Surviving night shifts.

I’ve just finished working a run of night shifts and survived more or less intact so I thought I would share some tips which help me to function (almost) normally while on nights.  I do prefer night shifts to days and have written about why I do here.

Sleep.

The biggest difference between working nights and normal day shifts is obviously sleep.  You’re awake and working when your body wants to shut down and sleep.  You have to convince your body to sleep during the day when it would be awake and functioning.  The main environmental factor which triggers sleep or arousal is light.   To sleep during the day you need to shut the light from your room.  I have dark blinds and lined curtains.  Even in the middle of summer (my room faces south so catches the lovely sunlight all day) it can be nice and dark.

The first night shift of a run of shifts can be challenging because you’re still in day mode.  I find a couple of hours sleep in the afternoon help to prepare but you’re still shattered by the middle of the first shift.

Noise.

Noise can interrupt a nice sleep so it is important to cut out noise where possible.  I’m lucky that it is fairly quiet where I live.  Occasionally I have to use earplugs for example when the local council decide that the only possible day they can dig holes in the pavement outside is when I’m on a set of nights.

Mood.

On a long run of shifts the lack of natural daylight can lower your mood, especially in winter when it’s dark when you go to work and dark on the way home.  Some days I wake up early and go for a short walk while it’s still light.  The exercise and exposure to the daylight always do the trick for me, especially if I throw in some affirmations and run through my list of things I’m grateful for.

Food.

Obviously your eating routine is totally thrown out of the window when on nights.  I haven’t got to the bottom of adjusting nutrition to suit night shift working yet, it does interest me however and is an area I intend to study.  I have a big meal before I start work and make a fruit smoothie to drink while I’m getting ready to go.  I take a few sandwiches and snacks to eat during the shift.  Time to eat on shift is a big problem at work.  I take a series of (healthy) snacks out on the road to eat between jobs.  It seems to work for me – I don’t fade away or pile on the pounds. I manage to resist the urge to buy junk food (most of the time, anyway).

Hydration.

It is important to keep your water levels topped up on nights as it is during the day.  There’s a certain type of headache I only ever get when I’m on nights.  It’s when I wake up mid-afternoon: a vague, sickly sort of headache which lasts for about five hours.  It seems to come when I’ve forgotten to keep sipping from my water bottle and never seems to happen when I’ve had a well hydrated night so I assume it’s a dehydration thing (not very scientific, I know, but the results corresponds very well to the data!).

After the nights are over.

That wonderful morning finally arrives when the night shifts are over.  The trick now is to return to day mode as quickly as possible.  It’s tempting to have a nice long sleep.  The trouble is that if you do have a nice long sleep you will carry on the night shift mode and won’t be able to sleep that night.  I find I have to cut short my nice long sleep and get up early.  I feel like a zombie and have a head full of fog so in the afternoon I don’t try anything too taxing, just catch up with a few jobs around the house.  Then that night I generally sleep well and wake up the next morning back to normal – well as normal as I ever am.

Surviving Storm Emma

That’s a very dramatic title.  Sorry.  Here in the UK we now seem to love dramatic titles and headlines.  According to the press we are currently in the grip of ‘the beast from the East’ (a weather system blowing from the East) and ‘Storm Emma’.   A few years ago we would have called it ‘a spell of winter weather’ but I suppose that wouldn’t sell as many newspapers or get as much internet traffic as ‘the beast from the East’ ravaging us.  To put it in perspective, where I live, we’ve had approx 2 inches of snow with drifts of approx 4 feet in places, blown around by a 40mph breeze.   It’s lasted 3 days so far and caused widespread travel disruption closing roads and forcing train and bus operators to cancel services.  We don’t cope well with the winter weather; I get a bit embarrassed when I think about how some countries cope with months of ‘proper’ snow and drifts without a single sensational headline.

Sadly however there have been a few deaths caused by the winter weather so here is my guide to coping and maybe even thriving.

  1. Keep warm. Very obvious one to start with.  If you have to go out, spend a few minutes preparing what to wear.  To stay warm in this weather you need to keep dry, nothing cools you down like being wet (just think how lovely it is to jump into the pool on a scorching holiday in the sun and how effectively it cools you).  A suitable layer next to skin can help to move any sweat caused by exertion away from your skin so it stays dry.  Nothing feels more uncomfortable than a cold, damp tee-shirt against your skin.  A few layers then to keep hold of layers of warm air near your body and stop your heat from convecting away into the winter’s day. On the outside, a good waterproof layer.  If possible, a modern, breathable waterproof is best, lets the aforementioned sweat get out while still keeping the rain or snow out. Top the outfit off with a hat.   It used to be thought that 40-45% of body heat is lost from the head.  Modern sport science experiments have disproved this but you still lose approx 7% so a hat will make a difference.
  2. Check the news reports for advice on what the roads you’re planning to use are like. If the police are saying not to risk them then it’s probably best not to.  They’re not being spoilsports but are trying to prevent you from being yet another car they have to get towed from a ditch or snowdrift.
  3. If you do have to drive anywhere, prepare. Assume you will be delayed, possibly for a few hours.  Take spare warm clothes, even in your car it can get very cold out there if you’re not moving.  Make sure your mobile (cell) phone is charged or that you have a charger for it in the car.  Take a snack or a drink.
  4. If you’re on regular medication, consider taking it with you then in the worst case if you are delayed by several hours you won’t miss a scheduled dose.
  5. You don’t need to panic buy. In the UK bad weather only normally disrupts things for a couple of days at most.  If snow storms are predicted (and we do normally get a couple of days notice) then just make sure you’ve enough of the basics to last (don’t forget the wine and chocolate!).
  6. Make sure your neighbours are ok, especially the elderly. It may not be as easy for them to get to the shops in foul weather.

 

The local police have found the snow helpful.  One burglar was caught when the officers followed his footprints from the crime scene to where he was hiding.  A cannabis ‘grow house’ was found when it was noticed that it was the only house with no snow on its roof at the height of the storm.  The heat required to grow the plants in the loft had melted it as it landed.

So there you have it.  As always, though, at times of adversity, human goodness tends to shine through.  There are lots of stories of people volunteering to help stranded people providing food warmth and shelter.  Farmers and 4 wheel drive owners have been helping to tow stuck cars.

Keep warm and safe.

Mental Wellbeing in the build up to Christmas

This is the Rusty Siren guide to keeping your spirits up in the build up to Christmas with some mental health tips.  I don’t personally like to think about Christmas before the middle of December but these days I’ve found it is in our faces as soon as Halloween is over.  Evidence suggests that mental illness may increase at Christmas, this is my personal guide to dealing with the whole Christmas thing with minimal stress.

The challenges of this time of year are obvious and well known:

Money.  This has become an expensive festival and the pressure is on to spend more and more.  When we feel obliged to spend more than we have this is a huge source of stress.  Several years ago I had a chat with my family.  We decided to cut back on presents.  We all know we love each other so we don’t unconsciously try to measure love by present monetary value.  Family policy now is children get bigger presents adults get a token present.  Homemade presents are very welcome. We’re all relieved and happy with this.

Time.  Lots of us find ourselves working extra hours to get the extra money we need which then obviously leaves us less time to do the Christmas shopping.  My answer is to start the planning and organising early (hence why I’m writing this now).  I know this will annoy some people; I used to get irritated by the organised types who had Christmas all sewn up when I was just starting to panic around the 20th of December!   I’ve now joined their ranks.  I’ve also caught up with the rest of you in the 21st century and do some of my shopping on-line.  The earlier start leaves longer for the gifts to arrive.  For the shopping I can’t get on-line I plan shopping expeditions in the local towns.  I start early and generally have a loose plan of what I will get and where I will get it.  When it goes well I reward myself with a gift too!  There have been times when I’ve not managed to get a single present but still got myself a gift.

Also, about now is when I start to think about posting any cards which need to go overseas.

Perfect-family-syndrome.  The television is full of adverts for Christmas now.  Often a perfect family is shown; the beautiful couple with the happy children whose life is made even happier by the perfect Christmas they are having.  If that’s you then you have my best wishes and I am truly glad for you and hope you have a fantastic time.  Most of us at some point fall short of that ideal scene. As a divorced dad my Christmases have been a little different.  When my children were younger I used to feel guilty that I had deprived them of this perfect Christmas.   Often my shift pattern has meant that I have been working on Christmas day or Christmas night.  The way we got round this was to plan a day near Christmas when we had our own Christmas.  I came to love our alternative Christmas days.  The kids are adult now but we still enjoy our custom.

Through working the Christmas period I know that a lot of people feel increasingly lonely and depressed at this time – I think this is made worse by the Perfect-family-syndrome pushed by the advertisers.  It’s important to remember that a lot of people also feel lonely and low at this time of year and that it isn’t unusual.  Times when I’ve been alone on the day itself I’ve still planned treats for myself – nice food and tried to have a relaxing day and included a nice walk in the fresh air.

The years where Tony and I are working Christmas day we each bring a microwave Christmas dinner so when we get our 30 minutes on station we can still feel quite festive.  I generally eat all the mince pies, Tony doesn’t really like them!

Extended time with family. During the holiday period we tend to spend more time than we are used to with our families.  Much as we love them, this may also cause increased stress.  Then as the anxiety rises and patience levels drop we feel guilty for feeling like this when we’ve probably been looking forward to spending this time with our loved ones and feel that we shouldn’t feel like this.  It’s good to take a realistic view at times like this. It’s natural that there will be tension when spending more time than we usually do with our families, especially if staying at their house and adapting to their routines.  This is part of being a human.  When this has happened to me I just accept that this is natural and I rely on my go-to remedy for everything: I go for a walk and practice my relaxation techniques.

Despite what it might look like from above I do love Christmas.  I’m a big kid at heart and love all the shiny lights and decorations.  I do think people are kinder and more loving to each other for a brief period of the year.  Regardless of spiritual or religious views I think we all think more about loving and giving at this time of year.

I hope you all have a relaxed and stress free build up to Christmas (It’s way too early to wish Merry Christmas yet!).

Keeping my mind tuned up.

This blog is about my mind and what I do to keep it healthy and to expand my brain. I like to read other blogs about how people manage to keep their minds healthy and active.  If we all share tips like this we can all maybe help each other a bit. I want to stress that this describes things which work for me.  I’m fortunate that I’m basically healthy mentally; all I suffer is the occasional low mood and some social anxiety.  If you suffer with the more serious conditions then I’m sure you realise that it’s expert professional help you need.

I’m not a mental health professional.  I want to stress that.  As a paramedic I’ve very little training in mental health, surprising when you consider how many cases we go to where mental health is the chief complaint.  I am however becoming an expert on me and my mind.  I’ve utmost respect for mental health professionals and always stress that if you have problems you shouldn’t hesitate to get professional help but one thing I’ve learned is that you don’t have to be a professional to help someone.  Just by being there and being prepared to listen and support someone can help a great deal.  Just listen without judging and without even trying to ‘fix’ things.  That may be enough to help a person through a crisis.  Encourage them and support them if necessary to go for professional help.

Talk about things on your mind.  We all know this one but don’t all do it.  I’m as bad as anyone at bottling things up but it really helps to have a few trusted friends in your circle who you feel comfortable talking to.  This next bit probably sounds a bit wrong but I think there comes a point where you have talked about some troubling event and continuing to go round in circles talking or thinking about it will make things worse.  There comes a point when you’ve analysed the event, learned from it, when you have to accept that you can’t change it or make it ‘un-happen’ by continuing to ruminate on it.  This is the point where you have to accept that it happened (I’m not saying that the event is acceptable.  It may be totally unacceptable and terrible but the fact is it has happened and you can’t change that, so it helps to accept that it happened).  This can be the difficult bit and where professional help may be needed. Once you’ve accepted it, maybe you can come up with a plan to improve things.  I found this the hard way: I had a particular problem I kept alive for 6 months by constant rumination and trying to analyse it.  Eventually I got so sick of it I just accepted it.  That was a huge weight off for me and I actually started to move on then.

It’s important not to ignore uncomfortable feelings and emotions.  In the past I’ve done this.  I’ve used distraction to take my mind off feelings it would have been better to face.  Thankfully my coping mechanisms weren’t too destructive.  I’ve avoided excessive alcohol and drugs but have watched many hours of mindless TV and read countless novels just to distract myself.  The thing is these feelings don’t just go away.  Experts tell us they hang around just out of sight (repressed), possibly building strength and cause problems from behind the scenes later (unexplained low moods or bursts of emotion at random triggers).  Now when faced with an uncomfortable or painful emotion I make a bit of time for myself and just feel it. It’s ok to cry at this point if you feel like it (I find this hard but they say it’s healthy and can be a relief). I concentrate on nice slow, deep, abdominal breathing and feel the feeling.  I try not to think about it or describe it to myself, just concentrate on feeling it and breathing.  If I find my mind starting to think about it, judge it or describe the feeling I focus once more on my breathing. I find that it passes after a while and doesn’t seem to cause problems later.  Sometimes the feeling may come back again but I just feel it again – it seems to be less intense and unpleasant the second and any subsequent times.  To date this had been successful for me.

This is the time of year when Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD (isn’t that an appropriate acronym?)) may start to take effect (here in the UK).  It causes the typical symptoms of depression and is associated with the shorter, darker days of autumn (fall) and winter.  The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood but it is thought that reduced exposure to light affects the way part of the brain (hypothalamus) works.  It may cause: over production of melatonin, the hormone which makes you feel sleepy and tired; under production of serotonin, the chemical which provides a feeling of well being.  The lower exposure to light is also thought to affect the natural sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) leading to symptoms of depression.  The self help methods for tackling SAD are quite logical.  Try to make the most of what natural daylight there is.  Spend time outside when you can, couple this with exercise – a nice long walk – and you increase the benefits.  Exercise on its own should help with the symptoms of low mood, even if it’s not outside.  Make sure you have a healthy diet.  Some people find artificial light helps; there are ‘natural light’ bulbs you can get for lamps which are said to help.  You can get special ‘light boxes’ which are very bright lights, I’ve never tried these.

Music always helps me.  Most of the time at home I have the radio on rather than the TV (I’m listening to ‘princess of the night’ by Saxon at the moment).  My taste in music isn’t to everyone’s taste but it really helps me.  I have various playlists on my phone of specific, upbeat rock songs guaranteed to help lift me in just about any situation.

To finish, I feel incredibly grateful for my life, I’m very lucky to be healthy, have a wonderful family and partner and feel I’m generally blessed.  My Grandma always told me to ‘count my blessings’ and I think that old advice about focussing on what is going right in your life and being thankful for it really helps to keep positive.

I wish you all health, relaxation, peace of mind and contentment.