Stress, Sleep and Switching Off – It’s Time To Reconnect With Ourselves

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We have never been more connected to each other, while being so disconnected from ourselves. Think about that for a moment.

Do you agree? Even a little bit? Each of us lucky enough to have a smartphone literally walks around with a portable computer in our pocket 24/7. We can use these devices to do a fantastic range of things – talk to friends and family in countries hours away from us, blitz through our emails, catch up on news headlines and post a cute Instagram of the coffee shop we visited that day – all from one little portal. In some ways, I think that’s absolutely amazing. The big bad world gets smaller and smaller with every advance in technology, and to an extent, we have to engage with this connectivity or we’d be left behind. However. It also means that we literally NEVER have to switch off, from either our working or social lives. More than that, it means many of us have forgotten HOW to switch off. We’ve got the whole ‘connect with each other’ thing sorted. But what about connecting with YOURSELF?
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I want to talk about two things in this blog post – stress, and sleep. To give you a little context, as you might know, I attended ‘An Evening with Dr. Rangan Chatterjee‘ a few weeks ago – an event organised by the Irish Institute of Health Sciences in Dublin. In short, it was inspiring. Dr. Chatterjee spoke about ‘The Four Pillars of Health’ – nutrition, exercise, stress, and sleep. I loved the whole talk, but something particular he said that evening stood out to me the most. He asked us could we, the audience of both health professionals and interested public, each identify at LEAST one pillar that we felt we could be better at. And you know what? Of COURSE we could. I realised that while I am pretty proud of how I eat and move everyday, I had been totally neglecting both sleep, and stress. I figured I definitely wasn’t alone in this, and sure enough, I saw many heads in the audience nodding along with me.
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Recently, I’ve noticed an absolutely inspiring, fresh, and frankly uplifting movement on social media – towards mindfulness, meditation, and generally going AGAINST that #riseandgrind mentality, and chasing what you ENJOY and LOVE, instead of what societal norms say you should. I can’t even tell you how HAPPY I was and am to see this. Over the past 6 months, I worked in two pretty challenging rotations as I’ve spoken about before, in A&E and Oncology. Many intense day and night shifts later, I started to feel drained despite enjoying my work, and I began to reflect on my work-life balance. Going from a workout to crazy busy work day to a rush home to repeat it all again, all while having that trusty smartphone in hand to keep up to date with emails/Instagram posts/blog posts – PHEW. Don’t get me wrong. I love my job, I’m passionate about my blog and the lifestyle messages I get to share with you on social media, and to be honest, I’m a person who thrives on being productive. But a niggling thought or two started to float around in my head, as I keep thinking about the ‘next thing’, the next week of nights, or the courses I needed to book, or keeping my CV updated with various presentations. Why did I, and do we, feel like we have to be ‘BUSY’ all the time?Why are we constantly thinking ahead, planning our next move in ‘the rat race’, worrying about whether we’re doing enough? I didn’t have answers to these questions, and that started to bother me.
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So, context established. It hit me that we, and I, needed to take a cheeky step back, and BREATH. Life is a journey, not a sprint (OR a marathon, because there ain’t one winner people!), and if we don’t slow down from time to time, we’re gonna miss all the wonderful stops on that journey, because we’re too focused on ‘getting there.’ Now, onto the two things I was to talk to you about in this post – stress, and sleep.
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Stress and Headspace
So, as you guys know by now, I work as a junior doctor in Dublin. A career in medicine is, from start to finish, one with the potential for a LOT of stress, I don’t think anyone would disagree. I’ve always said my job is a privileged position – each day, I get the chance to meet and help new people, and that is a consistently invaluable experience. The road to getting to start that doctor life was packed full of highs and lows, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. It taught me a LOT about stress, the varying degrees of it, and how to develop strategies to cope with and manage it while staying efficient and productive. Starting working life brought with it a whole new set of challenges too, of course. I want to share my own personal methods to deal with stress with you, and also tell you about new strategies I want to try this year.
My wise old Dad has a great saying about stress, one that’s always stuck with me. He always told me (especially during medical school!) to picture stress as a ‘gift.‘ Sounds funky right? Hear me out. Picture a stressful situation. That’s someone handing you stress, that unwelcome gift. When you visualise that, take a deep breath in, and out. Then picture yourself responding ‘I do not accept this gift.’, and handing that stress ball right back. Of course, you’re not gonna say that out loud to whoever happens to be around! But using that inner voice to say it, and calming yourself by saying it, has always worked wonders for me. It allows me to take a step back, see the stress for what it is, accept it, and then move into solution mode.
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What we need to remember, is that stress is just our own reaction to a challenging situation (another gem from my Pops!) Some of us are more prone to experience stress than others, and elements of that are both down to our genes and our environment. But strategies we can use to REDUCE stress apply to us all. So here’s the steps I take when I’m faced with stress at work, at home, wherever:
  1. Take a DEEP breath. In fact, take two. Or three. As many as you need, in fact.
  2. Breath it ALL the way out, each time.
  3. Recognise the stress for what it represents. A challenge. Which you are well able for!
  4. Solution mode people. Ask yourself this – ‘What can I do in this moment, today, and the next to overcome this challenge?’
  5. Once you have some answers to that question, its time for action, step by step. You now have a PLAN people.
I find this such a helpful approach especially in work, when I’m on call with a million things to do. But it’s applicable to literally any situation, you just have to clear the cloud of worry to start these steps and take that first deep breath. Does that take time to get better at? Of course. But it’s a practice worth perfecting.
Now. I said I’d mention new things I want to try, to improve how I deal with stress, and reduce it in my life. I’m trying one thing at a time, and the first is going to be working on MINDFULNESS. This term is and has been mentioned so frequently in the public domain in the past couple of years, and essentially, to me it means reconnecting with yourself, your mind and your body. Taking even just a few minutes each day to be present, taking in the world around you at that time, and training your mind to just switch off from all those thoughts it processes every single day. Don’t get me wrong, it ain’t easy. I’ve tried it a handful of times in the past, and I won’t pretend I’m either good or an expert at it!
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BUT. I want to be better at it, and I’m making it a priority. I’ve downloaded the app Headspace (there are MANY apps you could try, but I’ve heard the most and best about this one!), and I tried my first three minute session (aka Day One) last night. I loved it. Those 3 minutes alone have motivated me to keep going. If there’s any apps you use or have heard of, leave a comment on this post, I’d love to know! I would say, if you’re trying an app, just pick one, and stick with it.
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Sleep and Switching Off
Oh dear. Guilty. SO guilty. Hands up, The Irish Balance has NOT been balanced with her sleep in recent times. I used to be a mandatory 7.5 hours a night girl on week days, 8 when I could get it. And I’ve just totally fallen off the wagon on this, and neglected addressing it. All the while being fully aware that I needed to. I’d say for the past 3 months, on week days (in fairness, not weekends generally, even when I would be on call), I’ve been getting between 6.5 and 7 hours sleep. Anyone else wanna get honest and admit they’ve been in a similar situation? I bet I’m not alone, and hopefully me putting my hand up and being honest about this will help you to as well!
So then the obvious question. If I KNOW I need to prioritise sleep, why am I not? What am I doing instead? People, the answer is both embarrassing and obvious. SMARTPHONES. Constant temptation of connectivity. The addictive SCROLLING. You guys KNOW what I’m talking about. In my own defense, sometimes when I have to work late, whether that’s a late day job or on-call shift, a lack of adequate sleep hours that night is inevitable. But 9 times out of 10 its purely down to us not prioritising it. Hilariously then, on the weekends we play ‘sleep catch-up‘, getting 9-10 or more hours because we’re so drained from the week of relative sleep deprivation!
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Studies have consistently shown that this pattern is NOT good for us. A regular sleep habit and cycle, consistent on the weekdays AND weekends, centred on good sleep hygiene is the ultimate goal for our health. Using phone/computer/tv screens right up until we go to bed is NOT sleep hygienic either (but you already knew that!) These screens emit a type of light you’ve probably heard of – blue light. Blue light affects melatonin, our beautiful sleep-inducing hormone, more than any other light type. In general, our melatonin levels are low during the day while we are awake and active, and then they begin to rise a couple of hours before bedtime, peaking in the middle of the night. Light itself suppresses melatonin, which is why our natural body clock (also know as our circadian rhythm) adjusts with the daylight hours slightly during the year, and we therefore function well during daytime and get sleepy as the darkness falls. But if you’re flooding your eyes with that blue light just before you hit the hay, your melatonin is going to be negatively affected, and your poor body clock hasn’t a clue WHAT is going on.
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In general, there are many documented negative effects of sleep deprivation on our physical and mental health, and a lot of these make sense on a basic level. For example, the UK National Health Service on their website has a helpful basic information sheet about the effects of lack of sleep, listing examples such as:
  • Impaired immunity
  • Increased risks of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease
  • Negative effects on our mental health – irritability, poor concentration, low mood

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SO. Let’s get disciplined people. Trust me, I know all too well the temptation of Instagram/Twitter/insert social media outlet here. But I’ve decided I’m not going to neglect this anymore. Time to share the sleep hygiene ground rules I’m setting for myself – starting TODAY:
  • Switching off 30 minutes before I fall asleep (aka NO PHONE. Especially no Instagram (my biggest temptation).
  • Reading, and getting stuck into a good book for those 30 minutes before bed (I’ve just bought The Angry Chef and I can’t wait to read it!)
  • Mindfulness moments before bed – I plan to use Headspace each night as the last thing I do before sleep. Yes, this does mean using my phone – but the app plays while the screen is dark, and I will NOT be popping onto Instagram afterwards.
  • Finally, keeping track and setting a sleep duration goal. 7.5 hours a night is my aim. I’m going to log this for the first couple of weeks, and see how I do. Don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted so we can be honest together!
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Alright. Writing this post has made me feeling pretty frickin’ motivated, I didn’t expect just how much so! It is so refreshing to me to be so honest with you guys, especially on topics like this that I think we can ALL relate to. Working on those four pillars of health is a truly simple message we can spread. No one is perfect, and even if you’ve got three out of four pillars nailed, we need to recognise the equal importance of EACH individual one.
I would LOVE your feedback on this post guys! Let’s keep each other motivated! What pillars of your health do YOU want to improve? Leave a comment or message me on Instagram or Twitter (@theirishbalance) ! I really hope you find this post helpful, and that it resonates with you on some level. Being honest with you inspires me to do better, and the topic of this post was on my mind to write for a good while!
Enjoy guys – let’s do this 🙂
Ciara
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