How to get a good night’s sleep when you’re in burnout mode

Written by Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 32-year-old SEO executive wonders why she’s so tired all the time. 

A little about me:

Age: 34

Occupation: lawyer

Number of hours sleep you get each night: 6

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: 8

Do you grind your teeth/have nightmares: both, occasionally. I also struggle with bouts of insomnia

How much water you drink on average per day: 2-3 litres

How much exercise I do on average per week:  5 times a week, when not unwell

Day 1

I wake up naturally at 07:00 but fall back asleep until I’m gently awoken by my Sleep app alarm at 08:00. I jump out of bed to walk the dog, take five fish oils (feeling a bit under the weather) and an echinacea tablet with 500ml sparkling water, grab a homemade vegan protein shake from the fridge and leave the house to go to church.

After some walking, I do a bit (by which I mean a lot) of work to prep for returning to work tomorrow. Then, I decide to have an early-ish dinner at 7ish of homemade roasted butternut squash soup and birthday fairy cakes.

I nap in front of TV, take the dog for pre-bed walk, then make a lemon and ginger tea with fresh ginger (which I mix with a sachet of Lemsip). I eat the ginger pieces whole.

My Sleep app tells me to wind down, but I feel anxious about returning to work and the long day ahead of me tomorrow. I crawl into bed at 10:46pm with an alarm set for 07:00. And, unsurprisingly, I sleep terribly, waking up at 00:39 and then again to go to the loo and then again before light (I don’t bother checking the time).

Day 2

I wake up before my Sleep app at 07:07, and the alarm goes off at 07:30. I have terrible throat pain and, when I take a look, I can see enlarged tonsils and blood.

I take the dog around the block and settle into work with a large Lemsip with ginger and a breakfast of kedgeree, which I wash down with another mug of ginger tea.

It’s a busy day with a lot of ginger tea and a lot of stressful meetings interspersed with Lemsip.Dinner doesn’t take much effort thankfully – the batched homemade soup and garlic paratha I made at the weekend feels like a treat at the end of a long day.

I take the dog on a 10,000 step walk and have two peach yoghurts to soothe my throat. Then I clamber into bed at 9pm, my throat still on fire – but thankfully I’ve booked a virtual GP’s appointment for 07:45.

I listen to an audiobook and turn the lights out at 10pm. It is a horrific night’s sleep. I wake up at 00:01 and 02:00. At 04:24 I wake up again and go to the loo. Straight back to bed. I remain intermittently dosing until 7am. It is very difficult to swallow. 

Day 3

I don’t bother with breakfast today, and sparkling water is too uncomfortable. I’ve run out of Lemsip and am now isolating because I’ve been told to get a Covid test. I jump out of bed at 07:45 just in time to answer the phone to the GP.

Still, it’s a busy but manageable day. I just about manage one slice of toast with two eggs and half an avocado for dinner (fitting penicillin around mealtimes is a nightmare, but I’ve got antibiotics and Lemsip and soluble aspirin now). Then, I force myself to go for an hour long dog walk. At least it isn’t raining like last night, or cold like a few nights ago. 

I do a bit more work and I set my alarm for 07:30. I turn the lights out just before 10:30pm. Am really trying to maintain a sense of sleep discipline given illness, but I still wake up at 01:21, so I take the opportunity to go to the toilet. Then, back to sleep.

I wake up again in the night and, while I didn’t check the time, I figured it was time for another dose of antibiotics.

Day 4

I sleep until my alarm goes off at 07:30. And, despite waking up in the night, I feel like I had a good sleep!

I wait an hour after meds to have breakfast (a protein shake and a leftover yum yum!) then work through until my early dinner at 5ish. I’m ravenous, so I order a buttery pasta from Deliveroo. Very happy.

I watch a few hours of TV, then start responding to emails for about 2.5 hours from 10pm. I’m not tired, so take the dog out to a tree and back.

I get to bed at 00:33 although have been IN bed for about five hours. Then, I take magnesium and an echinacea tablet, set my phone alarm to wake at 9am for a #cheekyliein, and have a better night’s sleep for it.

Day 5 

I wake up at 05:01, go to the loo, take two penicillin, then get back to bed. I wake up again at 08:30 and then get out of bed at 9ish for a very busy day.

My Covid negative test comes through, and I’m relieved that I can exercise outdoors again, even though I haven’t had the strength to! I am feeling a bit better though.

I eat dinner – Caribbean chicken soup and plantain – then treat myself to some ice cream, before working until 1:30am. 

I take the dog for a walk around the block, have a magnesium tablet, and realise I’m not feeling tired. Eventually, I crawl into bed at 01:45 and set alarm for 08:20. And, while I do not struggle to fall asleep, I wake up at 06:24.

I take the opportunity to go to toilet and have another dose of medicine. Notice that my jaw is tight and teeth have been clenched.

I sleep through until 08:20 when alarm went off. I’m tired but have to get ready for meetings – so glad it’s finally Friday. May have to replace the 45 min “run” in my diary today with a nap! Breakfast is 500ml filtered water with lemon, an oat milk ginger hot chocolate and a peach probiotic yoghurt. I’m also thrilled that I can resume my enjoyment of sparking water!

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: First, the positives: your exercise routine is excellent. You just need to learn to slow down when you’re getting to the point of feeling extremely run down.

Your diet is completely fair, but I worry you’re sometimes turning to comfort eating to make up for working hard and not feeling physically well. Why not try halving the amount of sparkling water you drink, and substitute with alkalised water? To make your own, add fresh lemon juice and a small pinch of natural sea salt to a glass of water and get sipping.

I would advise you to stop measuring your sleep and looking at the time when you wake up during the night. I promise this is totally normal; most of us do it at least 10 times a night, but we don’t remember doing so. Checking the time brings us into full consciousness, though, and makes it harder to get back to sleep. 

    Now for the big question – are you happy with your life? Because you really do seem to be running in survival mode on adrenaline and stress. I know that you’re a lawyer – and I have worked with a lot of law firms for well over 20 years, so I know what it can be like – but you seem to be pushing yourself way past healthy limits.

    I would recommend taking up some form of meditation or relaxation technique, as you’re clearly very stressed. You’re obviously brilliant at your job, and very dedicated, but if you want to continue doing what you’re doing then you need some better support strategies to build her resilience, otherwise I fear you’re heading into full burnout more.

    The four stages of burnout

    • You walk around feeling as if you’re constantly under pressure
    • It’s hard to switch off – you’re constantly on, you can’t stop thinking about work, and it seeps into every part of your life
    • It impacts your work, you feel utterly exhausted, and truly rundown
    • Collapse and burnout – you may even be off work for months at a time 

    You can watch my video on burnout via the BBC for more information, but in the meantime, please go to your doctor, or access help from work. Does your company have an employee assistance programme? Is there a trusted friend you can speak to?

    Reach out, let them know you’re struggling, and seek the support you need. And please, do take a good hard look at the choices you’re making, because your body is telling you that you need to look after yourself. Finding blood on your tonsils isn’t a good sign at all. 

    If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at [email protected] with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

    Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

    Images: Getty/Unsplash

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