Finding time to sleep may be one of the biggest challenges of caregiving. The second might be relaxing enough to actually fall asleep.
Caregiving-related stress disrupts your sleep, increases your risk of depression, and affects your overall physical health. If your patient or loved one experiences sundowning, is ill, or themselves wakes up frequently, it only gets worse.
In fact, the stress of caregiving is so uniquely intense, that it’s earned its own name in the medical literature: caregiver burden. Unfortunately, up to 20% of caregivers turn to alcohol or sleep medications to help them sleep, a dangerous compensation plan that can lead to addiction.
It’s a troublesome cycle: the stress of caregiving leads to insomnia, which makes caregiving harder, leading to more stress, more trouble sleeping, and potentially, eventual caregiver burnout.
The danger of sleep deprivation for caregivers
Lose out on sleep for too long, and you’ll end up in a constant state of chronic sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation isn’t just dangerous for you as the caregiver; it also puts your loved one or patient at risk.
People who are sleep-deprived have difficulty focusing, and experience a reduction in their reaction times. You may find yourself missing important doctor appointments, or even whether you just gave someone their medication. Study after study shows that health care professionals working on less sleep are significantly more prone to on-the-job errors, putting patient safety at risk.
Without sufficient sleep, your emotional stability goes through the roof. Besides dreaming, the REM stage of sleep helps your brain process emotions from the day. With healthy REM sleep, you’re more emotionally balanced. Without it, you’ll have a tougher time keeping your emotions in check, finding yourself snapping out of anger or tears welling up over a small setback.
During deep sleep, your body restores you from the physical stresses of the day. Caregivers are often on their feet, which is tiring enough, but they’re also often repositioning humans and lifting heavy objects, both of which put a strain on the body.
Sleep loss leads to weight gain. When you miss out on sleep, it disrupts your brain’s leptin production, the hormone that helps you regulate your appetite. It overproduces ghrelin instead, a hormone that particularly craves especially fatty and sugary food. Overindulge in these foods and you’ll experience weight gain, making your physical work harder, and making you frustrated, too.
Sleep deprivation also compromises your immune system. The less well-rested you are, the more likely you are to get sick from a cold or flu – and then take even longer to recover. And if you’re sick, you won’t be able to provide proper care to your loved one, for fear of putting their already weakened immune system at risk.
All of these negative consequences are scary enough on their own, but long-term sleep deprivation – the kind that lasts months or years, which is just the kind caregivers are prone to – leads to equally serious long-term health problems like diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. Living with that kind of chronic stress, combined with the stress of caregiving, is a recipe for anxiety and depression – both of which in turn make it harder to be a good caregiver.
Finally, if you’re not making room for sleep, you’re probably not making room for the other activities that make life joyful and restore you emotionally from the burden of caregiving, like time spent with friends and family.
Sleep tips for caregivers
So, how much sleep do you need? The recommended minimum amount for the average adult is 7 to 7.5 hours per night. Unfortunately, 60% of female caregivers and 46% of male caregivers report sleeping less than that a night.
Get better sleep, and you (and your patients) will thank you for it. You’ll feel better on a daily basis, and you’ll be significantly more equipped to handle the stresses of caregiving.
Here are our top sleep tips for caregivers:
1. Get help.
Caregiving is too much for one person. If possible, see what outside help you can get from professional caregivers or respite care services. You can also ask other family members or friends to help. They might take on a shift once a week, or agree to help you with other, non-caregiving-related errands, like grocery shopping or taking your car to the repair shop.
Remember that these people love and care about you. They want you to feel better, so let them help you. People are often happy to help, all you have to do is ask them.
Lean on others for emotional support, too, including friends, family, and professionals like a therapist or spiritual advisor. You can also search for caregiver support groups online, or locate in-person groups in your town, too.
2. Devote your bedroom to sleep.
Reserve your bedroom for sleep and sex only. That means no caregiving, no hobbies, and no work. Not only should you not perform these activities in your bedroom, but you should also keep it clear of any clutter that might remind you of them, such as insurance forms or patient paperwork.
This is especially important if you’re caring for a loved one who lives with you. It is essential that you train your mind to mentally view the physical spaces in your home for sleeping as separate from the ones associated with the stresses of caregiving.
You can get a baby monitor to keep an eye on your loved one while they sleep, but try to avoid sleeping in the same room as them. If you must sleep in their room with them, get a sleep mask to block out blinking lights from any health equipment.
Beyond that, make your room a haven for sleep. Keep it cool, dark, and quiet. Invest in a mattress that’s comfortable and supportive, conducive to helping your body repair from the day, and use bedding that’s appealing to get into and makes you feel cozy.
3. Reduce stress during the day.
LIfe is stressful, and caregivers are more stressed than most. Reduce your risk of caregiver burnout by reducing your stress.
During the day, try to fit in some exercise that helps you work off excess stressful energy. Exercise can also improve your sleep, given that you do it early enough in the day to prevent it from over-energizing you at night. Try to exercise in the morning, working off your stress while you get an endorphin boost for the day.
Yoga is another option. Not only is it a great stress-reliever, but it’s also a good way to stay flexible and fit in a low-impact way.
4. Reduce stress at night.
At night, relieve your stress by organizing a calming routine of activities before bed. A bedtime routine helps train your mind to recognize that you’re preparing for sleep, so it should get ready to fall asleep, too.
Fill your bedtime routine with relaxing activities, like aromatherapy, taking a warm bath, meditation or deep breathing exercises. This way, you physically calm your mind and body in preparation for sleep.
Of course, those deep breathing exercises can help you find calm during extremely stressful situations in the daytime, too.
5. Dedicate time for stress.
We know, the previous tip was all about getting rid of stress, and now we’re telling you to save time for it. Hear us out.
Consider setting up a daily stress appointment for yourself. Whether this is 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or a full hour, you can deal with all your stress at this time. Then, when something activates your anxiety during the day, you can calmly respond by filing it away in a diary to deal with during your stress appointment.
During the appointment, you can spend all the time in the world stressing out. You may write down new worries, or review worries you wrote down earlier. You can also take this time to organize your stressful thoughts into a to-do list. Simply the act of writing your anxieties down takes them out of your head and onto the paper, relieving you in some symbolic way of the burden. Then, before you go to bed at night, you can symbolically put this diary away in a drawer outside your bedroom for dealing with the next day.
Hopefully, this stress appointment will have flushed the mind of your worries, so you won’t have anything to spin your wheels about in bed except falling asleep.
6. Follow good sleep hygiene.
Outside of managing your stress, be sure to follow good sleep health habits, too. Avoid heavy meals or heavy exercise late at night, and limit your caffeine and alcohol past the afternoon. These substances interfere with your sleep, and they’re no friend to stress, either.
Also turn off all your electronics at least 30 minutes before bed. The blue light in these devices, from your phone to your computer, are perceived so strongly by your brain that it assumes it’s sunlight. Then, since it “sees” sunlight, it thinks it’s daytime and tries to keep you awake. Besides, these devices are often the messengers of more stressful information, like medical bills and doctor emails, so you’d be better off turning them off when you’re trying to relax for sleep.
7. Watch your sleep schedule.
Follow a regular sleep schedule where you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends. The more regular your schedule, the more your brain will naturally want to wake and sleep at those times.
Try to avoid napping too much, too. While naps might seem like a harmless way to squeeze in more sleep, it’s actually better for you to get all of your sleep at once, ideally at night. During sleep, your brain cycles through multiple stages of sleep, from light to deep to REM, before entering light sleep again. It repeats this cycle four or five times a night, which each cycle spending more time in REM sleep – the one where you get all of your mental and emotional benefits from.
If you nap during the day, limit it to a 30-minute power nap. Sleep longer than that, and you’re likely to enter deep sleep, which is much tougher to wake up from.