Stressful Times & Sleepless Nights; My Journey to Sleeping Soundly.
I have long believed that sleep is one of the foundational pillars of wellness and yet my relationship with sleep has been a complicated one. As a child I had what I now believe to be a fear of falling asleep, something that followed me right through to adulthood. This is something that has been synonymous with my experience of anxiety. Nighttime is when I was alone with my thoughts, when there was no escape from the feelings of worry, fear and panic. To put it simply, sleep comes easily when we feel safe, and anxiety has us believing that we are not! I have never been one of those people who falls asleep on long haul flights, unless I’m at the point of total exhaustion before boarding. I am not someone who takes a nap easily either, again unless burnout is looming. I’ve had to make a consistent effort with my bedtime routine and what is referred to as sleep hygiene to get it to where it is now, and while it’s far from ideal it’s certainly much improved.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us know that feeling when we are lying in bed, sensing we won’t be able to fall asleep; the tossing and turning, the rumination and the restlessness. Many of us also know what poor or interrupted or not enough sleep looks and feels like for us. We know what it is to feel so tired and sluggish that our body feels like a dead weight. Many of us may even struggle to remember the last time we didn’t feel tired! There are hundred’s of reasons this occurs which will vary from person to person; stress, shift work, parenting, mental health concerns, hormonal changes, a Global Pandemic, the list goes on and on. While I’m not about to analyze sleep patterns or offer advice to anyone, I do believe in the value of sharing individual experiences. What I realise now, in my 30’s, is that there are two things that have damaged my sleep more than anything else. The first is that I spent a huge amount of time and energy ignoring the impact of stressful situations on my body and therefore on my sleep. The second was that I was oblivious to the state of my mental health and the significant influence it has on my emotional and physical health too.
I’ve learned unhealthy habits over the years. The ‘bad habits’ that served as a coping mechanism for a period of time but in the long run were not sustainable. I briefly spoke about sleep in Me, Myself & Grief and my experience in the early days of grief. How I was unable to sleep yet lying in bed was all I had the energy for. It felt as though the weight of the grief kept me glued to my bed, but the pain kept me from sleeping. It was also around this time that I attempted to fight off sleep for as long as I could. I wanted to avoid the soul crushing feeling upon waking. The split second when I was half way between awake and asleep. The split second when I would forget what had happened. Then came the wave of pain, flooding me with the memory that he was gone, and I would relive the grief as if I was being told it again for the first time. Every single time I woke. Avoiding sleep seemed like a good alternative! When Dad passed away I was in the middle of finishing my final year in college, I was up to my ears in case studies and exam prep and yet all I could think about was him, and my grief. Depleted and drained, I wasn’t coping (or sleeping) but I pushed through. To this day I don’t know how! I got through my exams and submitted my case studies and I qualified as a Complementary Health Therapist weeks after he died. I share this because the reality is that sometimes what is going on in our life will prevent us from getting the sleep and rest we need. We are in survival mode and we can continue within that for a time, but it is not feasible in the long run.
There have been an array of times in my life when my sleep suffered as a result of what I was going through at that time; exams, work stress, financial worries, hormonal changes, my parents separation, moving to a new country, grief, break ups and heartbreak and the list goes on and on. These are not experiences exclusive to me. They are universal. Naturally these events in life impact our health and our sleep in some shape or form. Arianna Huffington said it best “The problem is not with stress. The problem is when stress becomes cumulative”. I have come to realise that in not recognising the affect these stressful situations were having on my brain and body I neglected myself. I developed bad habits that after a time became my default. My health and my sleep suffered more and more with every bit of stress (no matter how small) added on top of the ever growing stack of stress I was carrying around with me. Like a tall stack of books, it was inevitable it would eventually come crashing down on top of me.
A vicious and never ending stress cycle of reactivity and apprehension would leave me feeling further depleted and drained and yet unable to sleep soundly. In recent years however, I am thankful to say that there has been some significant improvements. The biggest one came from realizing that I had control over completing this cycle of stress is some very manageable and proactive ways. In simple ways. Using my body to physically move and work off that build up, but also to alert my body and brain that I am no longer in that stress cycle. Signalling to my brain and body that it is safe to come out of that stress cycle. Dancing around my apartment has been one of the most effective ways of doing this for me. My heart rate goes up. I breathe deeper. I smile and laugh. It leaves me and my body feeling good and no longer stuck in that stress cycle. Walking and yoga have a similar effect on me and have proven to be highly effective in allowing me to feel safe within my body. This has had such a profound effect on my sleep.
When it comes to my mental health, there has been many up’s and down’s and I continue on this journey with more awareness and knowledge of myself with each passing year. What has become glaringly obvious to me now is that my sleep is the first thing to be affected when I’m struggling. It is the first indicator that I’m under pressure, stressed, overwhelmed, anxious often when I might be unaware of feeling this way within myself. Leaving this unattended in the past has led to a worsening in my anxiety levels, an increase in my panic attacks and sometimes a very low depression. My goal as I move forward in my life is to consciously listen to what my body is telling me when it gives me these signals and to consciously choose to care for myself, to invest some time and energy in nurturing my mind and body and to take a step back to rest and reset where possible.
During this crazy time of COVID our lives have been turned upside down, routines gone out the window, and with that our sleeping patterns too. There is no denying, no matter what our situation is right now, that it has been a challenging and stressful year. So, while I’m not here to tell you about the importance of getting a good night sleep, I am also not here to tell you how long you should be sleeping every night. Nor am I here to tell you how your bedtime routine should look. I will however say this; pay attention to what your body is telling you. Take the time to learn what your body’s needs are. Do you have more energy in the evening or in the morning? Do you feel fatigued or refreshed upon waking in the morning? Do you need help falling or staying asleep? I believe that we can buy all the sleep products available on the market, but if we do not look at the underlying reason there’s an interruption to or an issue with our sleep to begin with then the problem will continue. That has certainly been the case for me. With that said however there are a handful of products I purchase on a regular basis that improve the experience of my wind-down before bed and for those I am eternally grateful because they have allowed me to start enjoying the experience of preparing for bed instead of dreading it.
The reality is this; there is no miracle product or fix.
Developing a bedtime ritual I look forward to, taking time to complete the stress cycle and establishing the connections between my mental health and my sleep have all been vital in enhancing my relationship with sleep and in turn my relationship with myself. I may not sleep soundly every night, but it’s close enough, and that’s a drastic improvement from where I started!