitting rock bottom, but then I lack the motivation to meet new people. I think I just need to find a balance between the two. Both networks serve a purpose in life, I need family in the cyber world and the physical world, and it really only becomes a problem when I let one realm monopolize my life. My life satisfaction requires variety, diversity, and active experimentation.

As always, if you’ve got a random question or comment that you’d like me to address feel free to send me an anonymous message at www.surveymonkey.com/r/XYRDXHH

Raw

A couple of days ago I put a post on Facebook that was kind of emotional and raw. I knew exactly why I was feeling raw, my serotonin was low from a night of rolling during the weekend, but I still wanted to share. I feel like we don’t share our day-to-day negative emotions and experiences in a constructive way on social media, we always seem to either rant and rave about stuff or pretend that our entire world is perfect. We are afraid to be vulnerable and open, particularly when it comes to mental health. Whenever I roll I know that the mental health issues that I deal with under the surface are going to be more exposed, so instead of bottling them up I decided to share them with my network.

Getting feedback from friends and strangers (even when I specifically said I wasn’t looking for that) was both good and bad. I believe everyone that responded had the best intentions, but in some cases, an attempt to diagnose me seemed to be inappropriate unless they knew more about me than you could get from a Facebook post. I guess this is the nature of social media, though when you share a status people assume you want their thoughts on how to fix the “problem”. The general consensus was that I was dealing with imposter syndrome and/or depression, a diagnosis that I don’t completely disagree with. One person also tried to convert me to their religion (I think), which I am sure was well-intentioned because they gain strength from their faith, but it was clear they didn’t know me very well. Just because something (religion, meditation, therapy, etc) is helpful for one person doesn’t mean it is a panacea for another person, if you are going to give someone advice it is best to know something more about that person than just a rant you read on Facebook.

The feedback that I found most helpful came from people who reached out in a personal message to share love and support, instead of posting something public. Those messages felt sincere and I was much more inclined to enter into a conversation and open up. It was through those private conversations that I really had a few epiphanies about my situation and the anxiety I’ve been feeling under the surface the last couple of weeks.

I don’t think depression or impostor syndrome is the right overall diagnosis for me, even if I display some of those symptoms. I think my biggest issue recently is that I’ve been relatively successful at the things I’ve tried and I don’t see any challenges on the horizon. My job is going well, my body is at a health level that I am satisfied with, my book is in the final edit phase, my relationship is great, and my life is pretty damn secure. I know how shitty it is to sound like I’m complaining about success, but for me, struggle is necessary to feel satisfied and happy. I need a challenge and for most of my life, the primary challenge was survival and security. I was stuck on the bottom layers of Maslow’s Hierarchy that now that I have moved up I don’t know how to handle it. I keep feeling like I should sabotage myself so that I have a struggle again.

I don’t really want that, though. I don’t want to worry about paying my bills or whether I’m killing myself with what I eat. I need to move the things I strove for from the “goal” part of my day to the “daily practice and maintenance” part of my day, and I need to find new goals, hobbies, and passions. I don’t know where to start, though.

I am playing around with the idea of writing a new book or starting a podcast, and there are a handful of little skills that I’d like to learn, and maybe I can find some artistic outlets. I also really need to get outside and meet people, working from home traps me inside a lot of the time and it is difficult to make friends in a new town. I need some social hobbies or volunteer work or sports, but man, taking that first step and hanging out with strangers is super anxiety-inducing for me.

I’m going to try, though. I don’t want my new life in Wilmington and the new year to go to waste. This transition is tough, but hopefully, I can make it without backsliding too much.