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.

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.