Dark Days & Steering The Mental Ship

Updated: Jan 25, 2020


It doesn't happen all at once… You become. It takes a long time.

~Margery Williams


The truck was in mud to its axles. Three lumberjacks sat in stony silence in the cab. There they were, stuck in the woods on their way to the cutting site. The first man slammed the steering wheel, cursed, and stormed out of the truck. The second decided to nap under a tree until someone came along to rescue them. The third man, left alone, grabbed an axe and a saw and set about cutting wood to slide under the wheels. Within an hour he managed to pull the truck out of its muddy bath and they got on their way.

We can choose how we respond to an obstacle. As with the three men, our response may be to curse and give up, to sit back and wait for someone else to help us, or to get to work to overcome it ourselves. The event itself isn't important; how we think about it is.

- Today’s Gift, by Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation


Everyone has dark times; no one is immune to them. It’s a normal part of the human experience. Sometimes those days are just a few at a time. Others, they can seem to last for years. I have experience with both.


I’ve written this piece as a special request. The following are things I consider important to steering clear of, or digging out from, darker days.


While there are certainly brain chemistry & other factors involved in how we feel day to day, I believe how we generally feel, mentally, is a choice and a skill we must cultivate as we age.


Think of your brain like an old laptop computer. It’s your old “Trusty” - you’ve had it for years and it works fine. But sometimes it lags a bit. After all, there’s a TON of data on it; it’s accumulated trash throughout the years and maybe even a virus or two. Sometimes, if your laptop freezes, you need to restart it. Other times, when it gets really bad, you need to wipe the hard drive clean and start over.


Wherever you are in your mental health journey, only you can know. But the following are some strategies & practices that have helped me ‘restart’ my brain over the years. They have helped make the bad days more manageable and the good days more appreciated.


Sleep

How important is sleep? To me, it’s literally the most important thing for mental health. Do you sleep well? Do you awake feeling well-rested? Or do you awake feeling tired, and struggle getting out of bed? If the latter, perhaps you aren’t getting quality sleep.

Do you consume a lot of caffeine? Or ingest other forms of stimulants on a daily basis? Stimulants will absolutely affect your sleep. Getting quality, deep sleep is absolutely imperative to positive mental and physical health. But don’t take my word for it; here is what the doctors have to say:

https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/sleep-deprivation-and-deficiency

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/10-reasons-why-good-sleep-is-important#section7


Routine, Routine, Routine

Putting a routine in place, day in and day out, makes it easier to be consistent with working on mental health. Like letting your dog out to pee every morning at the same time, I believe routine and consistency are paramount in developing good mental habits. Without them, your dog wouldn’t know what to expect and would pee inside your house.


Here are the routine parts of my ‘average’ day that seldom change:

  • Wake up 7-8am typically, but most importantly when my body tells me it’s ready (usually no alarm). I realize this isn’t practical for most people with regular jobs, but if you get to bed early enough it is. I want to push this to 5:30am.

  • Read Today’s Gift email (see below), put down phone for the next hour

  • Get up, make bed. I believe a messy bed starts a messy day, and vice versa.

  • Drink a glass of water

  • Cold shower (see below) & hygiene

  • Yoga (deep stretching / deep breathing through the discomfort) (~15-20 minutes)

  • Meditation - currently using Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, but sometimes no app and just silence. (see previous blog on meditation made simple)

  • Affirmations (see below)

  • 1-2x / week go for a run

  • Start work day

  • Lunch while working

  • Weights at the gym in the afternoon, before the 5pm after work crowd

  • Work more

  • Start getting ready for bed around 9-10pm / hygiene

  • No food or water 1-2 hours before sleep. Don’t want digestion or a late night bathroom break to interfere with deep sleep. (Credit to my mom for the water tip :)

  • In bed by 10 most nights, 9:30 ideally; I want to push this to 9

  • Read book in bed until sleepy. Ideally paperback, so I’m not staring at a screen again

Do I always want to run or go to the gym every single day? No, of course not. There are some days I think about skipping. But I make myself go; you MUST get your body there. It needs to become a non-option. It doesn’t matter if your workout is shitty. You just have to go. It needs to become a habit - a requirement - and simply another part of your daily routine. Not an ‘occasional’ sort of thing - it needs to be DAILY - like eating or sleeping.

Strong body → strong mind → strong body → strong mind (picture a circle). It’s a loop. One feeds the other. And it gets easier the longer you do it.


Today’s Gift Email

I start each day with a beautiful, inspirational email I receive fresh in my inbox every morning called Today’s Gift. Today’s Gift is actually a product of a non-profit for recovering addicts. I stumbled upon it one day and signed up. It’s free! And the content is an absolutely amazing way to start your day...even if some of it is addiction-related and a tad bit religious (which I am not). It’s still all positive and inspirational stuff that makes you think and start each day in a good mood.


Here is a sample of a recent one:

Facing conditions we would like to change, letting go of people we wish were different, takes growth, patience, tolerance. We're so easily enticed into thinking we'd be happier, "If only he'd change," or "If I had a better job," or "If the kids would settle down."

Yet we carry the seed of happiness within us every moment.

Learning tolerance for all conditions will nurture that seed.

Intolerance, impatience, depression, in fact, any negative attitude is habit-forming. Many of us struggle with the habits we've formed. Bad habits must be replaced with new, good habits.

We can develop a new behavior, one that pleases us, like smiling at every stranger in a checkout line. We can repeat it in every line. It becomes a habit and a good one.

Toleration of others opens many doors, for them and for us. It nurtures the soul, ours and theirs. It breeds happiness. Those of us sharing these Steps are truly blessed. We're learning about love, how to give it and how to receive it.

There are so many eyes I'll look into today that don't know love. I will give some away with unconditional tolerance. It's a gift—to myself and others.


You can sign up for the free Today's Gift email here: https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/recovery/tools/todays-gift


Thoughts—just mere thoughts—are as powerful as electric batteries.

As good for one as sunlight is, or as bad for one as poison.

-Frances Hodgson Burnett


Yoga

My current yoga/ stretching station. Right next to my bed, so I can't avoid it in the morning.

It's important to remember you don't need to be a "Yogi" to appreciate and receive the benefits of stretching. YouTube can provide you with all you need to know here. The important thing is to get the blood flowing in your body after a night's sleep. And to work on flexibility towards positive physical health. Most good stretches are a bit uncomfortable. That's good - it means it's working. Take it slow, and learn to breath slowly through them. This is also a form of meditation and helps strengthen the mind..


Meditation

Meditation physically changes the brain. This has been scientifically proven.

https://www.everydayhealth.com/meditation/ways-changes-brain/


I used to get panic attacks so bad I thought I was going to die (shortness of breath, feeling of “I can’t breath” and sometimes even pain in the chest). Nervousness, uneasiness, anxiety, depression, insecurity - these are all ailments that are very common but that meditation can alleviate or cure, when committed to it over a long period of time.


“But I don’t have 20 free minutes every day to meditate.”

As someone once said: “If you don’t have 20 minutes to meditate, you really need 2 hours.”


If you want to know more about meditation, please see previous blog on Meditation Simplified (hint: it’s much simpler than you might think)


My favorite new meditation app is called Waking Up by Sam Harris. It was just recently unlocked for one month free to all newcomers. You can use the below link to get the credit. It’s no obligation and I receive nothing if you do. I’m just trying to pass along good info. Try out his Beginner Course - if you make it through Day 10, I believe you’ll start to understand the benefits.

https://share.wakingup.com/32ec174c7fc4


Daily Affirmations

Since my brain has decades of accumulated poison, like my old laptop, I am actively trying to redirect and rewire it.


Remember what it was like to be a kid? When you didn’t have a care in the world, other than doing what was fun? Before you learned about the bad stuff in the world, and before you had any real stressors or bad experiences? That’s the level I want to get back to, with the accumulated wisdom I’ve gained over time but without the negative mental toll. Saying out loud and actively considering these daily affirmations helps me with that. I have a long list of them, depending on my needs at that time, but here is my current list:

  1. I awake feeling happy and enthusiastic about life

  2. Happiness is a choice that I make and a skill I develop

  3. I have been given endless talents which I will utilize today

  4. What’s the positive side of this thought? (when something bothers me during the day, I try to switch my thinking to positive).

  5. I am naturally a positive person; the glass is always half full.

  6. I am grateful for the beauty that is all around me. (gratitude for simple things is huge for overall mental health)

  7. Look up and smile. (smiles go a long way in connecting with others, passing along positive energy and receiving it back, as well)

  8. Death is just around the corner - enjoy every minute


I don’t just say these phrases aloud. I actually think about each one before moving on. (and now they’re committed to memory)


Cold Therapy

Next to meditation, cold therapy is the best thing I have adopted to my daily routine. There is nothing like a cold shower or ice bath to ‘jolt’ both your body and your brain. In the morning, it will wake you up immediately and you will start your day fresh and rejuvenated. You may actually even notice that you are much more happy and enthusiastic about your day once you’re done.


You know the paddles that doctors use to shock a heart back into beating? I consider cold therapy the same thing, but for your brain. It truly has that effect on me; both immediately and cumulatively, over time. I also have not had a cold or flu since I started cold therapy around 1.5 years ago.


Ever see pictures or videos of professional athletes in an ice bath after a game or a fight? Ever put ice on an inflamed muscle or joint? The physical benefits of cold are well documented. But it’s the mental benefits that I’m most interested in, and I consider cold therapy akin to meditation; it’s more of a mental exercise for me than physical.


The person I give credit to for getting cold therapy into the mainstream is a guy named “Ice Man” Wim Hof. Wim preaches about the ability to ‘break the loop’ of depression or dark mental state through cold therapy and breath work (hyper-oxygenation). I have been a fan of his for years but actually put his breathing and cold water therapy into practice in mid 2018. I have not been sick since.


At first, your reaction to frigid temperatures will be ‘fight or flight’ and most default to flight. But the reality is, it’s not going to kill you, and your MIND has the ability to keep your body warm and push through. Cold water therapy is a mental exercise as much as a physical; I would actually argue it is more mental. During an ice bath or cold shower session, it is entirely like meditation. You must move into your mind, with the help of controlled breathing. Your focus will not be on your ‘problems’ or ‘things you need to get done today’ but rather the present tense, how much the cold hurts, and how much your mind is freaking out. But that’s all it is - a mental freak out. And you CAN control that. It’s all in the mind.


Vice News documentary about Wim Hof’s methods and his ability to control his immune system with his mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VaMjhwFE1Zw&t=480s


And here is an interview of Wim Hof I recently watched - this video also touches on the importance of sleep, hormones, brain chemistry and happiness. As Wim says: “Get high on your own supply!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TM6WKeZ43s4&feature=youtu.be


Exposure

Our minds are like sponges. What you soak up, day in and day out, has a cumulative effect on your brain and your thoughts.


Have you ever heard this saying? You are the sum of the 5 people you associate most with.

You are, or will become, what you allow to enter your daily life.


Do you pal around with jerks or materialistic types; narcissistic or angry types? Do they put others down, do they think it’s cool to ridicule others, do they cheat on their girlfriend/ boyfriend/ spouse? Do they think the world owes them something? Do they think they are smarter than everyone else? Do they act tougher than they are? Do they bully others? Are they living paycheck to paycheck with insurmountable credit card debt? Do they eat healthy? Do they exercise? Or do they make excuses?


“You don’t know what it’s like being married with kids” is one of my favorites. Because I know people who ARE married with kids, who work very demanding jobs, yet still find the time to work on their physical and mental health. (See Mark Wahlberg’s daily routine in previous blog)


Is your friends’ idea of unwinding to watch serial killer episodes, or Kardashian replays, or spending an entire day watching football from their sofa while drinking beer and eating pizza? Or is it reading a book or learning a new skill? If the former, chances are you exhibit many of the same characteristics. Is that who you want to be? If so, fine, you should stop reading here. If not, keep reading.


The 5 people I associate most with

Other than my mother and sister, who have a huge impact on me and are amazing people that I am very fortunate to have in my life, here are some stats of 5 people who've impacted me most over the years.


Some stats:

Ages range from late 30’s-mid-40’s

All come from the low-to-upper middle class

3/5 are considered minorities in the US (not “white” - whatever ‘white’ means?)

4/5 are self-employed entrepreneurs

All invest in various markets and are not risk-averse

Two doctors

One attorney

One has over 200 employees, is a global leader in his field (tech) and could have retired many times over by now if he wanted

All are in happy, stable relationships

All are open-minded, world travelers

All of them make me laugh

All are honest, generous, humble & extremely loyal

All are athletic or focus on physical health

All of them donate their time and money to nonprofits and/or volunteer

One of them taught me the stock market in my late 20s

One encouraged me to start my first company many years ago

One regularly beats me in sports

One regularly beats me in chess (we play daily)

One encouraged me to start traveling abroad many years ago - a thing I’m eternally grateful for

One lost his parents at a young age and is a constant reminder to appreciate mine, to overcome the odds and to out hustle everyone else

All of them have bailed me out, in one way or another (physically, emotionally, financially), at various points in my life

  • “You earn as much respect and good will by standing by someone in the wake of a failure, as you do by giving them credit for success.” - Bob Iger, former CEO, The Walt Disney Company (Oprah Winfrey’s podcast)

All of them push me to think, to question my beliefs, and all make me want to be a better person


*There are, of course, a few others who who've had an enormous impact on me and who I'm fortunate to have in my life. I'm a lucky man.


These people are not perfect - they all struggle in one way or another. Struggle is part of being human. But they are all pretty special to me.


Everyone is different and no Top 5 list will look the same (nor should they), but these qualities are important to me. And I am actively trying to add value in the lives of my friends, as well. I want to be inspired and learn from people in my life, and I hope they want and expect the same from me.


Don’t have friends that inspire you, or teach you new things? You can. You just need to go out and find them. How do you do that? Well, look inward and ask yourself what YOU bring to the table. Do you offer something in the way of education, knowledge, inspiration or support? If not, why would quality people want to be around you? ("Quality" is, of course, relative to the individual. What I consider good qualities others may not and vice versa).

If not, go out and change that! Nothing. Is. Ever. Unchangeable.


Be a good listener. Truly listen when people speak. A good listener asks probing questions, and doesn’t talk about his or her self unless asked.


The same goes for the daily content you’re exposed to.

When we reflect on the negative stuff in our lives, we mostly consider other people and work and bills. But the content you are reading or watching is equally as important. And considering how much time we spend consuming content nowadays, I’d argue that content is actually THE MOST important.


Do you regularly read snarky comments from angry or unhappy people? Do you frequent the gossip mill about stuff that doesn’t concern you? Do you obsess over conspiracy theories or things not within your control? Do you obsess over the lives of others on social media? Do you only read or watch content from folks who blame others for their problems? Do you follow trolls? Do you only read negative news? Do you associate with those who seem angry with the world? These are probably folks not too happy with their lives and are doing very little to change it. This is content impacting you and your mental health.


Do you spend most nights watching dark stuff like “Making a Murderer” or “The Walking Dead”? Then yeah, negativity and darkness is all around you, and on your mind right before you go to sleep - how can that NOT impact your mental health?


It’s like a recovering alcoholic deciding to live on The Strip in Las Vegas. Not advisable.


Social Media & News

Keep it positive. As much as you can, avoid all things negative.


I generally consider social media unhealthy when frequently used. The only social media I use regularly is Twitter and that is only for Crypto. I follow only 130 accounts or so (a mixed bag) and if I see consistent negativity or posturing, I unfollow. This is my own personal rule.


But even then, news and social media are rife with negativity in general. Negative content drives clicks. But it’s the positive stuff I want to seep into my brain like osmosis. Slowly and steadily, I believe it does.


So, just to make sure I’m sprinkling in some positive stuff, I follow things like:

@historyinmoment

@dodo

@zonephysics

@goodnewsnetwork

@npr


This is content that either intrigues me, makes me laugh, or reminds me of the good in the world. That’s the kind of content I want in my life.


Or as the great life organizer Marie Kondo would say: “If it doesn’t spark joy, it must go.”

I view that statement as relevant in our material lives, as well as in our mental.


Also Marie Kondo:

  • “Attachment to the past and fears concerning the future not only govern the way you select the things you own but also represent the criteria by which you make choices in every aspect of your life, including your relationships with people and your job.”

  • “The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don't.”

I won’t get hokey with The Law of Attraction here, but I do believe in a general sense of karma, and that the energy we put out into the world comes back to us fully. (positive or negative)


If you do want to go deeper with energy type of stuff, a fun book that is still my favorite to this day is called The Celestine Prophecy. It’s a book about energy flow from person to person, givers and takers, and ultimately how we can get our energy elsewhere. But it’s written as a fictional adventure set in Peru. So if you like to read you’ll probably tear through it like I do. It’s fun.


Podcasts

Here are some podcasts that I listen to regularly:

  • The Joe Rogan Experience (educational; to learn new things and to laugh)

  • The Fighter and the Kid (comedian podcast where I can just listen and laugh)

  • Super Soul Conversations - Oprah Winfrey’s podcast. Yep, Oprah. The people she interviews and topics she covers are very important to me; the podcasts are short and sweet. Here is an excellent, recent example of one: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/oprahs-supersoul-conversations/id1264843400?i=1000454564647

  • Making Sense - Sam Harris’ podcast; Sam is my favorite thinker/philosopher in the world & has some great interviews of leaders in their field.

  • The Tim Ferriss Show - Tim regularly interviews titans of industry.

Go Back To Nature

Try disconnecting to recharge. Leave the internet and all devices behind. Bring a book, clothes and some food and water. When I really need it, I prefer to backpack and camp along a trail for a long weekend. Going back to nature, and the simplicity and beauty of it all, does wonders for the soul. Get dirty. “You can’t appreciate the sun until you’ve stood in the rain.”


Hot Therapy

Some of the best ‘cleaning of the mental house’ I’ve ever had has been from spending 5 minutes in an ice bath at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and then immediately plunging into a hot tub or sauna. The rush of blood from you will get from that, from the inside to the out, is like a super charge for your brain.


I think hot therapy can have a similar effect to cold...but the truth is, there are very few ways in the modern world to accomplish it effectively. Yes, you can use a hot tub or sauna, but they really aren’t extreme enough to strengthen the mind. Although the physical benefits are well-documented.


Temazcal is one example of good hot therapy that also exercises the brain. But it may be difficult to find anywhere outside of Mexico. Beyond it, I just don’t know of any other ways to push your mind with hot therapy. Yet. I will write a blog on my Tamazcal experience in the future.


Explanation here: https://theguadalajarareporter.net/index.php/featured/45309-feeling-the-heat-in-a-traditional-mayan-temazcal


Financial

On financial loss, a good book to read is: What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars

I learned of this book from Tim Ferris and loved it. For an abridged version, Tim interviews one of the co-authors of the book here: https://tim.blog/2014/09/15/what-i-learned-losing-a-million-dollars/ - the podcast covers topics such as:

  • Emotional decision making, which is a subject applicable in both life and investing.

  • Learning to take losses and coming back from them.

As far as proper management of one’s income and expenses (budgeting), everyone’s situation is different. But if you are living beyond your means and/or unable to keep up with debt, there is a mountain of free and valid information available online about how to live financially responsible. Perhaps one day I will write something on the subject, too. But only the individual knows what his or her situation is. And the motivation to change must come from within. Many of the strategies I’ve outlined above can absolutely help you build the motivation.


Also, for a beginner's book on finances and entrepreneurship, check out Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. I consider this book the bible for changing the average person's way of thinking about their finances.


On Addiction

My father is a life-long functional (sometimes dysfunctional) alcohol addict, so I’m somewhat of an expert on this subject.


Do you use substances to pick you up or to de-stress?

“I only smoke weed (drink a beer/ glass of wine) at the end of the day to unwind.”

“I stop drinking coffee at noon. I don’t need the caffeine, I just like the taste.”

Then why not drink caffeine-free? It’s because you like the feeling. So do I. But these are just excuses we make, rather than address the fact that we are addicted to changing the chemistry in our brain, even if only for an hour or two. Some may see this as a bit harsh...but it’s really just a simple observation.


Are you addicted to getting “Likes” on social media? Or obsessing over what others on social media are doing or what they purport to be doing?


Addicts need to distract or alter the mind, in one way or another, to cope with an underlying issue. Cope with life, with a job they hate, with overwhelming debt, with a prior trauma, with poor habits, with poor health, with poor sleep, with depression, with feelings of loneliness, etc. They make excuses about why. They’re too afraid to look inward, often too proud to admit a problem or ask for help, and sometimes just too weak because they’ve been beaten down for so long.


Crack cocaine or ice cream - while some much worse than others - I view them all equally rooted. Distracting the brain is only a temporary fix. This is coming from someone who's lived it (nicotine, caffeine, sugar addictions) at various points in my life.


But not any more. It’s time to address these issues. Talk them out. Figure. It. Out. The internet is a wonderful place with bountiful information. And you sure as hell aren't the first person to have your issue. Read about it. Write about it. Talk about it. There is freedom from mental languish in open discussion. Share. Listen. Learn.


Make a mental effort to focus on the present and future, and what you can control. The past is already in stone. The present and future are not. It starts with small steps and with little tweaks, here and there, to your lifestyle and way of thinking. Like a snowball, if you can get some positive momentum going, it will get easier to roll along.


Here is what Tim Ferris does when he hits a mental snag, when things go wrong for weeks on end and there seems no end in sight: he makes something creative.

“Sometimes you’re the boxer and sometimes you’re the punching bag.” - Tim Ferriss https://tim.blog/2019/12/18/make-before-you-manage/


For bad times of shorter duration, some people will stop everything they are doing. Literally everything. And just clean their house for an hour. By the time they are done, they are calm and collected and have better focus.


On Suicidal Thoughts

For those on a longer, darker path, here is another blog from Tim, but this one is about the time he almost committed suicide. https://tim.blog/2015/05/06/how-to-commit-suicide/


If you don’t know of Tim, he was one of the most successful venture capitalist investors ever in Silicon Valley (he lives in Austin now), and he is only 42 years old. He’s also a best-selling author, a top-downloaded podcaster, and an experimenter with lifestyle design and gadgets. His book “The Four Hour Work Week” is one of the books I credit with changing my life many years ago.


I’ve never been close to suicide....but I can see how one gets there. I’ve had my struggles with depression. But I also know that keeping secrets or feeling ashamed about things only gives them power over you. Knowing what depression is like, I can see how easy it would be to slip into despair. Especially if you have deeper mental issues. But if the genesis of the despair is problem-related, few problems are ever insurmountable. Life is so short and precious; it sounds cliche but any day could be our last - few problems so huge that they can’t be turned around in time. Start by helping yourself, or asking for help from others.


You just need to build a plan and stick with it. And there are support groups that can help with this.


If you are near the end of your rope, please feel free to contact me directly. I’m happy to help if I can. My Twitter handle is @blockchainblitz.


National Suicide Prevention Hotline

  • The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.

  • (800) 273-8255

  • https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/


Finally

For the less severe and more moderate slumps, I’ll leave you with this last piece of motivation:

“It’s just about commitment, that’s it. You put in the work, you reap the rewards. There’s no secret sauce to this. Recognize what you need to do and fucking do it. And you will succeed.”

-Conor McGregor, on coming back from defeat, after beating Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in just 40 seconds; January 19, 2020