3: Focus on relaxation, not sedation
One of the biggest misunderstandings or misconceptions when it comes to why shift workers struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep is that we’re not going to bed relaxed. This could be due to a myriad of reasons, but things like difficulties switching off or winding down after a busy shift is something I often hear from many of my clients.
The thing is, in order to sleep, and sleep well we must be relaxed, but so many of us are making matters worse by not allowing our body to transition into a place of calm. Prioritising our sleep and booting the phone out of the bedroom is the very first step towards reclaiming that relaxation status!
Despite our strong desire to want to fall asleep quickly, particularly when we’ve got one of those nasty late-earlies or quick-turnaround shifts, sleep cannot be magically turned ‘on’ and ‘off’ as quickly and easily as a light switch. Especially if our bodies are not relaxed.
It’s not that simple.
Of course, there are those times when we’re so exhausted that as soon as our head hits the pillow, we’re out like a light, but for many those times are few and far between.
It’s why many shift workers resort to popping a pill with the expectation of being able to fall asleep and stay asleep, with little effort on our part. However, this popping-a-pill-to-fall-asleep strategy, especially when it comes to using pharmaceutical medications such as benzodiazepines and Z-drugs, can be a dangerous path to follow. This is because these man-made, synthetic medications can be addictive and often come with nasty side-effects, not to mention they’re not designed for long term use despite people taking them for months, and even years at a time (26).
One of the best books written on the subject of pharmaceutical sleep medications is Undrugged: Sleep: from insomnia to un-somnia – Why sleeping pills don’t improve sleep and the drug-free solutions that will. It’s a real eye-opener on the world of sleep medications and written by pharmacist Dr Lori Arnold, who is more than qualified to talk all things pharmaceuticals.
As Dr Arnold so eloquently states in her book, we need to acknowledge that taking a pill is not addressing the root cause as to why you’re experiencing insomnia (besides the shift work itself), because there could be other factors contributing to your inability to fall asleep and stay asleep, that is not being addressed.
Personally, and this is purely my opinion, but when you look at the mechanisms of actions as to how a lot of these sleep medications work, it doesn’t make sense for shift workers to take them. This is because many have a sedative or hypnotic type effect.
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but shift workers don’t actually need to be sedated or hypnotised! We’re already walking around feeling as though we’re in some kind of drug-induced state as we struggle to string two words together, along with trying to ascertain what day of the week it is, or whether we’ve fed the cat (or even the kids!)
We also need to appreciate that a drug-induced sleep is not real sleep. It doesn’t offer the same restorative and reparative qualities as a true night’s sleep which is why we need to be helping our body to relax and transition into sleep on its own, as much as we possibly can (27).
Which all comes back to relaxation, and having more of a holistic, lifestyle medicine approach as opposed to a ‘let’s take a pill to knock me out’ style approach.
But there’s a catch.
It takes work. It takes effort and a commitment on your part to get yourself feeling relaxed, so that you, in turn, can fall asleep. Quite simply, you must be willing to put in the effort, put yourself first, and implement self-care strategies consistently – no matter what.
Yes, this even applies if you’re a parent who is juggling a shift working job around children or taking care of elderly parents or other relatives. If anything, you need to make a pact to implement self-care even more, so that your body gets the opportunity to relax and sleep, instead of running on adrenalin and being within a hairs whisper of burnout.