Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Entry archive:

Scott Schieman 

Scott Schieman

 

What to do when stress undermines sleep Add to ...

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”

Apparently, author Ernest Hemingway was able to separate stress from slumber. For many of us, however, the stuff that threatens to make our lives “fall apart” is often the same stuff that keeps us awake at night – and that’s before you factor in the snoring partner (or dog).

In a recent report titled Stressed Out: Americans Tell Us About Stress In Their Lives, a team of researchers from National Public Radio (NPR), the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health described Americans’ most typical responses to high stress. Among the 2,500 people surveyed, “sleeping less than usual” was the most frequently mentioned response. Fully 70 per cent reported this.

And what of Canadians – how well are we sleeping? My 2011-2013 Canadian Work, Stress, and Health Study (CANWSH), a national survey of workers, finds that we average about 6.8 hours of sleep per night – an amount that has been stable over the past few years.

But the more interesting story surfaces when we probe for problems. How often do you have trouble falling or staying asleep? How often do you wake up before you want to? How often do you wake up feeling refreshed?

Turns out, there are a lot of sleepy Canadian workers: 21 per cent say that they frequently (”most” or “all of the time”) have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, 29 per cent frequently wake up before they want to, and only 37 per cent frequently wake up refreshed.

We’re not so different from our neighbours to the south: The National Study of the Changing Workforce found that 19 per cent of American workers frequently have trouble falling asleep and 29 per cent frequently wake up before they want to.

Both surveys also document a higher risk among women. Some researchers partly blame this on the “fourth shift,” in which women sacrifice uninterrupted sleep because of physical and emotional labour in family roles. For example, sociologists Jenny Hislop and Sara Arber found that when young children require attention in the middle of the night, women are more likely to attend to them. And, when weight or health problems produce a “snoring heap,” women with male partners typically are the ones who struggle with the choice to “put up” or relocate to the couch or a different bed (and report feeling guilty for “desertion”).

Clearing the decks

Achieving restful sleep is the ideal, and to get it we have to relax, unwind and alleviate built-up tensions from the day that linger on the mind. But “clearing the decks” is easier said than done. The demands of work and family roles tax our energy and constrain time for other activities. When we feel rushed, thoughts of all that didn’t get done can seep into the nighttime hours.

A new study in the journal Sleep identifies “cognitive intrusion” – the pesky, persistent and unwanted thoughts about stressors – as a key antecedent to sleep problems. Cognitive intrusion has features that are similar to those tasks that require effort and attention, thereby promoting wakefulness. While perfectly appropriate when you’re navigating work deadlines or presenting ideas to colleagues, this isn’t ideal if it leaves you frustratingly wide-awake at 1:13 a.m.

Our interviews with Canadian workers reveal the triggers of cognitive intrusion. Role-blurring activities – especially “after-hours” e-mail – is a main culprit. Can you clear the decks if you check e-mail before bed, and worse, open an angry one? An executive director described the fallout from doing just that: “I get an angry e-mail before bed and then I have trouble sleeping. That’s the problem with e-mail. They’ll write it in the heat of the moment being upset, and I’m home and it’s late.”

Why not simply shut down? Expectations. “It’s part of the field we’re in,” she explains. As the director, she views after-hours availability as part of her job – and believes others expect it too.

Imagine a job description that included: “Anticipate that the work might undermine your sleep quality.” Would you apply? Then again, maybe we have accepted this as the new normal.

The grouchiness factor

Sleep disruption affects our ability to be intellectually sharp, but we all know the emotional toll – the moodiness, the irritability.

A travel agent lamented the hazards of her irregular shift: “If I work the overnight shift, I doze in and out to get a little sleep because I will be working the next morning…when you go two days like that you’re gonna get tired, you’re gonna get grouchy, and the first people you’re probably gonna be grouchy against is when you get home.”

If only the unfortunate targets of our wrath knew how poorly we slept last night…and the night before.

Personal stories map on to broader patterns. The CANWSH study shows that which we know intuitively to be true: Your risk of grouchiness skyrockets as the frequency of sleep disruption rises. Given that sleep is essential for mental and physical health, and that good sleep helps us manage stress, what can we do when stress undermines sleep? How do we break out of this vicious cycle?

The National Sleep Foundation suggests using a sleep diary to pinpoint problem areas, and offers tips to improve sleep, such as spend the last hour before bed doing something calming like reading, avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy meals in the evening, if you can’t sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired, and, finally, use your bed only for sleep and sex.

But if you want to love your sleep, I suggest you add these to the list: Avoid reading e-mails at least two to three hours before bed, and leave all work stuff – and your smartphone – outside the bedroom.

And what if there’s no place to relocate to escape that snoring heap, and sharp elbows don’t work? Give earplugs a try.

Dr. Scott Schieman is a Canada Research Chair (Social Contexts of Health) and professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on the causes and health consequences of social stress. You can follow him on Twitter @ScottSchiemanUT

Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Health

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular