Sleep is for the Wise

Sleepy-bulldog-falls-asleep.gifWe become sleep-deprived without even noticing. A couple late nights on the weekend at my age and I will surely still feel cranky on Monday. Stay up too late spiraling down a Youtube documentary rabbit hole and I’ll need to schedule a recovery nap. The sleep debt creeps in slowly but eventually, enacts harsh consequences on my body and mind.

I used to be such a good sleeper! My mom brags that I grew easily from an idyllic, snoozy, baby to a teenage bookworm who read my book every night before drifting into peaceful sleep. I didn’t think about sleep or being tired – THAT’S how rested I was.

So, wtf happened.

As much as I am tempted to blame my induction into the world of poor sleep habits on the unnamed ex-boyfriend who required the sound of 80s sitcoms to fall asleep every night, the fact that I’ve been dependent on background noise to sleep for the remainder of my 20s…? Well, that’s on me. Oh…and anxiety.

The big bummer about using distraction techniques to manage anxious thoughts and feelings throughout the day is that when there are no more distractions, anxiety pounces on the opportunity to be heard. And I’ll tell you, that background noise is loud and does not soothe us into a restful slumber. Perhaps for the mind, bedtime is the equivalent of flinging your bra off at the end of the day and slipping into your apartment pants, and I can hardly hold THAT against my brain. But I am interested in improving my sleep habits to be less dependent on these modern sleep aids.

Many of us become dependent on that glass of wine, the melatonin, the medicinal toke, or perhaps even a more formal sedative agent to fall and stay asleep. And we do this because being tired is the pits. It affects our daily functioning, memory, mood – the side effects are endless. When sleep-deprived, our poor bodies look for energy sources wherever they can: sugary, sweet treats during the day, that mid-afternoon latte that gets us to 5pm*, the after-work nap. We are less able to resist the donut holes in the staff room not only because we are tired and need a boost, but our ability to reason and resist impulse has been compromised and we gravitate towards the quick fixes and easy comforts.

NEEDLESS TO SAY, subscribing to the modern “sleep is for the weak” ideology has had some very real consequences for both my mental health and my party thighs. For all the parents of small children reading this, you have my reverence. Chronic sleep-deprivation represents your sacrifice and you manage to keep your child alive and get to work**. I know only a sliver of your struggle.

Much like a poor diet can impact on your overall health, underestimating your need for sleep long enough and you’ll guarantee yourself a bad time. Your body may forgive you and adapt for a measure of time, but even the strongest and smartest need to refuel the tank.

*lol

** I’ll save my thoughts about the pitiful and frankly, offensive, maternity leave policies I’ve become aware of for another day

Turning Off, Turning Out

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I have a problematic relationship with my phone. Not only are the monthly data overage charges a cause for stress (sorry Mom), but my reliance on the device for personal comfort is downright shameful.

My 2011 MacBook Pro has essentially become an oversized paperweight while I use my smartphone for all of my activities within cyberspace: to connect with my friends and family, to check and update social media, to listen to music and podcasts, to take pictures of my life. I watch (listen) to Netflix to fall asleep, I send email, I make appointments, I pay for my coffee, all through one App or function or another. When I don’t want to be bothered in public, I’ll stick my nose in my phone. Have to stand in line? Check the phone. Wait for any amount of time beyond 10 seconds? I’m scrolling. Awkward moment in a group setting? Ah, a notification.

I am hardly ever alone with my thoughts, and the constant stimulation from screen time contributes to the noise already in my head. How many times have I turned to my phone for connection instead of engaging with the human beings around me?

Instead of reaching out to someone who cares about me either in person or through voice call (old school, I get it), I find myself turning to Google in search of answers and opinions, asking questions that I’m embarrassed to ask aloud. Often, the answers I find are not wholly comforting and I don’t feel much better after browsing through articles and discussion forums containing the key words I typed. The whole practice turns me more inward, invites more questions than answers, and I continue to feel alone in my worry.

Apparently, I’m not alone as I might think, as articles like this one from The Atlantic describe how Google has been tracking the search for mental health related keywords, noting that questions like, “Why am I sad?” or “What are the symptoms of depression” seem to spike in colder weather months across the world. Whether or not Google searches could reveal the actual prevalence of mental health issues, including unreported cases, it remains to be seen. What observing this information tells us is that people are interested in the topic, want to know if their symptoms are legitimate, and feel the need to be anonymous in the search for information and support.

Smartphones make us passive, and lazy. We don’t have to remember things, directions, phone numbers, birthdays, because all of that information lives in the cloud somewhere, or something. They say it saves us time but what exactly are we doing with our new-found time – other than filling it with celebrity gossip and videos of swimming pigs (omg).

It’s not always easy to verbalize what’s bothering you, but the act of expressing the troubling thoughts or ideas can neutralize them. When negative thoughts are swirling around your head unchecked and unchallenged, they can feel very real and true. Allowing another person to share the burden with you, even for a moment, can be a relief.

If you are apprehensive about engaging in conversations around your mental health or well-being, here are a few things that have worked for me, both when I am sharing my own thoughts and listening to others:

Preface: Starting a conversation by sharing how it is hard for you to talk about this, or expressing that it may be difficult to hear, can be a way to prepare the other person for sensitive subject matter and encourage a thoughtful response. It gives the other person the opportunity to recognize that you are looking to be heard and have trusted them for this role.

Sitting side-by-side: I can’t tell you how many difficult conversations I’ve had in the front seat of a car, and it works because this seating arrangement takes the pressure off constant eye-contact, particularly if you’re concerned about having the “right reaction” when someone is crying or upset. Sitting side-by-side in the car also allows you to make physical contact, like holding their hand, that doesn’t feel overly intrusive.

Get active: Similar to sitting side-by-side, doing an activity, like shooting hoops (who am I) or going on a hike, can again take the pressure off constant eye contact, but can also facilitate honest conversation, as you may be less likely to overthink what you say as you continue with your hike or game.

Embrace silence: We’ve heard it before – silence is not the enemy to good conversation. Silence offers time for the person to give a thoughtful response, can allow the person to collect themselves if they are upset and crying, and can allow space for other forms of support, like a hug.

It may be daunting to reach out when we are feeling down, and turning to our phones, Google, or other isolating sources may seem easier than involving another person in your troubles. We don’t want to be a burden, after all. But trust me when I say that other people want to be there for you – it’s up to you to let them.

P.S In an effort to practice what I preach, my very own $52 basic flip phone is on route to me as I write this. I’m sure I’ll be hit with waves of nostalgia as I relearn how to text using T9 and end phone calls with a satisfying snap of the lid. My iPhone will live on in semi-retirement, reserved for when and where I can hop on the wifi.