Do you sometimes lie awake at night because you can’t stop thinking about your endless to-do list, or a stressful event that’s worrying you?
Most people have busy lives and know that there are ebbs and flows in just how hectic it can get.
And when important events, activities or commitments come along, life can quickly become quite stressful.
During the more stressful times, there’s a chance you’ll find it hard to switch your brain off at night. It’s as if the mind turns on at the same moment you turn the bedside light off.
A long and sleepless night
These are the kind of sleepless nights which start out as slightly annoying. But they can easily become frustrating and upsetting as you enter a period of insomnia.
There’s also the possibility that the stress of a bad night’s sleep will linger into the next day. It’s not easy to ignore stinging eyes and a fuzzy head.
I spent the whole of the last month in this state of bad sleep, stress, and impaired daytime functioning. And I admit I found it hard to cope.
There are several reasons why I was suddenly flung back into such awful insomnia, but it still caught me by surprise how bad it was.
If you ever go through periods of days, weeks or even months like this, then the lessons I learned will hopefully help you.
Only 24 hours in a day
January was so stressful because I took an intensive course that has a reputation for being brutally demanding – both on your time and your mental capacity.
Whilst the weekends were a little better, and I only worked for around 8 hours each Saturday and Sunday, a typical weekday went like this:
- 06:00 wake up and get ready.
- 07:00 leave the house.
- 08:15 arrive at the center.
- Between 18:00 and 20:00 leave the college (With 30 minutes total break during the day).
- Eat a quick dinner and study for 3 to 5 hours.
- Some time between 00:00 and 02:00 stop studying and try to sleep.
So the entire day was taken up by activities related to the course. This meant I had no time to do any of the key activities that I know help me sleep. More on that in a bit.
Sleep – what’s that?
Even if I’d managed to sleep during the whole time I was in bed, I would have only had between 4 and 6 hours Sunday through Thursday. It’s not an ideal amount, but it’s just enough to get by on.
The reality though is that for the first 2 weeks I probably only slept for between 2 and 5 hours each night.
Sometimes I would lie awake for a couple of hours, then finally drift off. Other times I was so shattered I would fall asleep straight away, but wake up between 3 am and 5 am.
And the less sleep I got, the more I started to worry about the lack of sleep. I was falling into the vicious circle of sleep anxiety.
Multiple layers of stress and sleep-disrupting factors
As with so many people who have busy lives, there were various factors which created a potent sleep-killing cocktail:
- The intensity of the course is unusually stressful.
- There were daily assessments to constantly plan ahead for.
- There was no time to do positive things for sleep like exercise or relaxation exercises.
- My eating habits changed as sleep deprivation led to choosing higher calorie food.
- My previously stable sleep schedule was totally changed.
- I arrived and left in darkness (January is dark in England!) so my body clock was even more confused.
- There was no time to separate day and night. I just stopped studying and got into bed.
- I allowed myself to fall into the ‘worrying about sleep’ vicious circle.
- I had a couple of other normal life stresses to deal with throughout.
Trying to cope
After the first week, I caved in and took a sleeping pill for a few nights to try to reset by body clock.
As much as I’m a believer in following good sleep hygiene, I do think that taking a mild sleeping tablet for a few days during a bad period is okay to do.
But in addition, I did try to find things which would help, and I think it illustrates how there are always some options, however small:
- Even though the lunch break was short, I went outside in the daylight to eat.
- At the weekends I went out for a walk in the daytime to help keep my internal body clock functioning.
- I tried to do some exercise on Saturdays and Sundays.
- I tried to adapt to the new sleep schedule, keeping the getting up time the same at the weekends.
- I kept a detailed ‘to do’ list which I filled in before going to bed.
- I talked to family and friends about how I was feeling.
- I tried to stay positive during the day that I would be fine, even when I was exhausted.
What could have been done better?
Looking back, there are some constructive steps I could have taken, but just didn’t. I may write about sleep, but that doesn’t mean I always get it right!
- You can always make some time to mark a break between the day and night. Even if it’s just 10 minutes to do something calming.
- I should have reduced my caffeine and sugar intake, which soared to get me through the long days.
- I could have slowly changed my sleep schedule before the course began.
- I could have done more relaxation exercises instead of lying awake worrying about the course.
January for me was a period of exceptional stress and time constraints. Fortunately, my normal life isn’t like that, and I usually have more freedom to practice better sleep habits.
But the fact remains that when put under pressure, I didn’t cope as well as I would have liked. I finished the course, and got a great grade, which I’m happy about.
Despite that, I would have liked to have achieved the grade and dealt with the stress and insomnia better. Maybe next time.
Stress and anxiety can disrupt your sleep if you don’t keep a handle on how you’re coping with life.
Your mind can be your own worst enemy at night. And especially, as I found out, when you’re suddenly put under more pressure than you’re used to.
Maybe your own life circumstances make my January seem like a walk in the park. I know there are many people who have a much more stressful life on a permanent basis.
But even if you do, or are just going through a bad phase like I was, try to remember that there are always effective techniques for improving your sleep, even if they seem like small details.
Does stress keep you awake too?
Do stress, work, study or the worries of everyday life keep you awake? How do you cope with your mind when it’s too active at night? Please leave a comment below.