Guest blogs

Better sleep in lockdown


By David Cato

The worst thing about the current pandemic is also the best thing about it – we’re all going through it. Across the world, online, in the papers, and on social media, the economic and social effects of our current situation are impossible to avoid. Not a second goes by without someone reading a news story, watching a documentary, or hearing someone’s recent experience and going, “holy crap, me too!” None of us are alone in this, even if we sometimes feel that way, and that’s why we can share in detail our own journeys, like my struggles with sleep, energy, health, and time management; I know that at least some of you out there will read these words and think to yourselves, “yep. Me too. I can relate.”

I’ll admit it. I’ve always taken sleep for granted. Never really bothered to think that much about it. Ironically, during my time at university, lectures about sleep by a certain lecturer (who will remain unnamed) were a favourite nap time for many students. Curious. But it’s so easy anyway right? I’ve been doing it for decades. I spend over 30% of my time alive doing it, more than enough to qualify me as an expert in any other task or activity. It took me a long time to fully recognise the impact poor sleep was having on me. It took a global pandemic. The lethargy, the mind fog, the lack of any real drive to move, to act, to do things. I’d just adjusted to feeling this way over time and accepted these things as a sort of “new norm”. And it’s not like I can plead the excuse of ignorance here, after all, throughout my highs and lows and various mental health challenges over the years, I’d gained a general understanding of good sleep as an important contributor to a properly functioning mind, and good overall health. But knowing isn’t enough, implementation is key.

I’ve heard the lesson a million times, we all have. Teachers, parents, pop-sci articles; all saying “Sleep is important. Have an early night.” Yet somehow, somehow, I still had to wake up from a few consecutive nights of good sleep, look back at my previous week’s self, and think “wow. What a difference!” for the lesson to fully sink in this time. Once I’d relearned how to force myself to bed on time, placed the phone out of reach and had a few good nights’ worth of sleep, it’s like my eyes were fully opened and my higher executive functions were accessible to me once again. Suddenly I’m planning, problem solving, remembering list items, acting decisively and with purpose. Over the previous few months, I’d almost forgotten what it was like to have energy. Mobilising myself to get up at a reasonable hour to do the very basics; hygiene and grooming, cooking, cleaning, shopping, tidying, is so much harder when I’m not (physically, as well as mentally) running at 100% capacity. The lesson here? We all have to recharge each night, properly, in order to perform (at a base level) for a full day.

And all of those things, each small in it’s own way, collectively join to form the backbone of my basic daily life. With a clean eating space, a full fridge, and an organised and uncluttered living space (contributing to an equally uncluttered mind, I’ve found), the next tier of responsibilities and requirements are suddenly achievable! They no longer appear as the daunting, insurmountable cluster of mind-numbing tasks that I’d been so desperate to avoid. Maintaining relationships with loved ones (scheduling regular phone calls mostly), socialising with friends (digitally, of course), exercising and stretching my body, and paying attention to my diet and nutrition, all become so obvious to me. It’s as though once you have the underlying things sorted out, the next series of important tasks that rely on them are suddenly right in front of you, like the obvious next step to take. It’s extremely difficult to go from doing none of these things well to all of them in one go, but, taking things one step, one day, one task at a time, it all becomes possible. Progress, not perfection.

And then, with all these aspects of ordinary life being worked on and maintained as a matter of daily or weekly routine, I find I have the mental bandwidth to take on new tasks too. I can seek employment, develop and maintain a professional image, cultivate a (limited) online presence. I realise I have the additional mental resources available to learn new skills, balance a workload, even withstand the soul crushing black hole of constant rejection that job hunting has become, and balance a positive hobby or two, like drawing sunflowers. Badly (I’m working on it). Essentially, a key discovery for me has been that, sleep is the primary foundation upon which all higher functions and abilities must be supported.

No one has everything handled perfectly, and there’s only so much we can do to improve at any one time. But if you feel like you aren’t quite firing on all cylinders lately, haven’t got access to the full suite of mental and physical abilities you usually have at your disposal, or feel low in energy and mood without any more obvious causes, I can’t recommend pushing your sleep a few notches higher on your list of priorities enough. It’s been a game changer for me. Multiple times. Hopefully it’ll stick this time. 

This blog was written by the wonderful David Cato. A graduate in Psychology and Criminiology, David is a huge advocate for mental health awareness. David is also one of our fabulous Outreach & Development volunteers. Read more about David in our second Meet the Team blog.

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