As a full time-caregiver, you may find that once it’s finally time for you to call it a day, you’re asleep before your head hits the pillow. If that’s the case, you don’t need to read any further.
But if, like many, you find that on some nights, even though you’re exhausted, your mind keeps going and won’t let you fall asleep, you’re not alone. When your day is filled with caring for someone and your focus is on a constant stream of demands and tasks to be done, there may not be time left for worrying or dwelling on upsetting thoughts. But when you’re finally alone in a quiet, dark room, those thoughts may finally have a chance to emerge, and linger.
Here a few ideas that may help keep anxiety and worrisome thoughts from robbing you of some hard-earned rest:
If you can manage it, a quick warm shower or bath can be calming, both physically and mentally.
It raises your body temperature and the natural fall back to your normal temp when you get out signals your body to sleep. Plus, water is symbolically cleansing, allowing you to close your eyes and imagine your worry washing or floating away and disappearing down the drain.
Try one-minute journaling.
Putting something, almost anything, down on paper each night in a notebook kept bedside has been shown to help put one’s mind at ease, without taking up too much rare and precious downtime. If a worry keeps bouncing around in your thoughts, write it down in a sentence or two to get in on the paper and out of your head. Alternatively, many folks this helpful: write one, just one, specific thing from the day which you are grateful for. It can be as big as the support of a loving friend or as small as the comfort of a well-brewed cup of tea. You don’t have to come up with the thing you’re MOST grateful for, as long as it’s A thing. It needn’t be profound, and it’s ok to have some repeats over time, as long as you’re specific in whatever it is you’re grateful for that day.
Switch out the TV or computer for a book, recorded book or podcast.
Screens may seem like a good distraction, yet most of us have become so used to watching them while doing something else that our minds can have a way of drifting to the same unhappy thoughts we were hoping to avoid. Reading creates more distraction by requiring more of our attention, and listening to a calm but engaging voice recording as can be found with many recorded books or podcasts of radio programs like This American Life (a personal favorite) has the benefit of allowing us to have the nurturing experience of closing our eyes and maybe even falling asleep while someone tells us a story. If you’re using a digital recording you can often set a timer so that it shuts off on its own after 30 minutes or at the end of one episode, and you can always skip back the next night to wherever you drifted off the night before.
Follow some form of set routine before bed, even if it’s very short.
Doing the same sequence of activity each night helps train your brain to fall asleep more easily. For example the tips above would combine to make a nice routine: take a quick shower; get in bed for one-minute journaling; fluff your pillow, turn on a podcast and turn off the light. Or pick any simple routine that works for you.
It’s evening, and after a long day you finally have a little bit of time before bed to answer those emails, watch a short program, or buy that book on Amazon you’ve been meaning to order. Or maybe you need to stay up just to get work done. When you’re finished, you get into bed, exhausted, and… spend an hour staring at the ceiling.
You were so tired, are so tired, yet sleep eludes you, the caregiver, at the moment when you need it most. Unfortunately, you may be experiencing the blue light blues.
The problem is that those illuminated screens we all tend to look at on computers, TVs, tablets and smartphones emit more light on the blue end of the light spectrum than does natural light, or most of the other types of lighting in our homes. And research shows that, while all types of light inhibit the secretion of melatonin, a hormone which helps us fall asleep, exposure to blue light has a particularly strong effect. Without melatonin flowing through our system, our brain decides that it’s the middle of the day and time to stay awake, even when our body and mind are very much in need of rest.
This is the reason why you may have heard, from me or countless other sources, that it’s a good idea to avoid screens during the two hours before bedtime. This is true for you and for anyone for whom you’re caregiving.
But what if that’s simply not possible, given your schedule or responsibilities?
- Firstly, do try to limit your exposure as much as you can during those evening hours, especially during the time right before bed.
- If you really can’t avoid screens, especially if you need to use something with an illuminated screen such as a video monitor in your role as caregiver, try using glasses or goggles specifically designed to block blue light. True blue-blocking glasses can be pricey, around 80 dollars, but you might consider that a worthwhile investment in exchange for some much-needed sleep. A less expensive alternative are orange tinted glasses, which also reduce blue light but affect other colors as well, so they may not be a great choice for watching a movie. On the other hand, they could do the trick if you’re mainly writing texts, emails (or, just as an example, writing an article for a website at 9:00 pm).
- Avoid unnecessary light sources, such as the LED displays gracing nearly all room electronics (humidifiers, for example) by removing the display out of your direct line of site, or covering them with a piece of tape or paper. Every little bit counts, especially if you find your eyes open in the middle of the night.
- If you need to use night lights for safety purposes or in order to provide care during the night, try using red nightlights. Red light has the least melatonin-suppressing effect.
- Not all blue light is bad. Looking at illuminated screens during the day (as well as getting plenty of exposure to natural light in general) can actually help increase energy and alertness during the day and may make it easier to fall asleep later. Of course that’s assuming the blue light doesn’t stick around during the night.
- Check out f.lux, a free computer app which adjusts the lighting on your computer and other devices based on the time of day, so that the screen emits more blue light earlier in the day, then shifts to more orange and red in the evening.
As often happens, new technology has been created to help correct a problem caused by another technology (screens and, originally, electric power itself). Take advantage of anti-blue-light gadgetry as much as you can and, when possible, try to just power down and give your mind and brain a break.
[title text=”Guest blog by Sasha Carr”]
For caregivers, late nights and early mornings can be common and sleep is often a precious commodity.
Likewise, the burdens you face may leave you staring at the ceiling when you actually do get a chance to turn in. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many caregivers experience sleep difficulties and naturally look for different ways to reclaim the rest they so dearly need. Sadly, some common strategies we turn to when chasing sleep can do more harm than good. Avoiding these common traps can help prevent chronic insomnia and other more serious problems.
[title text=”Here are the top 5 mistakes you’re likely to make when trying to avoid a sleepless night:”]
1. Drinking alcohol.
After a long, difficult day it can feel relaxing to unwind with a glass or two of wine. Likewise, people who start having trouble falling asleep at night you may find that a nightcap helps them nod off more quickly and easily. However, while alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, it actually disrupts sleep during the second half of the night, leaving you feeling more tired and less rested in the morning.
2. Taking over-the-counter sleep aids.
The most popular drugstore medications like Nyquil, Unisom, and pain relievers with “PM” on the end of their name are all sedating antihistamines. Like alcohol, many of them will interfere with your sleep in the early morning hours. Likewise, using either alcohol or sedating antihistamines long-term can lead to tolerance, meaning that their ability to help you fall asleep diminishes over time. As a result they can actually make even falling asleep more difficult in the long run.
3. Falling asleep in front of the TV.
There’s no doubt that watching television can help distract us from the worries of the day, and some find it has a calming effect. But the blue light generated by televisions, computers, smartphones and any other type of lighted screen has been shown to negatively affect sleep. If you’re having trouble getting the rest you need, try shutting off all screen devices a full 60 minutes before bedtime, and read a book (or non-lighted reading device) or listen to some relaxing music instead.
4. Exercising in the evening.
You have my deepest apologies if caregiver responsibilities leave no time for any exercise, period. Exercise is a wonderful tool for improving mood and can even help you sleep better, as long as it’s done at the right time. If you can make time for it, try to get moving in the morning or at least 3 hours before bedtime.
5. Going to bed too early OR too late.
For a caregiver sometimes late nights are unavoidable, but burning the midnight oil to do things that could be left for tomorrow may backfire because it causes your body to release cortisol, which can make your brain have difficulty falling asleep even when your body is exhausted. On the other hand, some caregivers may be tempted to crash extra early when given the chance, especially if their loved one is asleep. This can also backfire by causing you to wake in the very early morning, setting off a process in which your body gets out of synch with its natural sleep rhythms. Understanding that you may not always get to choose your bedtime, the more often you can get to bed no less than seven and no more than nine hours before you’re going to need to get up, the better.
Now that you know what not to do, what options do you have when sleep eludes you?
Aside from the sleep boosts of exercising earlier in the day, reading a relaxing book in the later hours instead of watching TV, and doing your best to get to bed at a reasonable time, try creating a regular bedtime routine. It needn’t be long, and could include things like a quick bath or shower, applying an aromatherapy body lotion, or reading from a book of meditations. Whatever you choose, making it a nightly ritual will help condition your body and mind to settle down for the night.
Sasha Carr Ph.D is a licensed psychologist and certified child and family sleep coach dedicated to helping people of all ages have healthier sleep. She is a co-author of The Caregiver’s Essential Handbook, which provides practical advice for elderly caregivers. For more information about Dr. Carr, please visit her website at offtodreamland.com