Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tracking My Life with Symple (App Review)



Disclaimer: This is not sponsored, I'm just an app geek who really loves this app! :) 

I recently shared some of the lessons I've learned in the first year since being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia in a video on my YouTube channel (watch it here). Learning how to read the signals my body is sending me is a huge part of how I keep track of physical and mental symptoms. And one way that I've been able to keep a record of those symptoms is through an app called Symple. I've been using this app for several months now and it's been enormously helpful in more ways than one, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on the app in case it might help others looking for something similar.

How it works

You choose or create the symptoms you want to track. The free version lets you track 10 symptoms but I paid for the upgrade, it was only a couple bucks and totally worth it. The day is then broken up into 4 segments, night, AM, mid day, and PM. You can set reminder alerts at any time within those time blocks and you rank each symptom on a scale: none, mild, moderate, difficult, severe. I try to do my tracking at the same time each day. I do the night check as soon as I wake up and put in anything that I noticed during the night. If I slept straight through I usually select "none" for everything. But if I had insomnia, bad dreams, woke up a few times with back or knee pain, I would record that as soon as I wake up. I do the AM after I've been awake for a few hours later in the morning. Then I usually check in around the middle of the afternoon and finally about an hour or so before bed.

There are some other functions, like a journal, and "factors" that you can record as well. Factors are things that impact your symptoms. So you can record a factor when you eat certain foods or go to physical therapy, have a good day at work or a bad day at work, and then see how those factors correspond to an increase or decrease in the severity of your symptoms. For someone who is interested in tracking how their body or mind responds to a certain food or exercise, this is really helpful, but it's not a feature I use. But I do appreciate that it has that function if I need it.

There's also a calendar so you can jump back to any day to see how you were feeling and an option to print of a report that you could take to your doctor which could be really helpful if you're needing to track a number of symptoms and issues. I've been using it to track both my mental health (anxiety, depression, bad dreams, nightmares, stress level, etc.) and my pain (knee, lower back, shoulder) as well as sort throat from allergies, and my other fibro symptoms like brain fog and fatigue.


If you tilt the screen you can get a chart of the last month, 3 months, 6 months, year, and 2 years, which gives you a great overview of how you're feeling over a longer course of time. If you tap the little "i" for information button you get a overlay of the ranking of the symptoms, I love this because it helps me see over the course of a month or so how many times any symptom was in the difficult or severe range. You can also view two symptoms at a time, you just slide the top or bottom until you get to the pairing you want, this is great because it lets me see how my fatigue matches with my stress or anxiety (am I more or less anxious if I'm more or less tired?), it's been enormously helpful.



Overall the app is super user friendly and easy to use. I've tried a few other symptom trackers before but they were so confusing and had way too many features. I've been using Symple for a few months and it's been exactly what I want. 

Why I love it

The biggest thing I like about this app, the reason I've used it so consistently, is because of the record it provides for me. I can see how I'm feeling throughout the day. If I have a rough afternoon it's easy to feel like the whole day was miserable. But the app shows me that the morning actually wasn't bad. If by Friday I'm feeling dead on my feet and super anxious about something and feel tempted to write off the whole week as being bad I can look back through and see that the beginning of the week I was actually feeling really good. I can also see where things started to go downhill, and while I don't track factors in the app I do have a record of my days and my schedule in my bullet journal, so I can usually pin point what it was that tanked the week. Looking at the monthly view I can see roughly what percentage of the month I was doing well with a symptom versus not so well. 

For example, I haven't had a major dizzy spell in months, and even though the depression feels like a constant dark cloud, in reality in the past 3 month period I've had as many days with no recorded depression as I've had with a record, and even then only about seven days were ranked at "difficult" and none were "severe". That's a major improvement from the past but also makes me wonder how much of my feeling depressed or in pain in the past was my mind collapsing days in on each other and making me feeling like I was struggling on more days than I really was. We remember bad days more than we remember good days. All it takes is two consecutive rough days and my mind automatically starts thinking the whole week was bad. Since I've started tracking my mood and pain in Symple I've been able to see the days and weeks as they really are, not as my mind twists them. It keeps me from blowing things out of proportion but also helps me deal with problems when they are clearly becoming a repeated problem. When I go to physical therapy on Monday I can look at the app and see that a few days before on Friday I was struggling with back pain and I can tell my PT that's what we need to work on. And it's been a huge help with my psychologist and being able to see how my depression and anxiety are doing from one week to the next. (See last week's post here for a discussion on how I've been taking care of my mental health)

Whatever your problems or struggles, this app has so much flexibility, I've been able to use it for so many more things than I'd thought I would. I'm usually really inconsistent with tracker apps. (Probably why I'm still not drinking enough water lol!) But I've been so consistent with Symple and I can tell it's made a big difference.

I hope this review has helped. Any questions or comments? Please leave them below, I love hearing from you! 

xo
Andrea


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Taking Care of Your Mental Health

I've seen a lot of posts online this week talking about Mental Health Week, and a quick Google search also showed that May is Mental Health Month. Both of these things are great, we need more discussions about mental health issues and concerns and ways of starting to chip away at the stigma that has had control of many of us for too long.

We see a lot of nonsense online, people trying to tell us that mental health issues are just a phase or trend and that those of us who say we suffer from anxiety/depression/etc are just faking it, trying to be trendy, or (my personal favorite) just want to be a "special snowflake". *insert massive eyeroll*

Can we just talk about the ridiculousness of that last one? Snowflakes are wonderful because they're beautiful and unique, no two snowflakes are exactly the same. Seriously, who wouldn't want to be a snowflake?! Every human being is special and beautiful and unique. So, hate to break it to the critics, but we're all special snowflakes. Each and every one of us. And if mental health is becoming a bigger topic of conversation these days, it's not because it's a new "trend", it's because more people are finally being brave enough to share their experiences and speak up about this topic. It's not a new topic, we're just finally getting more vocal about it.

Seriously, who wouldn't want to be something so pretty?!
I've talked about my own struggle with anxiety and depression on my YouTube channel (you can watch the video here). I've also shared my struggles with feeling like a fraud and a failure (aka "Imposter Syndrome", you can watch that video here) and they are definitely all connected. I've always dealt with anxiety and depression, long before I had language to describe or label my experiences. These days I talk mostly about my experiences in grad school working on my PhD and how that contributes to my mental health issues, but before grad school it was struggling through my undergrad degree and worrying about my future (your typical quarter life crisis, though we definitely didn't call it that then lol) and before that it was all the joys and sorrows of high school and before that it was the massive high and lows of growing up an Army brat. Point is, my life, like most people's lives, has not been easy. We all have our struggles and I'm no exception.

Grad school really does bring it's own special brand of anxiety.
I've been in and out of therapy a few times over the last several years, actually more like the past 15 years. But it's only been recently that I've realized how important a really good therapist is. My first one was nice, but it really was just a venting session each week, and then no skills for helping me deal with things the rest of the time. I moved, stopped seeing her, and never got back into therapy. Several years later, after starting my PhD program, I was really struggling with adjusting to the program and dealing with being a PhD student. Increased responsibilities and obligations plus imposter syndrome is a really nasty combination. It got to the point where even my friends were noticing things and finally said to me, "we love you and we're here for you but we think you need to see someone," one friend even walked with me to the counseling center on campus.

Over the course of that semester I worked with an amazing therapist, who was so different from the first one. We started uncovering past issues that I was still dealing with but had internalized and shoved so deep down I didn't realize they were still affecting me. We made a lot of progress in only about 15 sessions. But on campus they can only do short term counseling and it was about to be summer break and I was going to the UK for the whole summer so we decided we'd transition me to someone off campus in the fall. That summer was great, life changing you could say. I visited a friend in Prague, did study abroad in Oxford, spent a ton of time in London, and met some amazing people. I got back to Arizona and thought "I'm fine! I don't need therapy anymore." That was a mistake. The second year wasn't as rough as the first year but it was still hard, and I wasn't coping as best as I could. But I had some new friends and I was able to distract myself enough. I also had a trip to London planned for Christmas and was planning to spend the next summer in Oxford again as well, so planning those trips served as a distraction.

My time in Oxford, over both summers spent there, were huge learning experiences for me personally. They weren't all easy lessons, but I wouldn't trade those summers for anything.
That following summer had a lot of ups and downs, and even though I knew I needed to come home to see my doctor and get back to school, I didn't want to leave England. I think deep down I knew my mental health had gotten really bad again and I needed help, and that's a really daunting feeling to deal with. I forced myself to call my insurance company for a referral to a therapist as soon as I got home and was back in therapy within about a month. That therapist was really great at helping me with some of the issues that I was struggling with, especially the anxiety. And after a few months I was feeling a lot calmer and more in control. But there were still things that were nagging at me that I just couldn't express to her and she didn't seem able to pull it out of me. Then I got diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, and then later I had to switch insurance companies. By that point I knew I was kind of ready for a new therapist, so the insurance change provided a good excuse/opportunity.

I went to campus to get my consultation/referral, I had switched to campus healthcare so I had to go through them to find someone off campus. I delayed going for a couple months. I switched providers in August, I didn't go to the counseling center until October, and only after having a really bad panic attack. I went in for the consultation thinking of the last therapist I'd seen there and how I hoped they could find me someone like her but off campus and able to see me long term. That's when my mental health miracle happened.

That therapist was now working off campus, was covered by my provider, was able to start seeing me the following week, AND her office was 5 minutes down the road from my apartment.

It was too much to just be a coincidence.

That was back in late October. I'd was worried she wouldn't be able to see me until after Thanksgiving, but she had something that following week, which meant we had a good couple months to work together before Christmas and my trip to London with my mom and sister. After our first appointment we decided to meet twice a week, which at the time made me feel like, "wow, I must be worse than I thought," but after some time it made a lot of sense and made the sessions so much more productive. At some point I'll probably switch to once a week but even now, several months later, I'm not ready yet. You'd think by now I'd understand myself better but I'm learning with each day that I'm much more complex than I give myself credit for. We all are.



The difficulty with mental health is there's no quick fix. Medication can help with some things, but it doesn't solve everything. Therapy is great but it takes a ton of time! You have to work through all the issues, including things that you might have already dismissed as not important. You think the problem is ABC but you get into it and realize it's also XYZ. I'm not brave enough to get into all the things that she and I are working on, but one day I will be. The more I got into therapy the more I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. I'm still exploring Wonderland and discovering all sorts of crazy things, but I'm also gaining all the knowledge I'll need to eventually climb back out of the rabbit hole. I'm learning to be patient and to be compassionate towards myself. To be quiet and listen to my inner voice that I've been stifling and silencing for too long. It's not an easy process, nor is it a quick one, but it's worth the time and energy and bravery that each session requires.

I still struggle with being open about my experiences. In some situations I just don't feel safe talking about my mental health. Not everyone understands and there are still a lot of people who think we're making it all up. I'm not entirely sure those people are as happy as they pretend. Not everyone struggles with severe mental health issues, but I think everyone falls somewhere on the spectrum. Some people really can make themselves feel better by thinking positively or meditating or exercising. Some of us need extra help. There's no shame in that.

I always say, if you're just having a bad day or a bad week, play your favorite music, try meditation, try thinking happy thoughts. But if your bad day or week has turned into a bad month which has turned into a bad year which has turned into you honestly can't remember the last time you were truly happy?......go see someone, as soon as possible. Go see your doctor, go through the referral process for a therapist, go see the counseling services at your school, do whatever you have to do but just do it. You deserve to be happy. And don't listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. Yes, life is tough and you're going to have bad days, but you should be having more good days than bad so if you're not, get yourself the help you need and deserve. You are a special, beautiful, unique, magical snowflake and that is a good thing. You are precious and loved and wanted. And it really does get better.

xo
Andrea


Sunday, May 7, 2017

The importance of treating yourself

Having fresh flowers in my apartment is a small luxury with a big impact on my mood.

I have learned over the years, especially since starting grad school, that you shouldn't wait or depend on others to treat you from time to time and reward/celebrate your own accomplishments. There's a popular saying that you can't expect others to love you until you love yourself, and I think this is a similar concept. If you don't reward yourself or treat yourself to the things you love, you're not setting an example to others in your life that you deserve these things. It's even more important to treat yourself occasionally if you're the type of person who tends to reward and celebrate others. Also please note, as I will discuss later, I'm not talking about spending large amounts of money, the focus should be on how it makes you feel not how much you spend.

As someone who's been single for most of her life, I learned not to wait for someone to give me flowers or buy my jewelry, and that these things sometimes mean more when I buy them for myself than when they're given to me. For a lot of people I know and talk to, the thought of buying themselves flowers or going to the movies by themselves "just because" feels weird or wrong somehow. Why should it ever be wrong to treat ourselves the way we deserve to be treated and would want to be treated by the people in our lives?

To celebrate my ABD status we "upgraded" our usual lunch on Sundays to include a glass of prosecco and soufflé.


When it comes to celebrating life's milestones, why wait for someone to say, "hey, you did this amazing thing! we should celebrate!" I'm a huge advocate for rewarding yourself, for big and small accomplishments. Sometimes this involves me saying to my family, "I want to do something special for my birthday," or "Let's order prosecco and dessert at lunch this weekend to celebrate [insert PhD accomplishment of the moment]". As a grad student especially, there are so many miserable, stressful moments, when you get a victory, you celebrate it, whether it's simply surviving the semester or passing a huge milestone in your program.

But you can also celebrate little things, or do something nice/fun for yourself for no other reason than simply because you're amazing and you deserve it. I think this is something that a lot of us struggle with. My generation seems plagued by imposter syndrome and low self-esteem, combined with anxiety and depression and a whole host of other issues. Personally I don't think we're the first generation to deal with this, we're probably just the first to be so open and vocal about it. But with all of this comes an natural instinct to downplay our accomplishments and tell ourselves that that promotion at work/acceptance to present at a conference/landing a new client/earning a great commission/etc is just part of the normal routine or isn't anything special and doesn't deserve recognition, even from yourself. We also convince ourselves that we're not really that great, we don't deserve a little thing to cheer us up, we're not that special so why bother?

And we really need to stop.

I was recently talking about finally earning my PhD Candidacy and my ABD status in my program (ABD means All But Dissertation for those wondering) in a YouTube video update. And in the video I was getting a bit caught up in how impressed I was with myself for everything I'd accomplished this past year in school and I immediately started apologizing and saying I wasn't "trying to brag". I had to be reminded by one of my amazing subscribers and friends that it's not bragging to say you're proud of yourself. (Thanks Belinda, I needed that reminder!) And it's so true! But we (especially us women) seem to be trained to think that being proud of our accomplishments and celebrating those achievements publicly is "bragging" or waving our own flag a bit too much. And that's really sad. Like, really really sad. Why do we do this?!

So I've long been an advocate of celebrating and rewarding myself, or simply treating myself to little things from time to time to cheer myself up or to remind myself that there are good things in life to look forward to. Some of these things cost more than others. Some involve other people, some I do just on my own. But they all make me happy and remind me to appreciate all I've done and reward myself for the hard work I've put in. This semester I bought myself three gifts, a pen, a card holder, and a ring, to celebrate my portfolio review pass, my comp exam pass, and my colloquy pass. Each one was a higher value than the one before because the accomplishment was bigger. But none of them were extremely expensive. And now, when I use these items, I think about these accomplishments and milestones and feel proud of what I've achieved. It's a good feeling.

Pen from Swarovski to celebrate my portfolio review pass.

Card holder from Ted Baker to celebrate passing my Comp Exam.

The ring I bought myself from Swarovski to celebrate my ABD status and earning my PhD Candidacy. 
And as for dealing with critics that want to judge how women, especially single women, spend their own money? Just ignore them. Society (as a general collective) is threatened by nothing more than smart, independent women, with money of their own. And people just love tearing down a woman who happens to love nice things. We're shallow and superficial and there must be a man somewhere paying for it all. For those of us in and/or interested in the beauty community on YouTube, all we have to do is read the comments of any luxury beauty/lifestyle YouTube channel and we find examples of this kind of nastiness and criticism. And it's so damaging. It only reinforces our natural instinct to NOT purchase something frivolous as an occasional treat or reward. But I say screw them. I work hard in my life. Maybe I make frivolous purchases, maybe I buy stuff I don't "need". Actually, there's not maybe about it. I KNOW I make frivolous purchases and buy stuff I don't "need", but I really don't care. I spend my money wisely, I save up for most of these little rewards, I stick within a certain budget. I'm still paying my bills. It's not like I'm spending my PhD stipend and student loans on Chanel bags or Cartier jewelry. I admit I'm extravagant but I'm not completely irresponsible lol. 

But money is a very subjective thing. What's "reasonable" to me might be absolutely reckless spending to someone else. So the main point I want to make, is that none of these rewards or treats needs to be of a material sort or cost you a lot of money. In fact some of the things I do cost very little/are free. You have to choose what best fits your budget, your lifestyle, your personality, etc. Personally, I love shopping, so telling myself I'm going to take an afternoon just to go read a book at a coffee shop and buy one item at Sephora, is one of my favorite things to do. Now sure, one item could cost you a bit, but it could also be just a $5 sheet mask that you later use to pamper yourself. If you don't like shopping, maybe you skip Sephora and just read at the coffee shop. I know for most grad students taking an afternoon off work to just read for fun is a huge luxury. The point is, find what works for you. 

I recently enjoyed an afternoon at the Scottsdale Quarter doing some shopping at Sephora and then reading at Press Coffee, it was a great afternoon and so relaxing. I definitely needed it after all the stress of the semester!
Here is a list of some ideas:

  • Read at a coffee shop
  • Buy yourself flowers, figure out what shop near you has the best deals and take advantage. My local Costco has 2 dozen roses for only $17, and they tend to last me at least a full week.
  • Take a walk/hike (not as a workout but just to slowly wander and enjoy the scenery)
  • Take an evening at home to enjoy a drink, put on a face mask, and watch Netflix (I advocate doing this at least once a week!)
  • Go to the movies, with a friend or by yourself
  • Buy yourself a cupcake at your favorite bakery, have a rough day a work? Buy a cupcake. Have a good day at work? Buy a cupcake! Seriously, even at the "nice" places they're usually not more than $4 and you totally deserve that cupcake
  • Meeting friends for lunch or happy hour? Upgrade your usual glass of wine or cocktail to a glass of prosecco or champagne, it's not going to cost that much more than your usual drink order but will feel much more special.
  • Go visit your local museum. Depending on the museum this might not even cost you. In the UK a lot of museums are free and during the two summers I spent in England I would just spend an afternoon exploring different museums. But even here in Phoenix, the Phoenix Art Museum is free one evening every week. You can also find deals and discounts for a lot of other cultural things in your town, so do some research and treat yourself to some art and culture.
  • Live in a city with great weather? Go for a picnic! Take an afternoon to just go hang out in a park under a tree and relax. I can't really do this in Arizona but I did this constantly both summers I lived in Oxford and I miss it so much.
  • If you know you've got a big milestone coming up, save up some money for something you've been wanting. For me this is usually either something sparkly from Swarovski or something floral printed at Ted Baker lol. But it could also be a new video game you've been wanting, a new fancy pen you've been lusting after, a new pair of Nikes for the gym, etc. Even people that aren't big on designer items, probably still have something they really want but usually talk themselves out of buying. Just got a big promotion and you've been eyeing an Apple watch but could never justify the cost? Come on, if you can afford it and you really want it, you've earned it.
  • Money not an issue but you just don't like buying "things"? Ok, how about giving yourself a weekend at a nice hotel in a nearby town and just getting away for a couple days. Rewards and treats don't have to be about material items, they can also be about experiences. 
Celebration at home with a mini bottle of rose and a cupcake from Caketini.
These are just a few examples but hopefully they give you some ideas of how you can adapt this to your own life. The main point is finding things that you love/love to do, but rarely allow yourself the chance to indulge in. These days we're working harder than ever but not really enjoying ourselves along the way. We're living to work not working to live. We're losing any sense of work/life balance. It's ok to stop and have a Netflix night or sleep in ridiculously late on a Saturday morning. It's definitely worth it to spend an afternoon at the movies (even by yourself) or sitting in a coffee shop reading a novel (or writing one! that's a huge luxury for me!). 

My general tip is, if there's something you really want or want to do, and are able to do, but constantly talk yourself out of it, just do it. It's totally worth it and you absolutely deserve it.

Let me know in the comments what/if you do anything to treat yourself.

xo 
Andrea