Anxiety Around Sleep
If you are a shift worker, chances are you have been faced with insomnia. It can particularly hit hard when rotating shifts. Having always been a heavy sleeper and needing long hours of sleep, I was first faced with insomnia when I started working shifts.
I started having severe insomnia when I was working mostly night shifts. In one of the hospitals I worked at, I would often work eight nights shifts of eight hours in a row, then would have a day off, work another night, have two days off and then would go back to straight eight to ten nights in a row. On my days off, I wanted to have a "normal" day, so I would switch to being awake during the day instead of sleeping. This meant that I would have to switch back and forth to sleeping during the day and during the night. I was also training to become an Olympian sprint cyclist at the time, so I would wake up or skip sleep altogether, to make it to certain training or races. I would work all night, race all day, sleep a couple of hours, and then go to work.
Eventually, I started to routinely only be able to sleep two hours. I would feel more and more tired, wanting to sleep, but being unable to. My anxiety around sleep became high, because I knew I had to sleep, while being unable to. I was dreading going to bed, because I knew that I would lay there unable to sleep, and if I eventually did, I knew that it wouldn't last longer than a couple of hours. I kept thinking "What's the point?" This started to create a vicious cycle; the more I became obsessed about sleeping, the more it increased my anxiety around sleep, and the less I would be able to sleep. This felt like I was hopeless and would never be able to sleep again. The more I wanted to sleep, the less I was able to, creating extreme frustration, anxiety and fatigue.
After talking to my father, who was also a night worker, I started to make changes that would save my sleep cycle. Firstly, I had to go on sleeping pills to reset my sleep cycle. initially, I would take them right before going to sleep, extending my continuous sleep from two hours to four hours. While this amount of sleep still sounds short, it was an improvement. I also stopped obsessing on getting all my sleep continuously, and started accepting getting sleep of all form, either continuous or intermittently. Instead of staying in bed when I would wake up, If I didn't fall asleep within fifteen minutes, I would get up if I didn't fall back asleep within fifteen minutes and do something. This would break the cycle of staying in bed, feeling angry and frustrated from not being able to sleep, which would guarantee insomnia. I would make sure to leave the room to dissociate the frustration of sleeplessness from my bedroom, and would either watch a comedy, read a book, meditate, or do something productive that I would feel good about. That way, not being able to sleep would not feel like a waste. I would try to see it as an opportunity to do something I liked or that I had been putting off, instead of something negative. After being up for a while, if I felt like I would be able to sleep, I would try again, making sure not to stay in bed more than fifteen minutes of sleeplessness, to not get sucked into the frustration. If I still couldn't sleep, I would get up again and try again later.
Since my problem wasn't falling asleep after work, but rather staying asleep, I eventually changed the time that I would take a sleeping pill. I would naturally fall asleep and wake up after a couple hours as I normally would, then, depending how much time I had left to sleep, I would take either a full or a half of a sleeping pill to help me fall asleep again. While sleeping pills made me feel like I was groggy and hungover, this would at least force me to regulate my sleep cycle again. Not being able to sleep would make me feel the same way anyways, so being able to have some sleep was a bonus. I eventually tried to fall asleep without any sleeping pill, using the same methods previously mentioned. If I still couldn't fall asleep, then I would take one. Gradually, after around six months, I started to be able to wean off of sleeping pills and learned to fall asleep on my own again. This was, however, not without waking up.
To help ease my anxiety around sleep, I tried to work on changing my thought pattern, by reminding myself that the worst that would happen if I was unable to sleep, was that I would feel tired. Doing something productive also helped me feel like the time awake wasn't wasted, instead of stressing over if I would be able to sleep or not and getting frustrated. I also had to make other changes to be able to bring my sleep cycle back to normal. I had to resist the temptation to get up in the middle of my sleep to train or go participate in an activity that was going on, as doing so was the same as deciding to wake up each night at three in the morning to go somewhere. On my days off, I stayed on the night schedule, by staying up until five or six in the morning, and sleeping during the day. That way, I was not constantly switching from day to night sleep, staying on a steady sleep pattern. While this helped my sleep, I would miss most of the daily activities, most of the sunlight and would be up all the time while people were asleep. It felt lonely, but making the best of it, I would educated myself by reading books, watching documentaries and training in the middle of the night.
Stressing about not sleeping will only make you sleep less, creating a vicious cycle. I eventually left that job and went on more reasonable shift work, that would allow more balance to my daily life. If you are in that vicious cycle, try not to get discouraged, try on different strategies and have patience. It will take time to readjust.