Sleep deprivation is really hard – it’s been used as a torture method and for good reason! Not getting enough hours of sleep and/or being woken repeatedly throughout the night has real impacts on us. It reduces memory function, concentration, reaction time and judgement, it increases moodiness and bad temper and can lead to loss of motivation. Persistent sleep deprivation with no chance to catch up can leave us feeling depressed and really upset and frustrated by our loss of sleep.
Short or long term sleep disruption is something that almost all parents have to contend with, especially with a new baby, but it can take some children a number of years to sleep through the night. And even when the kids finally learn to sleep through, some parents find their sleep patterns have been so disrupted that they have ongoing insomnia.
Coping with sleep deprivation can be easier than you think – up to a certain point! So how can mindfulness help us cope better?
1. Accepting our lack of sleep
In my experience, the most important thing to start with is to practice acceptance – yes ironic isn’t it, just accept something that’s really terrible and you don’t want happening?! But how many times have you been woken in the night and then laid there worrying and fuming about how tired you’re going to be the next day? How you won’t function at work, you might get sick, you just won’t cope? You feel like crying (maybe you do cry). I know, I’ve been there!
But most of our pain and suffering about sleep loss is caused by this emotional turmoil and worry (and not by the actual lack of sleep). So if we can just drop this story, we miraculously feel a lot better. If we can relax into the sleep disruption and accept that we will feel tired tomorrow, it makes the whole thing about a hundred times easier to bear. And with or without the worrying, it’s amazing how we do just cope the next day.
How to do this? By practicing mindfulness (or awareness) of your emotions and thoughts. So when you’re lying there awake, just notice the stories in your head (I’m going to be exhausted, I just won’t function etc). And notice the feelings in your body at the same time (frustration, anger, sadness etc). Breathe into these feelings in the body: switch your mind’s attention to the body and away from the stories. Keep doing that for as long as possible. Then you can switch to mindful breathing if you like – just feeling the breath in and out. Meditating as you lie there.
2. Letting Go of Trying to Control the Situation
A lot of the emotional turmoil from sleep deprivation can be due to feeling that it’s out of our control. And with children it largely is. There are definitely things we can do to help our child to learn to sleep better – there are so many best-selling books with a “sleep solution” for you (which may or may not work!). But there are children who are just not consistent sleepers and it’s not always possible to change that. All we can do is create the conditions for our child to sleep better, and it’s up to him or her in the end.
Since we can’t really control our child’s sleep, the best thing to do is accept it as a part of being a parent of this particular child. We do what we can to help them sleep better, but beyond that we will be happier if we can just go with the flow. In fact, I’ve found that if I switch my frustration about being woken in the night towards my feelings of love for my daughter and how lucky I am to have her then I can actually lie there in her room at 4am holding her hand and feeling quite joyful!
3. When it’s gone too far
It’s important to note, though, that sleep loss can become a health problem for some of us. There are times when it’s gone on too long and you might start feeling constantly down and unmotivated about life. If these feelings continue for weeks and getting extra sleep doesn’t seem to lift them, you might be suffering from depression (post-natal or otherwise). If that’s you please go and see your GP for help.
Suzie Brown teaches mindfulness meditation courses and workshops for the general public and in workplaces throughout Melbourne and Victoria. She writes a mindfulness blog and offers online courses through her site: www.avistamindfulness.com.au.