How Pushing It Can Affect Our Sleep

One day this week, I over did it. Unfortunately the following day I wasn’t able to rest as much as I’d hoped to, so by day 3 things were pretty grim and that went into day 4 too. I’m very aware that on each day instead of resting as much as my body demanded and keeping to a relaxed effortless pace, I’ve pushed myself at least once to get something seemingly important done. It’s bad enough that I’ve not given my body the chance to get over my post exertional malaise, but to make matters worse last night I reached the point where I struggled to get to sleep. And we all know how poor sleep just exacerbates symptoms further. It’s quite a vicious cycle.

There are 3 ways in which pushing it can impact on sleep. The first is that by resorting to pushing it we are calling on our stress response which is heightening an already overactive sympathetic nervous system. Have you noticed how your mind can be particularly active when you’ve done too much? Sympathetic nervous system activity makes sleep difficult and if it does come, it isn’t deep because basically we’re on alert to any danger.

The second way is that pushing it can lead to the kind of muscle tension that is difficult to let go of. My theory is that because we are so ineffective at producing energy, our nervous system gets into a kind of loop… ‘this message isn’t producing the required results  I better keep asking’. Combine that with an overactive sympathetic nervous system that is keeping you on alert for fight or flight and your muscles are constantly primed for action. The fact that you can’t let go of tension in your muscles is pretty difficult to ignore when you’re trying to get to sleep.

The third way is all about timing. Sleep and sleepiness come in cycles. If we push past our moment of being most sleepy, we will become more alert, and then more frustrated at our inability to sleep, increasing our arousal further  so that we’re less likely to notice when the next cycle comes around.

So what can we do about it?

  1. Ok so the obvious thing is to aim to avoid pushing things in the first place! But we’re human so if that fails…
  2. Aim to lower the sympathetic nervous activity and activate the parasympathetic with some meditation or relaxation
  3. Massage over-tense muscles perhaps with some antispasmodic essential oils (see this post)
  4. Aim to become better attuned to our earliest and strongest sleep wave and go to bed when sleepy
  5. If we’ve missed our first sleep wave accept that sleep is going to be a little more difficult until the next one comes around, about 90-110 minutes later, find some way to relax so that we’ll be ready for it when it does come.
  6. Distract an overactive mind with a single pointed focus that will help you relax such as colouring in or doing a Sudoku puzzle
  7. Write down any worries on a piece of paper and assure yourself that you will keep it safe and deal with them at a more appropriate time

Last night I knew that my attempts to sleep would be futile unless I took some action. I was only getting more wound up. As what was bothering me most was the tension in my legs, I decided to get up and give them a massage. It was worth the effort as I fell to sleep very swiftly afterward. Although it still wasn’t as long or as deep as I’ve been used to, it was a start.

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4 thoughts on “How Pushing It Can Affect Our Sleep”

  1. Yes it’s those ‘seemingly important’ moments that get me every time resulting in running on adrenaline which absolutely does not help my already rubbish sleep pattern.

    The timing thing I get and deal with with audiobooks, I would certainly benefit from being more able to spot the first sleep wave though.

    I find muscle tension best dealt with by hydrotherapy, (pool or failing that warm bath ) or relaxation. Massage causes me all sorts of rigour issues.

    As always sensible advice written in an easy to read and understand way. Thank you.

  2. Gosh this was me last night after an unexpected but lovely(at the time!)visit…..glad today my cranial osteopath will get a lot of that adrenaline out of my body…..your article is great and nails that “tired but wired”Result that kicks in for us to have some normality.

    • Good luck with the cranial osteopath Maureen! Hope you feel more relaxed afterwards. For me it’s the awareness and acceptance of what’s happening that allows me not to add to the stimulation further and to relax and wait for the next sleep wave.


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