I keep reminding myself that I’m not alone in this. For whatever reason, on Sunday nights, my sleep is disrupted. Seemingly only my stress level is to blame.
‘Anticipatory stress’ is a thing.
I have been working on this issue all year, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe I need to stop thinking of it as “working on” or as “a problem” or even as “stress.”
Why would I snap awake at 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday night when there is nothing to worry about?
I tried a new experiment, which was to soak in Epsom salts and go to bed early.
I’m chill, I’m relaxed, I’m so chill that people mistake me for the Big Lebowski...
The warm bath was really quite lovely. I discovered a new album by one of my favorite singers, and I soaked and listened to that and finished an excellent novel with a twist ending. Couldn’t ask for more.
Then I went to bed early, as stated, not a care in the world... only to snap awake in the middle of the night.
This doesn’t usually happen on other nights of the week.
I have tried so many things to generally relax more and improve my quality of sleep:
Spending more time in natural light earlier in the day
White noise generator
Cutting off news at a designated time in the evening
Monitoring hydration from morning to evening, and cutting off fluids
No sweets or snacks after dinner
I don’t have real situational stress (other than the pandemic) in the way that I have in the past. No pressing health issues, money concerns, relationship problems, noisy neighbors, none of that.
Is it my job then?
I don’t think so. I have good relationships with my boss and my immediate team. As far as I know I’m well-regarded for being on time and getting stuff done. I had a good performance review and all that.
(If anyone else is reading this and thinking, Gee, must be nice - well then, at least you have a clear and specific answer to something you can be working on).
I like obvious problems because they can be resolved.
This is more like a vague problem miasma.
Is this a non-problem?
That is another ‘solution’ for many problems. Simply decide that this is not really a problem in your life and resolve to ignore it.
For instance, we have neighbors on our floor who have two hound dogs. Whenever they are in the hallway, they bay and bark and skitter around like they’re on a fox hunt. But then they’re gone, perhaps to hunt an actual fox. This is a two-minute annoyance that happens maybe once a week. If they were my dogs, I’d be embarrassed, but they aren’t, and this is not my problem.
Not being able to sleep well every Sunday night is a problem in my world. It means I start the week tired and struggling to focus. I seem to require about ten hours of sleep a day, which I am only able to get on weekends. Therefore I become progressively more tired all through the week. I only start to feel rested and productive on Saturday.
Obviously I’ve been making it through the weeks. I’m able to manage. I get my job done, keep dinner on the table, the apartment is reasonably clean, laundry is caught up, groceries are coming in the door.
It’s just that I’m so tired all the time.
What about a nap during the day?
I’ve thought about this. Boy have I thought about it.
There is a constraint here, in that I am in a support role. The main function of my job is to be available for sudden questions or “tag-ups,” which are ad hoc meetings. On more than one occasion, I have stepped away for two minutes to use the restroom, only to return to a meeting in progress where three or four people are waiting for me. There isn’t really a way to structure my day where I could go sleep for three hours, which is what I need.
Work! It interferes with my nap schedule!
How do other people deal with the general existential situation of being in Work Mode 40-50 hours a week?
I try to remind myself of all the stretches in my life when I had to get on with things and I was sleeping more like five hours a night, or three. I still managed to stay employed and collect paychecks and turn in my homework and all that. The only bad things that really happened were that I went around with circles under my eyes and I was tired all the time.
It seems like one answer for the Sunday Scaries is to lower the bar for what counts as a good night of sleep, to make it less of a big deal if there is the occasional rough night, to not have such a dramatic shift in energy level from weekend to weekday.
That all feels so vague, like it would take a long time to notice a difference. I prefer something specific and actionable, or, in other words, I am no more patient than anyone else. I want instant results! I want to download something directly into my brain with the touch of a finger.
I looked up ‘sleep consultant’ and was alarmed by the price - although I might pay it eventually - and the fact that the local person I found is not available on Saturdays or Sundays. Oops.
I am considering hypnosis.
I am also considering something I have used to good effect in the past, which is to plan a more strenuous workout on Sunday to the point that I am too tired to do anything other than sleep deeply.
My attitude right now is, if I’m already having lower-quality sleep on Sunday nights, then I don’t really have anything to lose. I’ve already managed to rule out a few things, such as a weighted blanket or having the temperature too hot or too cool.
Let’s be methodical about it.
What are some things that you absolutely know interfere with your sleep? Are you going through the checklist and taking active steps to mitigate each one?
What are some things that lead to better sleep, and you know it? Are you making sure to do those things?
What are we going to try next?
A pattern has become evident. I know it isn’t just me because there is this term “Sunday scaries” that indicates that many of us have mood issues on Sundays in general. I can only assume that I’m not the only person who consistently has trouble sleeping on Sunday nights.
There isn’t any particular reason for this, at least not on paper. I’m not being kept up by money worries, or relationship problems, or even loud neighbors. Our building is remarkably quiet at night.
OTHER THAN BEING IN A GLOBAL PANDEMIC EVERYTHING IS FINE
I wake up at basically the same time every morning, with or without an alarm, thanks to the little bird who sleeps in my bedroom, affectionately known as Beeps Peeps. She likes to mimic electronic sounds, including the travel alarm that she has not heard in years. This can be a useful trait - she has actually kept me from being late to work once or twice - but on three-day weekends and holidays it’s hard to remember how cute it is.
So it isn’t sleeping in too late on Sunday either.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time this year trying to figure out what it is that wakes me throughout the night on Sundays, messing up my track record and leaving me bleary and distracted each Monday.
I like my job, I work with really nice people, I have interesting things to do, I get a lot of autonomy, I don’t even have a dress code. There is a long list of things that other people can claim as legitimate grievances, reasons to be stressed out by their jobs. I don’t have any of those things - not that I haven’t in the past.
It seems to be simply the gear shift between my utterly formless, lounging weekends and the staccato pace of my weekday life.
Part of my brain pops up and starts thinking, “Get up early tomorrow, lots to do” and it just never shuts up.
It’s like one of those toy monkeys in every horror film. Its eyes glow red and it starts running around and clapping its cymbals together.
These are the sorts of things that happen on Sunday nights:
I wake up every twenty minutes and check the clock
I have nightmares that seem to go on for three hours
I have literal night terrors and jump out of bed, waking my poor husband, who has been dealing with that whole thing for ten years
I wake up at 5:30 am for no apparent reason and lie there like a sea lion
I go to bed extra-early and lie awake until 2:00 am like I’m jet lagged
A distinction about my sleep issues is that I take an OTC sleep aid. It works fine every other night. I can drift off in minutes. Same dose, Sunday night, about as useful as a breath mint.
Parasomnia issues have been a part of my life in one form or another since pre-kindergarten. I remember that it became a serious issue for me when I was about seven. So I have a lot of experience coming up with things to do at night, and different approaches to try. I’ve read thousands of pages of books and journal articles about sleep research and I’m determined to Try Everything.
Sleeplessness isn’t the worst thing that can befall someone, of course! I try to take it in a matter-of-fact way. Oh well, another one of these. Perhaps an approach that I try will help someone else. Maybe this will be the only night that this particular, individual distinct reason will come along and mess up my sleep. Cross it off.
I do occasionally have lovely, restful nights of sleep. I also often have fantastic three-hour naps. It’s getting easier.
So what’s up with Sunday nights? What have I tried?
Well, I can say with great certitude that there are some things that will keep me awake, me and probably any other person who tries them. One is eating a large portion of Mexican food followed by birthday cake earlier in the evening. Another is eating sweets too close to bedtime, something that I have confirmed and that I yet continue to do to myself from time to time.
Another is arguing with someone, another is reading politics at bedtime.
Obviously another is lying awake quite deliberately, reading when it’s past bedtime. I have finally gotten smart enough in midlife to quit tormenting myself in this way, and it does help to feel more rested.
Those are things to definitely avoid.
What have I tried to fall asleep more deeply?
Showering before bed
Same, but also drying my hair afterward
White noise (waterfall variety)
Going to bed an hour early and making sure everything is orderly first
Guided visualization (leaf drifting downstream, triggering for some reason)
Heated mattress pad / no heated mattress pad
Weighted blanket, the worst! Not for me
Drinking hot herbal tea earlier in the evening
Maybe it’s the sense of “Doing Something” that is not helping. Maybe I’m too conscious that I want this to work, in the same way that you can jinx yourself out of sneezing.
Have you ever tried to focus your attention on tying your shoes, remembering each loop step by step, and then found yourself unable to succeed until you looked away and went back to doing it by feel?
The situation is that I am finally at a time in my life when I can usually fall asleep right away six nights a week. About 80% of the time I sleep the night through without any issues. I’m between 7 and 8 hours most weeknights, and 10 or 11 hours on the weekends. It’s just this one particular night, when I seem to be too revved up to get down and stay down.
I am not done with my explorations. I’m not much of a creature of routine, and sooner or later some element of my lifestyle will change, either due to external circumstance or intentional experimentation. At some point, this blip in my life will quit blipping.
My goal for the time being is to increase my overall level of chillaxation. I seek to be a person of gravitas, a calming presence, to start winding down my tightly wound watch and maybe be less revved. Even if it doesn’t do anything for whatever is sucking away my sleep on Sunday nights, that attitude still feels worth cultivating.
It’s only been two weeks, and the results are indisputable. I made a minor tweak on my phone, it led to a pretty major behavior change, and now I’m sleeping almost two hours more per night on average.
I can’t believe it worked that well and that fast.
It’s actually a little embarrassing.
Not everyone feels this way, but for me, I feel like, if I was able to sleep then I obviously needed it. Not only will I refuse to apologize to anyone for sleeping, but if another person is actively interfering with my sleep, I will put them on blast and deal with it.
You! Have you ever woken someone else up because you were annoyed that they were sleeping? And they weren’t behind the wheel of a moving vehicle? Then you should probably reconsider what the heck is wrong with you.
Sleep is free and healthy. When other people are sleeping, you are then free to read or enjoy your alone time. So make the most of it.
Anyway. I sleep a lot because I’m a COVID survivor and I also have a parasomnia disorder. Sometimes I have issues sleeping, even with various OTC sleep aids, and I can struggle for weeks or months in this way. Being chronically sleep-deprived is bad for my productivity at work. So it’s quite a pleasant surprise when I’m able to sleep a lot.
This year I started to notice that I was sleep-procrastinating, which is staying up too late even when you’re tired because you’re so desperate for downtime. It’s a way for Night-Me to “get revenge” on Daytime-Me. You know, for having a job and responsibilities and stuff.
Sleep-procrastinating is a pernicious habit because the rewards are immediate. Look at me! Reading late at night! In my pajamas in my bed where I am so cozy! This is my favorite activity of all time!
Then there is Daytime-Me, crabby and irritable and tired, oh-so-tired, until it’s bedtime again and Night-Me gets this big ear-to-ear grin and starts the whole cycle over again.
I had a solid idea of what was behind this. My news queue. I knew without having to track metrics that my default mode was skimming my news app. I also knew that I was most likely to get myself into trouble with this after I was already in bed.
I made three tweaks, all of which work together.
First, I set up a bedtime routine in my Morning Routine app. It turns out that it takes me forty minutes to get ready for bed, partly because I see a periodontist now and I may have some of the most elaborate oral hygiene practices on the planet. So whenever I start that app, add at least forty minutes before my head hits the pillow.
To me, a bedtime routine is the number one keystone habit. It determines whether the household is always on time, early, or late. It determines quite a lot of health results. And it definitely determines whether everyone is fighting or basically getting along.
My bedtime routine is elaborate because I like to sleep until 7:30 am for an 8:00 am start at work. The more I do before bed, the less I have to do in the morning. Basically throw on clothes, straighten my hair, and make my tea.
Anyway, I had been using the bedtime routine app with some success, but then when I was finished, I would flop down and start skimming the news again. This practice was indeed streamlining my morning and making sure I remembered to start the dishwasher. But it wasn’t really helping me fight the bad habits and self-destructive tomfoolery of Night-Me.
Don’t feel the mogwai after midnight
I happened to stumble across an article that indicated I could customize my access to specific apps on my phone. As soon as I knew it was possible, I knew I wanted to do it.
This sort of thing only works if you trust yourself to be your own advocate. My superego is pretty good at driving the bus around here. I am not particularly vulnerable to psychological reactance, where we get mad at ourselves for setting limits. I just shrug and say to myself, Ah yes, I remember that I decided that was the best idea. Questioner Power.
Tweak One was setting up a bedtime routine that is gamified with a timer.
Tweak Two was setting a bedtime on my phone. Almost all apps are unusable between 10pm and 7am, which is a moot point since I’m still asleep at that time. I had to go back and add in a few apps, like the Morning Routine, that I use after 10.
Tweak Three was to set a one-hour time limit on my News app.
It turns out the third tweak was the biggest deal. I am now quite aware that every minute I skim through the news queue takes away one minute from reading that app during my workout.
There are a lot of ways to cheat; for instance, I can open an article in my browser instead and read it outside of the one-hour limit. This is perfectly fine by my standards. In fact, most of the news that I consume is through my speed-reading audio app anyway.
Because I also have the 10:00 pm shutoff, most of the time that I would have idly been reading news articles would be in the time between 10 pm and, on weekends, 1:00 am. As long as I’m not browsing in that three-hour window, any amount is probably fine.
My new setup started working the very first night. I picked up my phone, saw that it was shut down for the night, shrugged, and started getting ready for bed. I’m “allowed” to read books on my phone after 10, just not the news or email, and it turned out that I was asleep before midnight.
As time has gone by, I seem to be falling asleep a few minutes earlier each night.
Part of my higher weekly average is that I take three-hour naps on the weekend, but then, I was doing that before I set up these time boundaries on my phone. Almost all the increase in my average sleep time has just been going to bed earlier and falling asleep earlier during the week.
I have the power to change what I’m doing any time. I can turn off these settings on my phone. I can also start getting ready for bed even earlier and see what happens. It is pretty interesting to be able to track my metrics at a glance.
How do I feel? I feel great. I also feel like I could easily take a second nap each day on the weekend, but I haven’t yet. Daytime-Me keeps thinking there are “things I should be doing.”
But... are there?
She’s suffering. She’s sleep deprived. She’s got stuff going on at work. She’s the only one of my friends with fibromyalgia who actually wants advice from me. This is what I tell her.
You can get through this and you need more sleep!
When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia back in the Nineties, nobody knew much about it. One of my doctors called it a “wastebasket diagnosis.” Another said I should only join a support group “if you want to have it forever.” (I didn’t join). It was obvious everyone thought it was psychosomatic, which is what they always think before they understand what something is. They used to say that Lyme disease and multiple sclerosis were psychosomatic, too. Then someone started marketing a pharmaceutical to treat it, and suddenly, fibromyalgia was “real.”
I never got any prescriptions - I had figured out how to manage it on my own long before I found out there was finally a treatment. Other than a couple of brief flare-ups, I haven’t had symptoms in many years.
The golden key to my recovery was to improve the quality and quantity of my sleep.
My friend is caught in the cycle of sleeplessness, then finally taking a nap in the middle of the day when she feels like she can. Her eating schedule is completely thrown off.
I tell her that if she can make herself eat on a normal schedule, her sleep hormones will start to adjust.
Nobody wants to hear advice just fired at them - who needs it? What haven’t we heard already? - so I keep reminding her of how I was in the same position that she’s in, that I remember how awful it feels, that this was the only thing that finally worked for me.
Eat on a schedule and quit taking naps, cold turkey.
One of the worst feelings is to be badly sleep deprived, finally feel like you can take a nap, and then have to fight that feeling for six hours or more until you can go to bed at a normal time. It’s entirely contrary to nature.
Unfortunately, it’s part of the cure.
What we’re trying to do is to align the hormones that make us sleepy and the hormones that cause us to wake up, so that we can feel tired and go to sleep at bedtime, and then wake up naturally when it’s time to get up.
When we eat and nap at inconsistent times, our sleep hormones get spun up. This is why we can fight exhaustion all day, only to snap awake as soon as we get in bed.
It feels extremely unfair, but the brain wants what it wants. It just doesn’t know how to ask for it politely.
What I do when I need a “reset” is to force myself to stay awake until 9:00 pm. Whether that means splashing cold water on my face, walking miles out in strong sunlight, standing up and sitting down a lot, or any other method I can imagine, I’ll do it. I keep reminding myself that I can make a trade. I can have either this one day of sleep hell, or at least three weeks of sleep disaster day after day.
My hubby and I use this technique when we travel, and we’ve found that we can now adjust to a new time zone in a single day. Just try to get on the new time zone’s meal schedule as soon as possible. Sometimes this means eating a small meal when you’re not very hungry at all. Other times it means waiting and being famished for a few hours, depending on the airport and arrival times. Step one, get on the local meal schedule. Step two, stay awake until an appropriate bedtime on the first night.
It can be done. It can be done if you have full faith and trust that one day’s suffering will pay off quickly.
The alternative is to give in to the day’s overwhelming physical signals, still feel cruddy and low-energy, and essentially punch Future You in the face over and over again.
I don’t tell my friend this part, because she isn’t ready to hear it, but my food intake is squeaky clean. I don’t drink alcohol or coffee and I don’t eat junk food or fast food. I avoid desserts because I have about a 1/4 chance of launching out of bed with screaming night terrors a few hours later. I eat more vegetables than the typical family of four.
It’s another category of information that feels cruel and judgy, but in practice is one of the few things that actually helps.
What happened when I quadrupled my vegetable consumption? My night terrors went away, and so did my migraines.
There’s something else I need to tell my friend about my experience with fibromyalgia. It basically overlaps with my first marriage. My first husband snored quite badly, and he would snort me out of a sound sleep several times a night. When he divorced me, my life was shattered - but my fibromyalgia symptoms went away. Without him by my side, I could actually sleep through the night.
I tell her that her job is starting to sound a lot like my ex-husband.
She shouldn’t be on work calls at midnight. She should be able to use her vacation time. She should be able to take weekends off without getting dragged in to handle some crisis or other. It’s a golden-handcuffs job, but the price she is paying is too high at this point.
She comes back and tells me that she emailed her boss, then went to bed at 9 PM and slept for 14 hours. She feels guilty.
Why? I say. Let’s reframe this. You can only be a peak performer when you’re healthy. Working until you are burned out is not optimal. Burning out is lose-lose. High performance means being well rested, and that’s win-win.
Chronic pain often overlaps with feelings of being trapped in an unhappy situation. The common perspective on this seems to be that emotions cause physical pain. I actually think it’s the exact opposite! Chronic pain makes it hard to think clearly, to make strong and bold decisions, to set boundaries, to feel anything other than sad and hopeless.
This is our motive to keep careful records, to take note of our own patterns. As we make changes to our surroundings and our behavior, we can notice gradual, incremental improvements. We can document those improvements and show them to our doctors. Sometimes, like I did, we can move forward and put our days of fatigue and illness behind us completely.
This is a sleep book by a woman, for women. (Take ‘women’ to mean ‘people with proportionally more estrogen, progesterone, etc.’) Shelby Harris is a psychologist and sleep expert, and also a mom of young kids. She gets all the social, parental, and technological pressures that impact our sleep. The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia may actually help where nothing else did.
I read a lot of insomnia books because I have a parasomnia disorder, and I’m always looking for new tips. Not every insomnia book mentions more serious problems like mine, and it did come up, but I will give the caveat that what worked for my night terrors isn’t really addressed here in explicit detail.
The basic idea behind this book is that changing any one factor will not solve sleep problems by itself. That is 100% true. The premise is to use tracking methods and very specific behavioral techniques to improve the ratio of time spent in bed to actual time asleep.
This stuff works. I know because many of the things I did to resolve my sleep issues show up in here.
I kept meticulous records of my sleep - with more detail than the sleep diary in the book - and I am sure that if I hadn’t done this, I never would have figured out the root cause.
I became very careful with the timing of when I ate and hydrated. Start early and cut off three hours before bed. (If you get night terrors, or your kid does, please don’t eat anything right before bedtime!)
I ruthlessly eliminated naps and forced myself to go out in bright sunlight and stay awake if I needed to.
I took up running, dropped my extra weight, and got fit.
I cut out soda, anything with high fructose corn syrup, and basically all junk food. Then I increased my vegetable consumption fourfold.
One of the most important points in the book is to distinguish between sleepiness and fatigue. This would have been really helpful for me to know 15-20 years ago. “Tired all the time” doesn’t always mean insomnia or a sleep issue; it may be fatigue, and fatigue may be a sign of something else.
I encourage anyone with sleep issues - which is apparently about 2/3 of all women - to read The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. Take its recommendations seriously, do all the steps, and keep records of your results. If you respect the process, you can free yourself of the problem.
Even as a psychologist and a sleep expert, I’m not immune to a poor night’s sleep now and then. I just know how to prevent it from becoming a regular occurrence at this point in my life.
One of the goals of insomnia treatment is to have you think less about your sleep overall—just as you probably were not too focused on it in the past, before your sleep problems began.
During our WDS weekend, we learned a bit more about chronotypes and how they affect our energy level. This information changed how we look at our sleep schedules and how we structure our days, especially now that we are in isolation for the foreseeable future.
The first thing we did was take a quiz: http://www.thepowerofwhenquiz.com/.
Before this, I would have said that I’m a night owl and my husband is a lark. It didn’t occur to me that there would be more than two types of sleepers. I always figured that most people don’t get enough sleep for situational reasons, such as long commutes or intervening opportunities like the internet.
It took just a couple of minutes to find out that my hubby and our friend, like the majority of people, are Bears, while I’m a Dolphin.
This basically means that they have consistent energy levels throughout the day and, if they didn’t get enough sleep one night, they’ll just go to sleep earlier the next.
Being a Dolphin - the rare 10% - basically means any little thing will mess with my sleep, and as a result I feel tired most of the time.
This all felt true enough. What was surprising, and what I don’t particularly agree with, is that these sleep animals are supposed to go to bed and wake up at particular times. They gave Bears 11 pm to 7 am, and Dolphins like me midnight to 6 am.
If I only slept six hours a night, I would be a walking disaster. I know because I’ve had to do it. The biggest issue I have always had with sleep is that I can’t necessarily fall asleep just because I’m tired. If I have a set schedule that involves being somewhere early in the morning most days of the week, it can take months to adjust.
I just started a new job, and since we work at home, I can roll out of bed at 7:30 and still be early for 8 am meetings. The first couple of weeks were exhausting. Now, in the third month, I can sometimes wake up naturally before my alarm goes off. There have been days, though, when I could barely make it and crawled off to take a nap immediately after clocking out.
Sleep is always the #1 factor in my mood and energy level. It also seems to have a huge effect on my immune system; when I’ve been sleeping poorly I seem to get every cold and flu that comes through.
Being a Dolphin married to a Bear is lucky for me and doesn’t seem to matter all that much to him. He sleeps so soundly that, over the years, it seems to have entrained me to sleep better too. Sometimes he even sleeps through my night terrors. One night I woke up screaming and he just reached over and patted me a few times and went back to sleep.
We’ve had two issues where my significant sleep problems have required his involvement.
One, the case of the loud upstairs neighbors. I asked him to intervene with the property manager a couple of times when I felt I wasn’t being heard. I asked him to help me figure out something for noise cancellation, an engineering solution perhaps? Finally we just relocated, which we wouldn’t have done for at least a few more years if my sleep problems hadn’t gotten completely out of control.
Sometimes the alarm would go off in the morning and I would burst into tears because I hadn’t slept all night.
The second issue was more personal. Just as we would be winding down for the night, my hubby would read something in the news that got him agitated, and he would want to talk to me about it. It was like tossing a ball. He would throw it and I would catch it. He would then peacefully drop off to sleep and I would like awake until 2 am.
I brought it up. I begged. I pleaded. I set a reminder on our shared list that went off every night at 9 pm. This was the “nothing but puppies, kittens, and rainbows” alarm.
Honestly it took about five years for this pattern to finally sink in.
It’s not that we can’t talk about current events, or have passionate discussions and disagreement about various philosophical points. It’s just that I have to hit pause at 9:00 if I want to be able to drop off to sleep.
I have no problem setting this boundary with other people if we happen to be up that late. Everyone I know is guaranteed to be worn out from hearing about my parasomnia disorder, so it’s better for everyone if they agree to my demands quickly.
I have a contrarian opinion about stress and anxiety. I understand that this opinion is not mainstream, but the more I read and the longer I live, the more I think I’m right and everyone else has things upside down.
The prevailing opinion seems to be that “stress” causes almost all illness, and that factors of mood and attitude drive disease.
Okay, but why would “stress” branch out and cause a hundred thousand completely different types of illness?
Doesn’t it make more sense that illness arises in the physical body, and that the person then starts to feel stress *as a result*? That stress is a natural, universal reaction to maybe even a sub-clinical stage of any of a hundred thousand physical causes?
This is why I think my parasomnia problem is neurochemical. I bet better and more widespread brain scanning would reveal more patterns like this. It makes perfect sense to me that the 10% of “Dolphins” who have trouble sleeping have more in common than some kind of personality trait. Part of why I can say this is that my Bear husband has at least as much stress in his life as I do, and he seems to sleep just fine.
Assessments like these animal chronotypes are a good idea for helping people to be considerate and accommodating of each other’s needs. This is even more important when the people involved share a roof or, especially, a bed. Let’s all be kind to each other and try to help each other get enough rest every night.
Here’s a little bit of hope for the tired people, the injured, the ill. It can get better. Little by little, it can.
I started recovering from COVID-19 about six weeks ago. I’m back to working out, doing 60 minutes of cardio a day. It feels great!
I just realized today that I couldn’t remember the last time I had vertigo. That was a symptom that lingered for so long, I sort of thought I might just have it for the rest of my life. I figured every time I rolled over in bed, the room would spin, and I’d just have to get used to it.
Then, finally, it went away.
It’s important to notice these small victories, because it’s very easy to start believing in illness and injury as permanent conditions.
The body doesn’t just “get stuck that way.” Sometimes it takes surgical intervention, sometimes it takes prescriptions, sometimes it takes many months of physical therapy. But the body can change and heal. That’s what a body does.
I keep thinking of this as I watch my surgical scar heal. It’s almost completely invisible now, thanks to my obsessive twice-daily slathering with scar cream. What I thought would be a large ugly mark in an unfortunate location is now basically gone six months later. In fact, it looks so good that I’m going to take a picture of it and email it to my surgeon, a nice side-by-side before/after for her records. Satisfaction of a job well done, that is one thing that never goes stale.
Yep, it’s been a rough few months. First the surgery, then COVID. I might also mention that I had quit running several years ago because of an overuse injury to my ankle. Year after year, month after month, there always seems to be a good excuse to roll over and quit.
Legit doctor’s notes!
This isn’t P.E. though. I don’t have a desperate desire to escape gym class any more; now it’s more the opposite. Let me back in!
What do I need to do today to make my body feel at least marginally better?
For me it revolves around quality of sleep. No matter what else is going on, if I’ve slept poorly I feel terrible. I believe that sleep is the main factor for a strong immune system. As a recent COVID survivor, this is understandably high on my list of priorities.
Sleep depends on a few things, which are also very important to me as a person with a parasomnia disorder. (Yeah, I didn’t really appreciate having night terrors WHILE I was sick with the coronavirus, as if I didn’t have enough problems). These things are meal timing, hydration, and cardio.
For night terrors, the absolute most important factor is to stop eating three hours before bedtime. I front-load my calories for the day, making an effort to eat about 3/4 of my fuel by the afternoon. Parents of tiny kids should note this, because night terrors are common in kids and they often get a bedtime snack. I think those things are related.
Hydration is shockingly under-rated for insomniacs. I’ve found that if I’m even a single glass of water short for the day, I just can’t drop off. My sleep quality is dismal. I use an app to track my fluid intake, which is admittedly very boring, but not as boring as lying awake in the middle of the night for hours.
I’ve tried out a bunch of different types of exercise, and they are good for different reasons, but in my experience cardio is the best for mood elevation, pain management, and sleep quality. When I can’t do it for a while, due to schedule, injury, or a cough or whatever, I start to feel the difference within days. There are different types of peace available from other types of workout; for instance, martial arts somehow magically removed my fear of needles and yoga is great for releasing old emotional junk. They just don’t hit the same physiological targets as running, biking, or the elliptical.
It is so good to be back to reconsidering my workout!
In April, I felt like I was dying. Now it’s mid-June and I don’t constantly think about being ill anymore.
I put some effort into small improvements, in a process that is known as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” If you improve something by 5-10%, it may be enough to make a disproportionate difference in your results. For instance, 5% of one hour is three minutes. Getting ready three minutes earlier could be enough to start being on time for most things instead of chronically late. Cutting spending by 5%, as another example, could make the difference between being in debt or financial freedom. Little things can add up quickly.
My small improvements in recovery were:
Increasing our intake of cruciferous vegetables
Tracking my fluid intake
Setting a bedtime alarm
Arguably, starting to work out again was not a small improvement but rather a “keystone habit.” It does tend to make the other steps, (drinking more water and going to bed earlier) just that little bit more attractive.
More sleep. Better quality of nutrition. More water. Hard to argue with this strategy, two parts of which are free of charge.
Right now it’s hard to tell whether my mood has improved so much just because I’m getting well, or because I’m something of a cardio junkie. Does it matter, though? Right now, I have everything I wish I did when I thought I was on my deathbed: my new dream job, the ability to do the laundry without tipping over and crying, maybe even the chance to run an ultramarathon in a few years.
It’s so hard to be seriously ill and feel like it will last forever. It’s so depressing and boring and lonely and exhausting and painful. Every day we’re still here to complain, though, is another day we’ve made it through. Every day is one day closer to feeling better. One day, maybe even so much better that it didn’t even seem possible.
I snapped awake. It was still dark outside. 4:11 AM. I had been asleep for four hours.
Why does this happen?
It’s a mystery why a tired person who isn’t sleeping well will still wake up in the middle of the night, wake up too early, or struggle to fall asleep. I know it’s a mystery because I’ve been reading everything I can find on the topic for twenty years.
Another mystery is what I would have done with my life by now if I hadn’t had so many disrupted nights.
I had plans for the day. Doesn’t everyone? I lay awake until 6:30 AM, turning off my alarm, since I wouldn’t be needing it. I was finally feeling sleepy again just as I had planned to be waking up and getting ready.
Decision point. Do I:
Get up and struggle through a long day on four hours of sleep;
Fall back to Plan B, see if I can sleep another two hours, and rearrange my schedule;
I went to Plan B. Again, I snapped awake before the alarm. I was so groggy and I felt so terrible that the will to launch simply snuffed itself out.
The worst part about this is that I structure my own schedule. I have no real reason for struggling with sleep, no caretaking responsibilities, no duty to unlock a door or turn the lights on. My income does not depend on a requirement that I get out of bed at a specific time. This was, of course, fallout from my parasomnia disorder.
Why some people voluntarily deprive themselves of sleep is beyond me. Staying up late to play games, surf the internet, or binge-watch anything, only to get up early the next day and be exhausted, is a pattern I don’t really understand. You mean you would be able to sleep, you just don’t feel like it? What must that be like?
The last couple of years that I worked a traditional day job, I had some very rough days. If I only slept for two or three hours, I would still have to get up and get dressed and commute and drag myself through my workday. I used to go into the ladies’ room every 90 minutes or so to splash cold water on myself or slap myself in the face a couple of times. I used to pinch my upper thigh between my fingernails until the pain jolted me briefly into alertness.
There were times when I barely made thirty hours of sleep for the week.
It was the same in college, when at least I could take naps between classes. I trained myself to sleep in 45-minute increments, folded onto one sofa cushion in the student lounge.
During that era, most of my work occurred outside the time dimension. I could read my assignments and write papers at any time of day or night. While I was a Dean’s List student, this was somewhat of a disaster, because it shattered my circadian rhythms.
It was probably inevitable that I would cut the cord of the traditional day job schedule as soon as I was able. I’m worthless when sleep deprived. Can’t concentrate, lose objects, get physically lost, speak slowly, read the same paragraph over and over. Probably there are high-functioning alcoholics and addicts who get more done at work than I did after a week of poor sleep.
What I didn’t expect was that I would have some of the same problems when I had nobody to report to but myself.
Over the years, I’ve figured out a lot of inputs that affect my sleep and allow me to get enough rest 80-90% of the time. I haven’t figured out how to deal with external noise past a certain decibel level. I’m struggling right now because the apartment beneath ours is being remodeled, and there are saws, drills, hammers, and who knows what else going on ten or eleven hours a day, six or seven days a week. Naps are off the menu. Until when? How would I know? How long does it take to completely overhaul a 650-square-foot apartment?
This is a difficult world for parasomnia. If I knew of a quiet place, I would already be living there, but the countryside isn’t much better. My sleep has been disrupted by anything and everything including garbage trucks, loud motorcycles, helicopters, slamming doors, domestic arguments, barking dogs, ice cream trucks, roosters, other people’s phones, crying children, jackhammers, drunken singing, and even misdelivered packages. Some of these happen between the hours of midnight and 4 AM, because why would the world ever quit being loud?
What I’m trying to learn to do is to fit in an acceptable level of productivity around all of it, somehow. I have to accept that there will never be anywhere in the world, or any time in the day, when I can go off somewhere and never experience disruption. It’s built into the system. If I check into a hotel room, people will persist in talking and laughing loudly in the hallway outside my room every single hour of the day and night. If I move somewhere, the adjacent space will almost immediately undergo renovations.
As I write this, a car alarm is going off in the parking lot next door.
I don’t even own a car, much less a car alarm.
I’ve tried white noise generators and high-end noise canceling headphones and fans and double-glazed windows. I’ve tried every sleeping pill on the market, both prescription and OTC. I’ve tried massage and hot baths and essential oils and meditation. I’ve spoken with doctors and even a psychiatrist. I’m an edge case. I’ll never stop trying things, because I’m curious and because I’ll never give up hope that I can beat this dumb problem, one way or another.
In the meantime, most of the stuff I do that happens on a schedule happens in the afternoon.
Do you ever feel like, New Year, another one?? Right now I’m looking at the turn of the year with equal parts relief and dread, glad we made it through some heavy weather but feeling like the next year will be more of the same. Some excellent things and some terrible things happened, sometimes at the same time, and in fact isn’t every year like that?
Sometimes life gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Example, our dog was given “six weeks to live” in November 2018, and he’s still here, but his liver tumor got bigger and he also has a mass in his lung. Another example, I had to get oral surgery, but those two teeth were saved. A friend of mine in a similar situation has to wait six toothless months before she can get an implant, so I guess I feel “lucky”? Further example, I had a cyst removed after a very scary and weird medical issue, when for a few hours I feared I actually might tip over and die. Surgery is not cute or fun but it is usually better than the alternative.
Crabby person: I spent a month on antibiotics, thought I might die, spent weeks dealing with medical, dental, and veterinary stuff alone because my husband was out of town, and had to get stitches twice!
Optimist: I survived with just a small scar, they managed to save both my teeth, insurance paid for almost all of it, and I got my stitches out before the New Year!
This is part of why I try so hard to focus on highlights and achievements at the end of the year. Otherwise it would be very, very easy to overlook them amid the chaos of daily life, that or fail to fit in any highlights at all. Here are a few.
Our dog Spike survived his predicted 2018 demise, a sweet bonus year
Won an election and became a Division Director in Toastmasters
Went to World Domination Summit
Visited London and Edinburgh for the first time
Sat in one of the cafes where Harry Potter originated
Moved to a new apartment that is actually quiet!
Went to the Canary Islands for our tenth wedding anniversary
Oh, BTW, we had a tenth wedding anniversary, 13 years together
Became a Distinguished Toastmaster
Noelle started saying ‘Okay’ (when she wants to go to bed)
Personal: My big personal goal for the year was to submit a book proposal to a publisher. If I had known what a total train wreck this year was going to be, I would have held off on declaring this and instead just said “Get through 2019 somehow mostly intact.” Nevertheless this goal is in progress. I finally feel like I can take myself seriously as a working writer.
Career: My career goal for 2019 was to become a Distinguished Toastmaster. I didn’t even know what that was when I first made my 2016 resolution to conquer my fear of public speaking. This has been one of the most emotionally challenging things I ever did, and I am really proud of myself. Not only did I get that DTM, something not even 1% of Toastmasters do, but I won an election as well. The last time I gave an impromptu speech, a couple weeks ago, someone told me that I “have a commanding presence up there.” Heh. Seriously, it’s hard to imagine someone being worse at something, and feeling more dread and dislike for it, and then having a greater transformation. If *I* could do *this* then I feel like anyone could do anything. Just push through the first six months.
Physical: My physical goal was to focus on hip openers, a type of stretching exercise. I kept reminding myself to get down on the floor and figure this out, and now it’s the New Year and I still haven’t done it. Overall I feel like my body is turning into a bruised fruit. I failed at this goal. I dropped out of my martial arts gym. I also gained weight, which feels exhausting and terrible and which I am hating beyond description. This year I feel like the only physical thing I did well was to not die.
Home: My home goal was to set up an outdoor writing area. That was at our old apartment, and it was great. We crushed this by relocating to a new place, where not only do I have an outdoor writing area, but it even has an ocean view. We’re finally in a place that doesn’t have carpet, we have a dishwasher and a bedroom door again, and it’s so quiet that we sometimes take two naps a day. As sometimes happens, the results exceeded the original goal.
Couples: Our couples goal was to do meal prep. This helped us get into really cooking again, and our freezer is full of homemade soup. My husband even made jam for the first time in a few years. We’re back in a proper kitchen and remembering how much we prefer our own cooking.
Stop goal: My “stop” goal was to “stop being sick and tired.” Last year I was really struggling with getting the common cold over and over and over again, and I basically lost a year of sleep thanks to my selfish rude upstairs neighbors. I did some research and experimentation, talked with my doctor, and found out that hardcore zinc supplements really do make all the difference for the immune system. Super Bio Veg for the win. Also we moved and I’ve been able to get about 25% more sleep.
Lifestyle upgrades: My lifestyle upgrade was to get a new desktop computer, which I finally did, once I realized that the system I wanted cost less than half of what I thought it would. Something I have learned is that I should not say I “can’t afford” something until I know, objectively, how much it actually costs.
Do the Obvious: My “do the obvious” was to schedule time blocks so I could get more done. This failed utterly and spectacularly. From June through today there has not been a single normal week, between my dental stuff, travel, moving, my husband’s business trips, my nasty medical surprise that ate November and December, and our poor sick doggy. I honestly don’t think there will ever be a time in my life when I can predict a strict schedule weeks or months in advance. I’m shifting my attitude toward something more flexible and forgiving.
Metrics: I had the idea to add metrics to my annual goal-setting, and this was generally a success. I started out trying to track a bunch of stuff (mostly HIIT exercises) that fell out of my routine due to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Tracking metrics did help me to complete my DTM, focus on SleepQuest, and read more than the year before. Wherever I track what I’m doing I tend to get better results, because it doesn’t take long for patterns to stand out.
Quest: My quest for the year was SleepQuest 2019. I’m calling this a success! I was not able to find a single thing that helped me sleep through the heavy footsteps and early-morning vacuuming/rearranging furniture of our upstairs neighbors. Well, other than a moving van, that is. We moved and now I can sleep whenever I want. I may have lost the first three quarters of the year but at least that phase of our life is over.
Wish: My wish was to be signed by a literary agent. To my great astonishment, I am kinda sorta “in talks” with a couple of people. Maybe this will turn into a thing.
Personal: Book proposal - IN PROGRESS
Career: Distinguished Toastmaster - SUCCESS!
Physical: Hip openers - FAIL
Home: Outdoor writing area - SUCCESS
Couples: Meal prep - SUCCESS
Stop goal: Stop being sick and tired - SUCCESS
Lifestyle upgrades: New desktop computer - SUCCESS
Do the Obvious: Schedule time blocks - FAIL
Metrics: Sleep, fitness, reading, writing, speaking - SUCCESS
Quest: Sleep Project - SUCCESS
Wish: To be signed by a literary agent. - IN PROGRESS
I wasn’t the one who brought it up. It’s true that I’m on a sleep quest this year, but it’s my own private thing. The topic of human hibernation came up in the context of weight loss. Someone was talking about how nice it would be to just go into a coma for six months and wake up at your goal weight. Then everyone got excited about the idea of sleeping for a year.
I mentioned Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and of course everyone wanted to read it, because for women the idea of sleeping for a year is the ultimate fantasy.
We were laughing pretty hard when a latecomer arrived, and we explained that we were talking about sleeping for a year. “Oh!” she said, “there’s a novel about that,” and we laughed even harder. “See? I didn’t make it up.”
We figured out the details: Go to sleep for a year. While you’re knocked out, have all your dental work done, get waxed, schedule a three-hour balayage session, design a full-body tattoo, whatever other boring or painful treatments you might want. Time it to miss all the election cycle news. (Maybe wake up just in time to vote).
Seriously, though. Assuming it were possible, what would it be like to sleep the year away?
Note that everyone in the discussion was a single woman, except for me, and, like everyone else, I don’t have kids. My stepdaughter is turning 25 and she’s been living on her own for years. I can easily understand why any parent with kids at home would be tired enough to want to sleep for a year, but it would be really hard to miss a year of their lives!
Being able to sleep for a year indicates that there are no four-alarm fires that you personally need to handle. Presumably even a surgeon or an EMT has days off when other people are on duty. Most of us aren’t literally responsible for life-or-death situations, we just cultivate our stress levels as if we are.
Does that feel true? Are our exhaustion, stress, and burnout levels really so chronically high that we might even be more tired than emergency room people?
First we have to imagine ourselves in a context in which none of our stress is helpful to society or to ourselves. We have to imagine that, yes, the world can go on without us if we roll over and fluff our pillows.
Then we have to imagine that waking up fully rested and restored would in fact deliver a better version of ourselves. That we could handle our daily routine again in good cheer, knowing we finally did not feel tired.
I know what I would do, if I did it. Assuming my husband was called away on some special mission to Mars and we couldn’t even communicate while he was gone, that I could sleep for a year and not hurt anyone’s feelings, I think I know what I would do.
I’d spend a day getting ready, cleaning out my fridge and putting all my bills on auto-pay. (Maybe I’d see if someone would stow my slumbering body on a little cot in their garage so I didn’t have to pay rent). Sleep for a year, no household chores or errands or cooking or laundry, right?
I’d get rid of all my clothes, assuming they wouldn’t fit the same when I woke up, and who would want that? Maybe keep one baggy sundress to wear to the store when I woke up to replenish my wardrobe.
I’d get rid of all my books, assuming that I’d be no more likely to read them a year from now than I have been so far. It’s not like there aren’t plenty more books out there for when I wake up.
I’d chuck any unread mail, knowing it wouldn’t be my problem a year from now. I don’t owe anyone any money. As long as someone else is taking my pets to the vet, and I’ve got my coma-appointments scheduled for dental work, et cetera, what is possibly coming in through snail mail that will concern me?
What the heck is actually on my to-do list? Does any of it truly need to get done? By me?
Hmm, what else is there?
I guess I’d have to tell people I wasn’t taking calls. Put a disclaimer in an auto-respond email message and change my voicemail. Hi, I’m sleeping until 2021, please don’t leave a message, try me again after I come out of hibernation.
What if this were a natural human biological process, like it is for bears and other animals? What if we all did it at different times? Nobody would be surprised or care that someone was busy pupating or whatever. “I can’t come to the phone right now. I’m emerging from my chrysalis.”
Imagine waking up. Imagine having simply gone to bed for a year, no loose ends and nothing to worry about. What would happen next?
This is a serious question. What would you do tomorrow if you felt fully rested, you had no incomplete tasks, and you understood that you had a clean slate and you could do whatever you wanted?
The truth is that we can basically do this for real any time we like. We are not indentured servants. We can always change jobs, move, consolidate our debts, and/or transform our bodies. We can cut off toxic, draining relationships and go on without them. We can do it all, and we don’t actually need to put ourselves in a coma to do it.
The funniest thing about the idea of sleeping for a year is that, partway into it, you’d start feeling rested enough to no longer feel an urgent need to sleep for a year. How long would that take? Eleven months? One month? Three nights?
It’s a good experiment. Set a bedtime alarm and go to bed at 9:00 pm for a few days. Try it out and see how it feels. Clear your schedule and nap all weekend. Maybe you won’t be tired any more, or maybe you’ll want to keep going for the gold medal and sleep for a year after all.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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