Coping with night shifts

bbc-at-night

Sometimes, I wish the world would shut down overnight. Everything would pause, as if in a real-life mannequin challenge, only to resume upon the sunrise. The times I wish this is before, after and especially during a night shift at the Beeb, because unfortunately, life doesn’t stop and news keeps coming from around the world, so once a month I do a string of them to cover shows across the World Service. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a constant supply of caffeine.

I’ve just finished my fourth run of nights since I started my job, and they are not getting any easier. I had plenty of prior warning about the difficulties of getting through them, but I still didn’t fully appreciate the challenge until the first batch arrived. Granted, most graduates end up as night owls in their final year of university, and I’ve even worked a job that was permanently on late shifts, not finishing till 1 in the morning. But all the way through till dawn? That’s another thing entirely.

Yet the whole issue of catching every one of your forty winks isn’t consigned purely to those who work night shifts. Sleep has been the casualty of a world that refuses to shut down and embraces the 24/7 mentality from all angles. This is rather alarming, considering that rest is a necessity as fundamental as food and drink. For me, the moments of exhaustion in the early hours, counting down the minutes to the end of your shift, do occasionally cause me to worry about the long term effects.

Then again, I am not permanently on nights, and I am also lucky enough to love my job to bits, so at least I am enjoying my work whilst fighting to keep my eyes open. In a way, there is something quite peaceful about the deserted office, only broken when you wander into a darkened room and encounter the deep rumbles of someone snoring through an early morning nap. Then when I work regular hours, I try getting the Underground at half eight- the curse of the commuters- and wonder how anyone can do it Monday to Friday.

One of the main things I’ve learned is that everyone copes with night shifts differently; they’re such an unusual and daunting beast, that you have to develop your own strategy of dealing with them. But over the last few months, I’ve picked up a few techniques that help me prepare for and cope with them better- not so much completely removing the impact, but softening the blow at least. I thought I’d share them below:

  • If you work blocks of shifts like me, staying up late the night before yours first shift works wonders in moving your body clock forward. I usually stay up till around 2 and then sleep in most of the morning, to make the first great push less of a challenge. Remember being a kid and staying up late was the coolest thing in the world? How times change.
  • For me, the hardest part of nights is coming off them the other end. There are a few options: the first is get a few hours sleep, rise around the start of the afternoon, to get your body clock back to normal. The second is to stay up all day and go to sleep in the early evening- quite an endurance as you’ll be up for over 24 hours! The final option is to stretch the process over a couple of days (so you go to bed in the early morning after your first day off, and gradually push your sleeping pattern back a few hours at a time). What you actually do depends on your immediate plans after your last night shift- I prefer the latter option, but usually end up with the first!
  • The F word- no not that one, food. Some swear by not eating at all, and I don’t blame them: your metabolism is greatly reduced during the wee hours, so it’s generally not a great idea to binge overnight. I tend to follow the breakfast-dinner-lunch plan: have my main meal before getting in to work, and then a sandwich in the early hours to keep me sustained. Just be aware of how your body processes food at a slower rate.
  • Pace the caffeine! I try and stay off coffee for the second half of my shift- although I do still have tea, because little else will make me feel warm and comforted at that time in the morning- so that there is nothing to stop me falling asleep the moment I get home.
  • Invest in some decent ear plugs and an eye mask. Trust me, you’re going to want to get as much rest as possible, and the best way to achieve this is to limit factors that can force you awake. Shutting off any sound and light is guaranteed to keep you sound asleep.
  • Try to avoid making plans during the day. Sleep needs to be prioritized! In between nights, I never plan to do anything that can’t be done within the parameters of my flat, or even better, my bedroom (don’t give me that look…) Having said that, I would recommend getting some decent exercise before your shift. I find an evening run is brilliant for waking yourself up for the night ahead. You’d think it would only make you more tired, but actually it’s an ideal way to de-stress.
  • Keep your workplace brightly lit during your shift. It can be tempting to keep them dimmed but in fact, your body reacts to the light and makes you feel more alert. That’s why you can end up staying awake for hours from staring at your phone in bed, because the bright light causes your body to think it’s daytime and you should be awake. Use this during night shifts to your advantage to give yourself an attentiveness boost.

Hopefully these tips will help! If you are tackling night shifts in the future, and reading this article has sent you into a sleepless panic about the consequences, then just remember this: as poor souls drag themselves out of bed for another day at the office, it’s the former that YOU will be going home to. Forget the rest, for your rest will come soon after.

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Just give it a rest: dealing with insomnia

It's like a relationship that only lasts a few hours.

It’s like a relationship that only lasts a few hours.

The first time I had insomnia was truly one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. After all, sleep for many of us is just something we naturally do without thinking about; to suddenly lie down and find yourself unable to, staring at the ceiling as the minutes drag by and writhing under the bedcovers as you attempt to find a comfortable position, just leaves you confused and anxious. Why is it happening to me? What have I done to deserve this? How can I have lost such a basic ability that not only unites all humans, but most animals?

I was freaked out enough to knock on my housemate’s door and ask if they were having trouble sleeping (thankfully, being the night owls third year students are, they were still awake themselves, pondering over notes for an impending essay). It’s never been that bad since; instead, the sense of anguish has been replaced by frustration. The only comfort I take during it is the grim acknowledgement that I am not alone. One 2011 survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than 30% of Britons suffer from insomnia or another serious sleep problem. It’s a habit that seems to be on the rise more and more.

But is it hardly surprising? We live in a world that increasingly refuses to switch off; businesses, media and events go on at all hours of the night. No longer is there an end point where there is nothing on television and shops close up for the evening. On top of that, many of us push our bodies to the limits- some with good intentions to bring their families as much money as possible; others just to hold on to the euphoria of a good night out. It’s amazing how little some people seem to care about a lack of sleep, considering how important it is.

The rest of my family, by contrast, have no issues with their sleep- my Dad and sister even drop off the moment they pull back the blankets. Sometimes, I think if I was a superhero with any power in the world, I wouldn’t want strength or speed- just to sleep on demand. It isn’t just the experience itself that is unbearable though; it’s the aftermath; a day of restlessness as you constantly rub your eyes and squint into the daylight, praying that night will be okay.

My first serious bout of insomnia happened towards the end of the first semester of my final year of university. As if impending course deadlines and job applications weren’t enough, I was also running a student radio station, writing articles for local magazines and trying to update my YouTube channel as much as possible. I was just able to hack it, and worked as hard as I could to get everything done, but I was so focused throughout the day that come the evening, I just couldn’t switch off.

Ultimately, it made for one of the worst weeks of my life. After four days of getting no more than three or four hours a night, I had my first night with no sleep whatsoever. My emotions were already hanging by a thread; my stammer, which rarely makes an appearance nowadays, was at its peak. Thankfully I did manage to get some shut eye that night, but it was still disruptive, and it wasn’t until I’d finished my exams- sorry, exam- in late January that my sleeping pattern returned to normal.

Now, insomnia only rears its ugly head on rare occasions- usually when I’m getting too philosophical for my own good about what it is I’m doing with my life. Thankfully, there are a few things that I have learned along the way that help massively that I thought I would share, just in case you’re going through the dreaded cycle:

1) Switching off. It’s so easy, with the amount of devices at our disposal, to keep checking Facebook or find something on Netflix if you find you can’t get a good night’s kip. Instead, this only makes the matter worse as the light triggers your body into staying awake. I make sure to switch off my devices at least half an hour before bed and leave my phone charging on the other side of my bedroom; this also helps in the morning when my alarm goes off, as I have to force myself out of bed to stop it.

2) The power of exercise. Quite simply, the body needs to burn energy. Doing some form of cardio most days a week, even for half an hour, has worked wonders on my overall health and not just with sleeping. It certainly makes you feel more ready for bed when the evening arrives.

3) Powering down. Once my devices are all off, I usually settle into one of the artefacts of a bygone age called a book. After I’ve knocked off a few chapters, I spend about a minute breathing in and out as slowly as possible; inhale right to the point where you can feel the back of your throat, hold it for about five seconds, then exhale. Do that a few times, just focusing on the action and everything on your mind just evaporates.

4) The bed itself. Sometimes, something as simple as cooling your room by opening a window can make all the difference to nodding off, but it can be hard to realise this when all your efforts are focused on falling asleep in the first place. Take a blanket off (or put a blanket on), open the window… try something to alter the temperature of your bed and see the difference it makes.

5) Embrace it. They say keeping an eye on the clock only makes you more anxious, but if it feels like you’ve been lying there for ages and it really has been half an hour or so, then it’s clear you’re not in the right state to go to sleep. Get up, read a book or meditate or just do something that’s not in your actual bed- change your environment until you start to feel tired again.

I hope this helps somewhat, but remember above everything else; the body has to sleep, and it will do of its own accord in the end, no matter what tricks your mind might play. And while it might be horrible while going through the cycle, it will eventually come to a halt; something I wish I could tell the final year student version of me. In the scheme of things, it’s just another lesson to learn.

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