This is the great irony of our live-to-work culture: We are actually less productive and less efficient when we don’t make an effort to wind down.
Earlier this month, the Internet was rife with outrage over this subway ad from Fiverr. It features a young woman with hollowed cheekbones and matted hair, and praises a coffee lunch and forced sleep deprivation as hallmarks of a productive lifestyle. If you work yourself to the point of exhaustion, the ad brags, “you might be a doer.”
No one venerates workaholics quite like Americans. We literally “run on Dunkin.” We feel guilty when we don’t take our laptops on vacation. And we push ourselves into the wee nighttime hours when we should be resting our bodies and minds. Even Donald Trump boasts about only getting a few hours of sleep per night.
So one afternoon last winter I sat bleary-eyed at a seminar on the importance of sleep, where I re-learned that adults need 7-9 hours per night but often get far less. Unsurprisingly, most of my co-workers at the session admitted to simply not making sleep a priority in favor of other commitments. But my problem was different. The more I struggled to sleep, the more sleep evaded me, and that’s how I came to realize that none of us should be “doers” at the expense of something we all so desperately need.
I used to love sleep – never to the extent that I was more cat than human, but I appreciated its calming and restorative properties. I took blissful afternoon naps between classes in college. When I was teaching full-time and working a part-time tutoring job, sleep was my respite, my time to recharge for tomorrow’s lessons. Turning down the bed under the dim glow of the nightstand lamp was my reward for a hard day’s work.
But when I moved to the D.C. area in the summer of 2015, my relationship with sleep became troubled. The change was gradual at first. I began waking more easily throughout the night and earlier in the morning during the work week. Then, on the weekends, I began waking to a flurry of anxiety even though I wasn’t pressured to be anywhere early. The truth was that my routine and environment were completely different in the city, and as summer faded into the cooler, darker months, my quality of life diminished. I had gone from living in a small town with some of my closest friends within walking distance to a noisy D.C. suburb where I knew no one, where apartment complexes grew like weeds and the regulars on the bus eyed me like fresh meat. My commute was no longer a 15-minute drive to campus but an hour-long Metro ride into the city. In the dead of winter, I woke in the dark and took a dark train underground, only to turn around eight hours later and journey home in darkness too. The psychological impact of living in an absence of light, in an area where I never felt safe, was something I’d never considered. But it shook me to the core.
My days passed in an endless loop of anxiety and exhaustion. I was scared all the time: scared to get out of bed, scared at work in anticipation of the sardine-like packaging into oft-malfunctioning train cars that characterized my travel, scared to go to sleep at night for fear my screaming mind would wake me too soon. Before long, I was sleeping for three to four hours each night. I spent the rest of the time wandering around my apartment like a zombie, swallowing whatever medicine or herbal supplement – valerian root, chamomile tea, ZzzQuil, Tylenol PM, you name it, I tried it – was currently in my arsenal and praying it would knock me out on the couch before my alarm went off.
Sleep debt is the term for a deficit of hours, which over time can lead to serious issues like “weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and memory loss,” according to Harvard Medical School. More immediately, sleep deprivation causes fatigue, forgetfulness, confusion, irritability, and headaches. Essentially, when we haven’t gotten our recommended amount per night, we’re not firing on all cylinders. This is the great irony of our live-to-work culture: We are actually less productive and less efficient when we don’t make an effort to wind down.
After amassing countless hours of sleep debt over several months, I created a plan and made some changes. I moved to a new area that gives me a sense of community and security, where I can take walks in peaceful developments and get to know my neighbors. I am also able to commute to work by car or an above-ground train or bus, meaning that my body has recalibrated to normal wake-sleep patterns guided by light and darkness. Most nights, I don’t have to desperately fight for eight hours anymore, and I never want to be in such a state again.
According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 18% of the U.S. population suffers from an anxiety disorder. The CDC reports that about 10% of the U.S. population struggle with chronic insomnia. One in three Americans overall do not get enough sleep each night. Whether your lack of sleep is painfully involuntary or a stubbornly conscious decision, here’s what you can do right now to improve the quality of your slumber.
Sight: Examine your bedroom and determine if it’s a relaxing space. Are things well kept and orderly, or strewn across the floor? Professional organizer Angela Betancourt notes that people who declutter their homes “experience less stress and anxiety, more inner peace and self-confidence, stronger decision-making skills and improved health habits, like better sleep.”
After organizing your bedroom, look around for any light sources that could be distracting you while you sleep. Close your laptop and cover it with something to hide blinking lights. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb or Airplane Mode – both settings will not interfere with an alarm going off, and ensure that your phone doesn’t flash if you receive a message while sleeping. If there is light pollution outside your window, invest in blackout curtains.
Smell: Nighttime baths can be a great way to slow down and unwind. Adding Epsom salts to a bath has numerous detoxifying properties, and varieties infused with essential oils like lavender or eucalyptus will relax your body and signal to it that sleep is near. If you aren’t partial to baths, try misting your pillow and bedsheets with lavender.
Touch: Your bed should be a sanctuary for comfort. Is there anything you need to replace, like an old worn down mattress or a flattened pillow? Would you sleep better wrapped around a body pillow? Are you warm enough at night without overheating? If you’re restless and wake up frequently at night, you may want to try a weighted blanket. Like those weighted vests for nervous dogs, they use deep pressure therapy to calm your nervous system.
Also, take a few minutes out of your day to make your bed in the morning so that you can turn it down again at night. The sensation of this routine will cue your body to either prepare to start or prepare to end the day.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.