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Protective Factors for Self-Care: Sleep

Posted on April 14, 2017

When studying trauma, it does not take long to realize the immense challenges facing those with complex trauma histories. Everything seems stacked against people ever living the life they want to live. I feel the same way when I think about our journey into the dangers of helping. How do we maintain our health and well-being in the face of so many challenges?

And yet, maintaining health is not enough. We must do more than fight off burnout and trauma. To do our work effectively, we must bring our best self to work each and every day. Our clients need us to thrive at our work, need us to bring passion, hope, and compassion to everything we do.

I have started to think about self-care strategies as being divided into two categories. The first category is Protective Factors, which are things we must do to maintain our health and well-being. The second is Performance Factors, which promote excellence and allow us to excel in our work. In this post, we will start an examination of Protective Factors by considering some practices that must be in place for us to survive this work. These methods include sleep, exercise, mindfulness, therapy, positive social interactions, and passion.

I start our examination of Protective Factors with sleep because it is so central to our overall physical and mental health. Throughout our lives, sleep is the one activity we do more than any other single thing. Mastering the cycles of our sleep patterns can seem increasingly difficult as we become busier, more stressed, and more connected to our technology.

Personally, sleep has always been elusive. My mind spins and spins without end (not a surprise to those who know me). I understand the desperation to fall asleep and the need to manage the results of sleepless nights. I’m not one that likes to rely on drugs to function, but I also understand the urgency felt at 4 am when no sleep has come. Over the years, I have paid lots of attention to sleep. I would like to share some research that might help those of you who also struggle with sleep, and may provide some ideas and strategies that could work with your clients.

Here are some simple things that most of us already know, so I’ll just list them quickly:

  • It is best to turn off all electronics about an hour before trying to sleep. Unplugging includes phones, computers, tablets, and TV. Our visual field can hold the light from these devices for about an hour after we turn them off. Also, things like social media and e-mail excite many areas in our brain. This excitement can be good during the day but can prevent us from relaxing and keep us awake longer.
  • The environment. Cool, dark, and quiet promote sleep.
  • While alcohol can help bring sleep on, it reduces the quality of sleep dramatically and often leads to waking up in the middle of the night and can prevent us from falling back asleep. If you are going to have a few drinks, earlier in the evening is better.
  • Tired eyes. I recently read that blinking your eyes quickly for several minutes (basically making them tired) signals to your brain it is time to sleep. I’ve tried this a few times, and it does seem to work. Reading can also help, but make sure the material is not something that is too emotionally or intellectually exciting. This excitement can keep you awake. I find magazines perfect for night reading. The articles are short, so even if they are interesting, they end relatively quickly and I’m not dying to read the next chapter.
  • Research shows that waking up and going to sleep at the same time trains the brain and helps sleep come earlier. Establishing consistency has been the most effective strategy for me, and unfortunately the most annoying! Waking up early on Saturday and Sunday and going to sleep early on the weekends isn’t my preference, but it has helped!
  • Mindfulness/Meditation. As a protective factor, I encourage everyone I know to practice mindfulness (especially those of us in the helping professions). Practicing mindfulness near bedtime releases many of the chemicals that also promote sleep.
  • If you practice yoga, there are specific poses that can help to calm the nervous system, quiet the brain, and assist with sleep, particularly if practiced each evening consistently. I suggest consulting your yoga instructor. You may also wish to read more in this Yoga Journal article: http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/1467.
  • Cognitive Behavior/Sleep Therapy. I resisted this for years, which is illogical considering the impact lack of sleep has had on me at certain points in my life. The University of Iowa has done research on the sleep problems of their students, and were alarmed at the extent of the problems they were experiencing. They began offering their student the online CBT program Shuti (www.shuti.me) and are getting some good results. I tried this program, and it worked. It isn’t easy. You start with strategically limiting your sleep, but over time you work up to that magical 7 or 8 hours. Coldspring Center has no relationship with the providers of this program, but as a user, I found it useful and affordable.

We all know how great a good night’s sleep feels. The impact not getting enough sleep can have on our well-being and work performance is disturbing. Besides just being tired, here are a few other things that can result from lack of sleep.

  • Lack of sleep has much the same impact on us as drinking. Very few of us would show up trashed to work. But the lack of sleep and intoxication have some very similar characteristics. When we are sleep deprived, we do not realize how impaired the lack of sleep has made us. We are like the person who thinks they are a much better driver after a few beers. Many studies have shown the high number of workplace accidents, loss of workplace productivity, and number of car accidents associated with drowsy driving. These all go up dramatically when people are tired.
  • We learn when we sleep. As we sleep, our brain files information we got that day with similar information we have gained in the past. Sleep is where we form many of our memories, and without sleep, we lose much of this knowledge. If you ever crammed all night for a test in college, you probably did okay on the test itself, because you had the information in your short term memory. But what did you remember a few weeks later? If you are like me, probably not much!
  • Early death and diabetes. This one got my attention! When we do not get that magical seven or eight hours of sleep, our brain does not have the rest it needs to operate at its best. Our brain hates not being at its best. Being sleep deprived, we are more likely to reach for food or drink that is REALLY high in sugar. This reaction to lack of sleep gives our brains the short-term energy we need, but then we crash, requiring more sugar and often caffeine. Over time, this has been shown to lead to type 2 diabetes and also to early death. If that isn’t enough to motivate you, maybe the fact that sleeping eight hours per night has been shown to facilitate healthy weight loss will.

In our society, we have devalued sleep. We respect those that only get a few hours of sleep and work 14 hour days, and this mindset has led to a wide range of physical and emotional problems. Historically, sleep was natural, as it was pretty much all there was to do after the sun went down. Today we have a million things we can do, and can do most of them at all hours of the day or night. As helpers, we must prioritize sleep if we wish to give our clients our best selves.

We also need to make sure that we are talking about sleep with our clients. Not only is sleep critical to healing and health, but problems with sleep can often indicate bigger issues, such as past trauma or substance abuse problems. We must make sure that we assess and help clients strategize about the one thing we do more than any other thing in our lives.

I’d like to open the comments this week to any thoughts, struggles, and strategies you have regarding sleep.

4 responses to “Protective Factors for Self-Care: Sleep”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hey, Matt-I like your suggestions on sleep. I agree, our sleep is so necessary for healing and daily functioning. It takes me at least an hour to wind down after I get to my bedroom. Some things that help me before bed: stretching, meditation/prayer, warm Chamomile tea, journaling.
    Saying goodbye to a stressful dead end job helps, too! 👍🏽😊

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hey, Matt-I like your suggestions on sleep. I agree, our sleep is so necessary for healing and daily functioning. It takes me at least an hour to wind down after I get to my bedroom. Some things that help me before bed: stretching, meditation/prayer, warm Chamomile tea, journaling.
    Saying goodbye to a stressful dead end job helps, too! 👍🏽😊

  3. Great web site. Lots of useful info here. I’m sending it to
    a few pals ans additionally sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks on your sweat!

  4. Great web site. Lots of useful info here. I’m sending it to
    a few pals ans additionally sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks on your sweat!

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