You were up late because of the baby, sick kids, a holiday party or a deadline. And today you stumble, bleary-eyed into the morning routine, snapping at your partner, blaming your kids for making you late and raging at the bad drivers on the road. Even your morning coffee and the sugary carbs you deserved for breakfast because you’re so tired, can’t wake you up enough to stop the negative emotions that will make you and everyone else want to be very far away from you today.
But, as you see the puffy-eyes stare back at you from your review mirror, you sigh and think, how many nights in a row has it been since I’ve had a decent night sleep? You can’t remember through the brain fog, but you can remember the anger and the sadness you’ve been feeling at the end of every day when you think about how you treated yourself and the other people around you.
You keep cutting yourself some slack because you’ll be able to apologize and be kinder to your family and friends tomorrow. After you’ve had a good night’s sleep. But, that decent sleep never seems to happen and you’re left feeling as if the rage and the despair are the ones driving you in the car.
Breaking the cycle of sleep-deprivation induced anger and sadness isn’t easy. According to Psychology Today, multiple studies have shown that “when people are sleep deprived, they feel more irritable, angry and hostile. Sleep loss is also associated with feeling more depressed.”
From the same Psychology Today article, we learn that “in addition, sleep deprivation seems to be associated with greater emotional reactivity –people who suffer from sleep loss are especially likely to react negatively when something doesn’t go well for them.” So we are more likely to lash out than to respond with more equanimity. Our negative reactions to stimuli are more likely to be larger than they would on a well-rested day.
We need reminders to be gentle with ourselves when we snap at someone or yell at the kids because our higher brain functions are moving more slowly than our reptilian brain. Apologizing and starting over, however many times we need to, helps. Restating what we would like, more slowly, so that we an absorb the words ourselves along with the person we are speaking with helps. This is mindfulness to slow way down and do less today.
Studies have also shown that when good things do happen to us, when we are sleep deprived we underreact to them. So, the hoped for buoyed-up feeling we hoped for from a reward or achievement does little to break us out of our cycle of anger and depression.
There’s no doubt that sleep deprivation is brutal. It takes its toll on interpersonal relationships and on our relationship with ourselves. So, how to break the cycle of anger and sadness when we just can’t get ourselves what will really fix us up: namely when we cannot get ourselves some healing sleep?
When we can’t follow the advice to sleep when the baby sleeps, catch a nap or cut out the extraneous and get to bed yet, we can still find ways to be mindful. Mindfulness is the key to stopping the anger and despair.
Bear in mind that your brain is going to be slow to catch on to this mindfulness. So, you need to be able to stop yourself at any point that you notice an unkind thought or word. Chances are, you won’t be able to stop a negative thought before it happens when you’re sleep deprived. Just as we know that driving while sleep deprived is dangerous because we respond as slowly as if we were drunk, the brain we are operating is going to chug along in its irritated rut.
Sometimes we will be able to notice and stop mid-sentence when we are thinking or speaking it. Most of the time, however, we won’t notice until after it is out. This is the time to very explicitly remind ourselves that the brain is driving while under the influence of sleep-deprivation and to pull over. We can take a breath and notice the irritation, rage, and sadness, make a conscious decision to not use those emotions right now and change to a new sentence that offers more gentleness.
And, yes, we may have to do this as a back to back practice simply to get through one conversation or finishing one task. This is where mindfulness comes in as a practice. It’s okay to mess up, especially when you’re tired. The idea of cutting yourself some slack is a good one. Being upset with yourself for acting on anger and depression won’t help, but reminding yourself of that, even when you don’t believe it to be true, really does help.
Mini-mindfulness meditations help, too. Anytime the feeling of being overwhelmed by emotions arises, you can take a breath or repeat a sentence to yourself that will stop the thoughts and bring your brain back to the present moment. It’s important to remember that you will probably not remember to this, unless you have a meditation habit. So, placing a trigger on your body can help.
Positive triggers for mindfulness can be something like tying a bright string on your finger, wearing your watch on the wrong wrist or having frequent popup alerts on your phone. These work well for mindfulness because they override the habit patterns that our brain relies on to simplify our actions when its taxed by sleep deprivation. These are the habits that allow us to drive home, but realize we have no memory of actually doing it.
Think of your own positive triggers, preferably when you have some sleep and can think creatively. Positive triggers can be anything that is just slightly uncomfortable or marginally outside of your normal routine that you break out of the sleep-induced mood, but they’re not so far out that they cause more irritation and anger.
It’s also an excellent idea to let everyone around you know that you’re struggling. Everyone has experienced sleep-deprivation and understands the difficulties. They will often pick up some slack for you until you feel better. Going without sleep is a good time to rely on other people’s minds.
Above all, to thine own gentleness be true. Be soft with yourself. It’s okay to mess up when you’re running on empty. You know you’ll be back to normal soon and until then, put the self-judgments away because they’re only going to use the gavel as a weapon.
Photo 1 Credit: Flikr Krisztina Tordai
Photo 2 Credit: Flikr Krisztina Tordai
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(Since I’m writing most of these late at night, in bed, while tandem nursing twins, I’m choosing to concentrate on writing rather than proof-reading or editing. Please forgive the extra typos and non-nonsensical grammar. Thank you.)