The ongoing recessionand November's staggering loss of U.S. jobsis enough to keep anyone up at night. If you've ever experienced stress-related insomnia, you probably know the basic sleep rules: Relax before bed, set a consistent schedule, and as youre lying awake at 3 a.m., try not to think about things that are bothering you.
But with the unstable economy, and jobs and retirement savings hanging in the balance, you also know thats easier said than done. Americans are more stressed about finances today than they were just six months ago, and many are losing sleep over it. So is it really possible to push all that emotion aside at bedtime? Or is now the time to get help from a doctor or a sleeping pill?
The answer involves how well youre able to manage stress, says Mary Susan Esther, MD, president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Dr. Esther, who practices sleep medicine at Charlotte Eye Ear Nose & Throat Associates in North Carolina, is no stranger to economy-related sleep woes.
"Charlotte has been really hit recently; Wachovia [is] based here, and so our phones have just been ringing off the hook the past few weeks with people complaining about sleeplessness and insomnia," she says, referring to the ailing bank that is close to being swallowed up by Wells Fargo. "The economy means our jobs, and thats always much more threatening than other problems that can seem easier to intellectualize and think through, especially when were lying awake and things seem hopeless. Its our bread and butter, our source of pride, and that hits home a lot faster than other crises."
The progressive decline of the economy has been taking a physical and emotional toll on people across the country, according to a 2008 Stress in America survey released in October by the American Psychological Association. About half of the people polled said they are increasingly stressed about their ability to provide for their familys basic needs, and 80% say the economy is a significant source of stress (up from 66% in April). Women especially reported worries about money, job stability, housing costs, and health problems affecting their families.
Compared with 2007, more respondents also said they are fatigued, irritable or angry, and lying awake at night as a result of stress. Almost one-fifth of Americans reported drinking alcohol to manage their stress, and 16% reported smokingtwo factors that can affect your ability to get quality sleep. (Gauge your personal stress level here.)
Another recent survey by BettyConfidential.com found that women are concerned about issues like "affording groceries and other staples like gas," "losing what took so long to acquire," and "things getting worse in the country and it affecting me." One respondent wrote, "I dont sleep more than four hours a night. I get headaches. I worry that my kids cant go to college and my doctor now has me on antianxiety meds. (Thankfully, they are cheap!)" Its not just U.S. citizens who are affected by the global crisis, either: British website NetDoctor.co.uk found that one-fifth of U.K. residents surveyed are regularly getting fewer than five hours of sleep a night, and one-fourth wake up more than three times a night. Two-thirds of those reporting insomnia cited money and work as sources of their sleep troubles.
Some people may be able to break this cycle by taking a step back: "Turn off the news and turn off your computer a couple of hours before bed," advises Dr. Esther. "We now have access to news 24 hours a day and we are certainly taking advantage of it. And this is a particularly difficult time because its been such a roller-coaster ride and everyone is just waiting, checking back constantly to see what will happen. It reminds me of what people went through right after 9/11, this sense of unknown anxiety."
A break from all that intensity may be just what you need. Read a fashion magazine or a funny booksomething to make you laugh and get your mind off money and the news. Try getting your news updates in the morning, when you have a fresh start.
Basic sleep hygiene rules are still important: Be sure youre getting enough downtime before bed, even if it means putting away your checkbook and bills after dinner or promising yourself youll leave work at a decent hour. Pay attention to how you handle stress too: If youre turning to alcohol or cigarettes more than usual, alter your habits—try exercising or taking a walk instead.
Get help if you need it
If these tactics dont help after a few weeks of sleeplessness, see a doctor. "If patients come to me and say that they just cant get their mind off these problems, then its a perfectly appropriate time to use a sleep aid," Dr. Esther says. She doesnt often recommend over-the-counter medications (most include antihistamines and can leave people feeling drowsy or hungover the next day); instead, she might prescribe a few weeks' worth of prescription hypnotic medication to break a cycle of sleeplessness.
You and your doctor should decide howand how oftenyoull take this medication. Some patients benefit from a pill every night, while others may take pills only as needed, such as two or three times a week.
"Often Sunday nights are particularly difficult, because youve been up all weekend and youre worried about work the next day," says Dr. Esther. "It always depends on the patient." Newer prescription sleep medications, called nonbenzodiazepines, have been shown to cause less rebound insomniaso you can stop taking them as soon as your sleep problems are under control, provided you continue to practice good sleep habits.
Its also important to talk to your doctor to see if you may be at increased risk for depressionespecially if your sleeplessness lasts for more than a few weeks or leads you to spend your daylight hours sitting at home dozing in and out. In such cases, an antidepressant may work better than a normal sleeping pill.
Whether youre out of work or overworked, a few things remain constant. Establishing a regular routineincluding waking up at the same time, exercising, and getting out in the sunshine during the dayand working step-by-step toward goals can help keep you focused and upbeat. And putting your sleep needs firstwhether that means closing your laptop, devoting eight hours to bed, or talking to your doctor about short-term solutionswill leave you better able to overcome the challenges ahead.