I’m a night owl, and it’s been a long-time fantasy of mine to convince the world to run on my personal clock.
This is what it would look like:
- Sleep from midnight to 8 a.m.
- Take a couple of hours to get my act together and get to work
- Typical eight-hour workday would run roughly from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. (lunch at 2:00)
- Dinner at 7 or 8 pm.
- Personal/family/downtime until midnight. Repeat.
Totally impractical, I know. Like I said, it’s just a personal fantasy – an absolutely ridiculous fantasy for anyone with young children. Besides, who wants to deal with a bunch of cheerfully riotous morning people who would surely object to such an arrangement? You bright-eyed, bushy-tailed types know who you are.
This quarantine is allowing me to live my sleep cycle fantasy…which would be awesome if I was actually able to sleep right now.
I can fall asleep pretty easily, but I can’t stay asleep. I find myself waking up after a few hours. My mind starts racing about this coronavirus mess, and I can’t turn it off. I start worrying about my family, then my students, people that are sick, people that are taking care of the sick, our country, the world…next thing you know, I’ve been tossing and turning for a couple of hours.
Stress-induced insomnia is not part of the fantasy.
Insomnia is nothing new. As long as there have been people on this earth, the quest for a decent night’s sleep has been an elusive one, more for some though, than others.
The causes of insomnia are varied and numerous. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) categorizes several types of insomnia:
This is usually temporary, brought on by a significant life event: job change, move, sudden bad news, oh, I don’t know, maybe a pandemic….
This is more long term. It is characterized as having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least three nights per week for three months or longer. Chronic insomnia has many causes.
This occurs with another condition: anxiety, depression, or any number of medical conditions that make it hard to sleep. Chronic pain often causes co-morbid insomnia.
People who have difficulty falling asleep at the beginning of the night have onset insomnia.
People with maintenance insomnia wake up during the night and have difficulty returning to sleep. Looks like I’ve rung the bell twice here: acute-maintenance insomnia.
Why does stress affect our ability to sleep?
At our most basic level, we are chemical beings. So it’s no surprise that the act of falling asleep is a chemical reaction. NSF describes the process of falling asleep as happening on the molecular level. Simply put:
Neurotransmitters—chemicals that act on neurons (nerve cells) in the brain tell our body whether it should be asleep or awake. Once the signal has gone out that it is time to sleep, neurons (chemical and electrical messengers) switch off the signals that help keep us awake.
When Dr. Candace Pert discovered neurotransmitters, she gave them an appropriate nickname: “molecules of emotion”. Turns out stress hormones are transmitted through neurotransmitters too and when you have too much adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol—also known as stress response hormones—coursing through your veins, you enter a state of hyper-arousal which is not a state you want to be in if you are trying to sleep.
Fight or Flight anyone?
Want better sleep? Try managing your stress!
NSF recommends three techniques that can be useful to manage stress throughout the day and at bedtime.
I was at the grocery store a few days ago. I loathe going to the grocery store during regular days, let alone the pandemic time we are living in now. It was crowded, there weren’t enough checkers, and check-out lines were long. Everyone was dutifully standing behind the pieces of electrical tape keeping us six feet apart. I’m next to check out when an elderly woman wanders tentatively among the lines and settles in…right…in front…of me…..Whaaaat?
I could feel the physical stress response starting: my brain began throwing lightning bolts, my heart was pumping, and my blood pressure jackhammered. After a brief, tense conversation with the woman, I realized that she was simply confused (understandable) and let her go in front of me in line. But I was still feeling all that adrenaline and stress.
She turned around. I frantically punched at my watch looking for the Breathe app and gave myself a tongue-lashing internally while breathing in time with the vibration on my wrist.
The moral of this story is not that I’m an unreasonable idiot with no compassion for confused old ladies, but that I did something that really helped my stress response. After a couple rounds of deep, measured breathing, my body functions returned to normal. I paid for my groceries, and the world didn’t spin off its axis because I let someone cut in front of me.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) categorizes meditation as a mind and body practice that increases calmness and physical relaxation. It also improves psychological balance, aids in coping with illness, and enhances overall health and well-being. Mind and body practices are described as interactions among brain, body, and behavior.
There are hundreds of types of meditation that fall into several categories encompassing different philosophies, religions, and practices. You may already be practicing meditation without even realizing it:
- If you pray, you are practicing spiritual meditation; almost all religions consider contemplative prayer as spiritual meditation.
- If you garden, practice yoga, or take relaxing walks through the woods, you are practicing movement meditation.
- If you are a frazzled mom who finds yourself taking deep breaths and repeating to yourself over and over “I can do this!” amidst the chaos that reigns in your home during this quarantine, you are practicing mantra meditation.
Meditation doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated. To get started, find a quiet spot, sit, and concentrate on your breath.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This is a simple technique that you can do standing, sitting, or lying down. The idea is to mindfully tense and release groups of muscles in a certain order. I find it helpful to go top to bottom or bottom to top just to be sure I don’t miss a muscle group. You breathe in while tensing and breathe out while relaxing the muscles.
The idea is that it is hard to feel anxious if your breathing is even and your body is relaxed.
I love this one because it incorporates all three areas: mind, body, and breathing. This is my go-to on those nights that I wake up at 2 a.m. with my mind and heart racing. When I concentrate on breathing and muscle contractions, I can’t focus on all the things that are stressing me out. I can fall back to sleep, which means I wake up rested and ready to face another day. Whatever that new day may or may not bring.
I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only person losing a little sleep right now.
If you aren’t, take comfort that you are not alone. Hopefully, you find these techniques helpful – and you can get some rest and relaxation soon.
What do you do to relax? Share your insomnia busting tips with the rest of us in the comments!
For more information on insomnia and relaxation techniques:
How to Sleep Better: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/sleep/getting-better-sleep.htm
Stress and Insomnia: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/stress-and-insomnia
Meditation: In Depth: https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth
Which Type of Meditation is Right For Me?: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/types-of-meditation
Stress Management: Doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation: https://www.cardiosmart.org/healthwise/uz22/25/uz2225
How Sleep Works: https://www.sleep.org/articles/how-sleep-works/