The Equation of Mental Health and Sleep
“There's not enough time in the day.” Whether you live paycheck-to-paycheck or comfortably,the demand for your time is ceaseless. Certainly the phrase, “I'll sleep when I'm dead.” must be famous last words. Sleep is important and deeply impacted by our mental wellness.
Show Your Work
Many people lucky enough to be working during the pandemic are working from home. While there are some “productivity gurus” who believe the gig economy is a step toward a future where people work when they want to, the reality seems to be that we are working all the time. My old mantra, “you're not enough,” has driven me to burnout on many occasions. This “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” shame that has been passed down through generations eradicates sleep. My bed is in the same space as work. So, what's another 10 minutes, an hour or 3 hours of work? In addition to the self-shaming that many of us inflict, we now live in a world where corporate masters are monitoring our work from home with invasive technology. My anxiety loves this idea enough to disrupt my focus, day and night.
Personally, I have had as much work as I have had sleep, which is not a lot. That anxiety I spoke of fires up before I have even applied for work or pitched a story. It is so demoralizing that when I do successfully complete an application or a pitch I feel like Atlas and think Sisyphus is an amateur with his boulder. Mostly, I spend my evenings in bed looking back at the “time I have wasted” being a jobless loser and what a burden I am to myself and those around me. Self comparison pops in to tell me what my successful friends are doing and sadness follows behind to shove me deeper into the abyss. The next morning, devoid of sleep, I lack any self-confidence to find work. If I “pull myself up by my bootstraps,” I have difficulty focusing and planning because of the lack of rest.
If I set aside the all or nothing thinking and admit that situation cannot happen every day, there is still a challenge with sleep. When I am working so very hard to prove myself to others and burning out, I experience Bedtime Procrastination. Am I too wound up to sleep or do I feel that I am owed more time in the day because I worked so hard? When that study about Bedtime Procrastination hit Chinese social networks, the word “revenge” was added to the beginning of the phrase. Revenge Bedtime Procrastination is staying up past your intended bedtime for some self-care. Me time is important, but so is sleep.
Depression and anxiety are bedfellows. This is a chicken and egg situation as well— being anxious could lead me to a depressive state or I could feel anxious about rebooting after a period of depression. One of the stigmas about depression is around sleeping all the time. Sometimes a lack of productivity is seen as a lack of motivation. And even if one isn't sleeping all day, stagnation is discredited by those who do not understand. We are not unmotivated, those of us in depression are frequently stuck. We are frozen from anxiety. The realization of our condition is essential to recovery, but also a hindrance. The weight of the time we lost during our crash is overwhelming. It feeds the depression. It keeps us up at night.
In the same way that the loss of someone close to us can be exhausting, ruminating on your mental health and comparing yourself to others is debilitating. Whether it disrupts sleep with obsessive thoughts, a need to make up for lost time, or revenge bedtime procrastination we despair. Without sleep, we lose even more of the resilience that aids us to live with depression and anxiety. I haven't even touched on medications, many of which affect sleep. You cannot seem to get enough sleep or no sleep at all with many of the SSRI and SNRI meds.
Solve for Why
Some neurologists theorize that our strange dreams are the brain's way of processing the memories of the day. It is possible that we may be moving short-term memories into long-term storage. Without sleep and the dreams do memories get stuck in the short-term space, a place where we are always thinking of them? Trauma has been shown to inhibit the hippocampus from converting memories. This is why flashbacks occur in many people with PTSD, the memory is still as fresh as the day it happened.
Imagine my frustration from lack of sleep being used to shame myself to going to bed early. You are a loser and everyone knows it. Why can't you sleep? What else are you going to do? You are a talentless burden to your family and friends. You should have found a job today. You should have cleaned the house. You should have got your Masters. You should have invested money. You should have died, not your father. You should... It is hard to sleep when a critic with a megaphone can take any of your thoughts and twist them into pain.
There are many ways to improve sleep. Changes in diet, medication, and activities can help. All of those are easier said than done. Meditation has worked in the past. Talk therapy is useful and EMDR therapy can aid in moving those memories to long-term storage. However, I am beginning to think acceptance is also needed. This is a moment of difficulty. Difficulty is part of every human life. May I be kind to myself in this moment and give myself the compassion I need.