It is 6 am and I have already been up for three hours. Three hours before that, I was up as well, getting ready to go to bed. I am unable to sleep and although I do not believe this is the reason I am not sleeping, I read today about the link between depression and the natural circadian rhythm. You circadian rhythm is your daily (?) cycle that tells you when to sleep, when to wake up….it basically tells you what your body needs when and how. It dictates how your day/life is led with regards to natural necessities of the body. Recently, it has been found that the circadian rhythm is greatly disrupted when one is affected by depression. Like so many of these things in life, it’s a chicken and egg situation – the depression exacerbates the disruption in the circadian rhythm, and your lack of sleep exacerbates the depression. So what is one to do?
Well, other than treat your depression medically or naturally (whichever floats your boat), the only thing you really can do is to concentrate on making your sleeping environment more sleep-oriented - and by environment I mean your surroundings and your body (after all you are a part of your environment, right?). That sounds weird I know – basically you need to create a calm, comfortable, relaxed, cool state within and without your body, in which you are more likely to fall asleep and, hopefully, stay asleep.
Personally, I cannot sleep if I do not have a sleep aid. When we first moved to England, we had a bit of a scramble to find the drugs and supplements that I take daily – including my melatonin. I was prescribed melatonin by a psychiatrist in Toronto to help me to fall asleep, since I’m one of those people who keep chatting in my head even though the rest of me is dying to sleep. I make lists, I think of things I should research on the internet, I even thing of things I should blog about (like this!) and what I’m actually going to write as if the computer is sitting right in front of me and all systems are go. My systems do not turn off. So, I used to take melatonin (0.75 mg) to help me feel sleepy and then to encourage sleep. We could not find melatonin in the pharmacy near here, so we ordered some from eBay only to get 10 mg tablets which made me sleep all day. Then we lowered it to 3 mg and it seems that I fall asleep, but now I wake up in the middle of the night and cannot get back to sleep for my life. I’m currently on day five of 3 hours or less sleep – sad thing is, my mind does not even let me nap during the day.
Speaking of naps, I shouldn’t complain, because in order to get your circadian rhythm and sleep cycle back on track, it takes work and a little suffering. Day naps are NOT allowed. This is because you have to be tired at night, and because you get your best quality of sleep when it is dark, cool and quiet outside, NOT when there is natural sunlight and the hustle and bustle on the streets. Yes, it sucks for those of you who work on shifts because you don’t have a choice, but for those of you who do have a choice, prevent yourself from taking day naps so that your night sleep, however little you get, is of a better quality.
This means you do actually have to make an effort and suffer a bit because you cannot use stimulants (like caffeine or any energy drinks) to keep you up while you do this. If you are feeling tired in the day, try washing your face with cold water, drinking a glass of cold water or a mug of herbal tea, go for a walk, do some exercise. Do whatever you can to get your blood moving and to keep yourself awake. Oh, and speaking of exercise, it’s important! Exercise helps to regulate your mood and your circadian rhythm! So whatever floats your boat go for it – if you’re a dancer, try a dance class, aerobics or zumba, if you like running, turn on your tunes and take a jog on the treadmill or outside, simply go for a walk, go nuts cleaning your house for an hour or two. Do anything you can to burn calories and build up a sweat – it will help stimulate your serotonin levels, will keep you fit and will help energize you enough for the day that you will be tired just in time to actually go to bed. Your mood improves, your body image improves and your circadian rhythm jumps back into check.
At least when you take these steps, your body sort of naturally chooses a bedtime at the same time every day. This is helpful, because you can “coach” your body into the appropriate time for you. I’ve found (from past experience) that I personally feel best with 9 hours of sleep per night – I know, I know, what is needed is not always reality, but when I make the effort and get anything close to this, I actually feel much better during the day. First of all, we sleep in 3 hour REM cycles so 9 hours makes more sense than the 8 hour requirement I read everywhere else. I would typically choose a bedtime between 10 pm and 12 am every day - and it’s harder to do that when I try to spend some time with the Luv Luv….he studies during the day so the evenings are the only time I have with him. That being said, I personally need to be stricter with myself wrt bedtime. The whole purpose of me making this strict change is that I will be in bed at the same time every night, and therefore make it easier to wake up at the same time every morning (which is really the important part). In fact, it is advised that no matter what time you go to bed at night, you should wake up at the same time every morning to help your circadian rhythm stay normal.
Of course, it all helps if you’re comfortable right? I mean if you have a crappy sleep/relaxation space, there’s no way it’s going to help you to rest. Upgrade your space as best as you can. Get the proper pillow for your sleeping habits. Use cool sheets with a heavy blanket suited for the season. Keep the temperature of the room at a cooler level than the rest of your home. Invest in black-out blinds if you must (I’m about to do this both for the light and for the sound blocking reasons – we have a pub patio right beneath my bedroom window …they have karaoke on Thursday nights…late on Thursday nights..and as it gets warmer, it’s getting louder). Studies have shown that you get the best sleep in a quiet, dark, cool room. Personally, I have to go to sleep in a room I love, as well, in order to sleep well, so I try my best to create a room that I walk into and feel good. I use colours that are not too distracting or stimulating. I’m a texture person, so I like to have a bit of texture in my bed. I love a higher bed, lots of pillows and beautiful artwork. I love having a radio in there to play gentle music or upbeat tunes depending on what I need it for.
I am really bad at keeping my bedroom for sleep only. I tend to blog in there, play my facebook games (Candy Crush anyone?) in there, read, talk on the phone…I’ve made the mistake of making my room my multi-tasking space – something I need to change asap. I have realized that this is also because we have crappy furniture in this student apartment we are renting, so I’ve recently ordered a desk chair and some more shelves for my desk area so that I can carry my blogging and facebook game playing out to the living area instead of in my bedroom. I’m also looking into a possible new sofa or chaise addition to the present sofa so that I could read out there instead of in my bedroom. I’m going to move the telephone from by the television area into my desk area (if I can) so that I can have a bit of privacy if needed in my desk area. That being said…maybe I’ll get one of those chinese screens to put up by my desk to keep the “entertainment” sounds from the Luv Luv’s tv area out of my concentration circle. This is my attempt to make my bedroom a one task relaxation zone…. Slowly, I’m making changes to the layout of my spaces, my circadian rhythm and my life.
I also tend to write lists as often as possible. I’ve recently gotten into this habit again because it takes the thoughts and “to-do” list out of my head and onto paper, so I can go to bed without worrying about what I may forget the next day. It’s on the list, not in my head and therefore will get done. You can relax and sleep easy instead of having your tasks for the next day, week, month or year running through your head. Brainstorming is to be done during the day, not in the middle of the night.
Forgot something? Well, try not to worry about it either, because is it really that urgent? Well chillax dude, cause you’re human. If something has been forgotten, you apologise and move on. Most people will not forget life and death or urgent situations or tasks – so just relax, I’m 99.9% sure you won’t, brain fog or not….especially if you have anxiety problems, because you definitely won’t be able to relax if you have something THAT urgent that it cannot wait for a good night’s sleep. Again, you have your ever-morphing list, just write it in big letters (if you have to) so that you can see immediately that it is an urgent task for you to get out of the way, out of your head and out of your life. Then you can have your blissful night’s sleep. It’s really t hat simple (so I say but definitely not really what I do….but I do believe it, I just seem to be unable to put it into practice…I hope you can!)
Remember to take “me time” daily. Whatever you enjoy – take a little time to do it everyday. It’s amazing how the smallest bit of joy can change your outlook on your day and your life, can relax you and allow you to sleep the way you’re supposed to. Just being happy can help put your circadian rhythm back on track and getting sleep can help you become and stay happier. Chicken and egg, remember?! If you have a family that won’t leave you alone or a very demanding job, make sure you can find the time. Tell your family that it’s your time and set a kitchen timer. Tell them they are not allowed to disturb you until the timer goes off. Put your foot down – this may take some practice on your part and definitely on theirs, but keep at it cause it is a necessity for you! WRT your job, if you have an especially demanding job, take a daily break. Think about it – smokers tend to be a bit more relaxed at work because of their constant smoke breaks – they get up from their desks, walk outside and smoke, have a little down time and then get back and are more relaxed and more productive. Similarly, get up from your desk and go to different surroundings. Maybe take a walk around the floor of your office. Go outside and take a walk around the building and/or parking lot. Whatever – get a change of scenery, preferably with fresh air for ten minutes and then go back in and tackle your task. This way you got your “me time”, you’ve re-focused and can finish your job more quickly, and it doesn’t end up on your mental “to-do” list that seems to pop up every time you lie down to sleep.
At the same time, it helps to meditate. It is amazing how relaxing meditation can be for you – and no, I don’t expect everyone to meditate like some sort of South Asian guru. You don’t have to do yoga, you don’t have to listen to monks chanting and sit crosslegged on the floor. Just do what comes naturally. Some people find chanting relaxing but personally it makes me giggle. Some people do muscle relaxation techniques (and this very often works for me) or breathing techniques (sometimes but I am unable to relax enough sometimes to do this). Some concentrate on an image in their heads – very often something like a candle flame – and relax while concentrating on the one idea, the one thought, the one task in their heads. This takes practice but is doable. Meditation slows down the modern mind from the multi-tasking that the world now requires, to one single task, allowing it to relax, unwind and refocus. Done in the day, meditation can be refreshing. Done just as you have lain down to sleep, meditation can help you fall asleep more quickly and keep you in a good quality of sleep.
Now, I know all these steps and you probably have read them all over the internet as well, but I do not always practice all of them (although ideally, I really should). I just found it really interesting to hear that depression took such a large role in disturbing one’s circadian rhythm that I wanted to re-iterate to you that you can take these things in hand and improve your own situation with a little effort and willpower. Nobody is perfect and I don’t expect you to take this advice and change everything and suddenly improve your life and heal yourself – but I do expect you to remember some of these, perhaps try to implement them and see if they work. As for me, I’ll be striving to figure out whatever the heck messed up my rhythm and which of these I can improve upon (quite a few at first glance) and in what order. Out comes my handy little list book and off to brainstorming I go (after all, it’s bright outside now!).
What do you think you can do to improve your sleep cycle and circadian rhythms? Do you think working on being happier will help with your sleep schedule or that improving your sleep schedule will improve your depression? I’d love to hear your thoughts!