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How Meditation Helps Me Beat Shift Work Insomnia

All I needed was 10 to 20 minutes, I could meditate in the middle of the workday just to deal with anything that stressed me, and I was ready to put on a smile, pick up my clipboard, and get back to work.
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I Hope Through Sharing How Meditation Helps Me With My Shift Work Insomnia, I Can Help Others

I’ve always loved being a nurse, but it can be a strange profession. Coming from a culture that values family above all else, I was always good at caring for people, which is how I survived my first couple years on the job. To say that it was stressful would be an understatement.

On one hand, we’re schooled about how sleep and recreation are essential to maintaining a healthy mind and body. On the other hand, our rotating and irregular shifts don’t really allow us to get enough sleep and recreation – often we have to choose between the two. Fortunately, for the most part of my first years as a licensed vocational nurse, I chose sleep. However, even though I rarely went out with friends and colleagues (even on my days off), it wasn’t enough to get me the amount of sleep that I needed to be the best nurse I could be. This is how I was rudely awakened to the fact that shift work can really take its toll on a person.

The Beginning of My Shift Work Disorder

Even though I was still able to do my job as necessary, there were too many workdays when I felt lethargic, and it was largely because the rotating schedules made it impossible to fall asleep easily. This would make me anxious about getting enough sleep and being lethargic and less competent the following workday. Anxiety made me unable to sleep, and the inability to sleep made me anxious – a vicious cycle of stress, anxiety, and shift work insomnia. Often, I would relish the times when I felt physically drained upon getting home because this would at least mean that it’d be easier for me to actually fall asleep. It was terrible, and the only thing that kept me going was the desire to put a roof over my head and my love for what I do. I managed for years to keep this up without underperforming or getting fired. Of course, I wasn’t advancing in my career, either.

I was stuck in a stressful limbo that kept me safe, well-fed, consistently stressed, sleep-deprived, and based on my knowledge as a medical professional, at risk of developing several physical conditions that would definitely put a damper on my career as a nurse. For your information, chronic insomnia can lead to a number of expensive and serious health diseases and conditions, like high blood pressure, peptic ulcer disease, diabetes, heart disease, and osteoarthritis. Not only could these affect my quality of life, some could actually terminate my life outright.

My Introduction to Meditation As A Solution For Shift Work Insomnia

Believe it or not, during my worst days as an insomniac, the most useful piece of advice I got was to take meditation classes. Obviously, because I worked in a hospital, there was no shortage of people who could give me qualified medical advice about my problems with shift work insomnia. Doctors and fellow nurses came to me with all sorts of scientifically-backed remedies – don’t drink coffee too close to bedtime, sleep with zero lights on, always be fully hydrated, exercise for 150 minutes per week, try taking melatonin, etc. For the record, I gave each of these remedies a shot, and they only slightly improved my condition. It wasn’t until I heard about the sleep benefits of meditation that I really saw some positive results.

A colleague cued me in to how meditation helps him relax and keep a level head throughout our constantly rotating shifts. He explained how, through the practice of slow breathing, he was able to put his mind at ease and fall asleep easily. I was skeptical at first as I’d already tried a bunch of insomnia remedies recommended by fellow medical professionals to no avail. How could proper breathing be of help to me now? How could such a simple solution be the answer to my complex sleep problems? I had my doubts but I was also curious. More to the point, I was desperate. Pretty soon, I found myself agreeing to join a meditation class during a mutual day off with my colleague.

Meditating Can Be Challenging

It was a class on basic mindfulness meditation. The point was to achieve relaxation and calm through extreme focus. It sounds easy in theory: all you need to do is sit still, focus on your breathing, and think about nothing else except what you’re doing now – nothing in the past or the future – the present should be the only thing in your mind. Only when I started meditating was I made aware that I was too high-strung. The first time I tried it, I was assaulted left and right by future worries about my career, long-term health, and financial security. As if in response to my thoughts, my body was stiff and unable to relax.

That’s when I learned about having a mental point of focus. Through the use of a mantra, which can be a word, sound, or a phrase, I was able to better focus myself on the present moment. My mantra was the traditional ‘ohm’ – the first sound in the universe – a meditation mantra that’s been used for millennia by monks who sought absolute control over their focus. By focusing on my breath and repeating the mantra in time with my breathing, I was able to keep my focus and actually relax. It was an intense feeling of relaxation that I hadn’t experienced in years and still haven’t experienced again to this day. The colleague who brought me to class attributed it to my years of insomnia and finally having some significant relief. And he was right. Despite having started roughly, I picked up the essentials of meditation on my first class. I quickly signed up for another class for the following week.

Throughout the week before my second meditation class, I practiced at home. I would meditate for 20 minutes before work, finding that it gave me mental clarity even on days when I felt lethargic. Before I went to sleep, I meditated for another 20 minutes. For the first time since being a nurse, I wasn’t worried about the next day. I felt my anxiety lower considerably. Throughout the entire week, I slept like a baby. There was no reason to return to the meditation class. My colleague agreed, after which he taught me one more thing about meditation: positive imagery.

Apart from proper breathing and repeating a mantra, another effective way to hold on to your focus is to imagine a relaxing place, activity, or situation in your head. By doing all three, it was easier to get into a state of meditation and eventually into a state of extreme mental and physical calmness. It was from this calmness that I drew the strength to finally beat chronic shift work insomnia.

Meditation Is Its Own Reward

Female nurse meditating at workApart from helping me battle my shift work disorder and letting me sleep despite my rotating work schedules, I found that meditation had other significant benefits. Nothing relaxes me like 10 to 20 minutes of meditation – not even good sex or exercise. The relaxation I get from meditation is a mental and physical effect that makes me feel impervious to anxiety. There was no reason to be anxious – not if you knew how to keep your mind sharply focused on the present. And because all I needed was 10 to 20 minutes, I could meditate in the middle of the workday just to deal with anything that stressed me out too much – after which, I was ready to put on a smile, pick up my clipboard, and get back to work.

Because of meditation, I can sleep right, I’m a more capable nurse, and I’m a lot less worried about my past mistakes and what can happen to my health or career in the future. I’m not saying it’s a miracle cure to your life’s problems, but it certainly helped me. Just ask my lack of health problems and my two promotions.

Featured Image: Mitchell Joyce

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