A question I receive a lot since my diagnosis is “How much sleep are you getting?”
I suppose if you’ve never had a chronic illness or been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease you may not understand the pain that comes with uncertainty and the way it can affect every single aspect of your life. I’ve always been a big sleeper, like most teenagers growing up I’d go to bed around 11pm then sleep until 11am-12pm. Looking back on that I can’t help but think "what a waste of a day!"
but back then I just couldn’t rise without my 12 hours shut eye. It was probably a combination of school, socialising, sport and general running around as even when I started University I’d have long sleeps during the semester break as if to make up for all the lost hours spent up late studying.
Cancer may as well be known as the sleep thief as leading up to check-ups, scans and appointments my shut eye pays for it. Since being diagnosed my mind seems to have lost the ability to fall asleep calmly most nights, and I definitely pay for it in the morning. I wake up most days feeling groggy, irritated and nauseas from lack of Z’s, but regardless of the physical outcomes, this is entirely a mental issue.
It’s difficult living with cancer as how many nights can you fall asleep, not knowing how many more mornings you’ll wake up? Contemplating mortality is a difficult endeavour and keeping it together on the outside comes at a price: eventually, like a wound-up piece of string, you’re going to unravel and there’s going to be some mess to clean up. I feel as though I come home, take off the armour and shield that upholds me for the day and collapse into a heap. I shut my door, tune out the world and deal with whatever emotion is spiralling in my mind. If I don’t deal with the pain, worry or concern that’s gotten me all frazzled my sleeping pattern certainly suffers as the words and scenarios run in my head over and over, like toddlers on a sugar high.
I’ve realised I can’t stop the thoughts from coming. My psychologist and I refer to these negative invaders as the ‘umbrella story’ named after the classic quote "worrying is like walking around with an umbrella waiting for it to rain."
Every time a negative Nancy knocks on my door to remind me that cancer is scary, uncertain and very much a reality for me I acknowledge it, and allow the thought to pass through. The umbrella story passes through sometimes a few times a day and if I read into it, it can rev up the rollercoaster of emotions, but if I don’t fight against it and simply acknowledge its unfortunate presence as being there, I can get through it.
Acknowledging the bad thoughts is one way to cope with the persistent anxiety, but another way to get a good night’s sleep has been setting up a before-bed ritual.
Pro’s of a good nights sleep include: improved memory, lowered levels of inflammation, spurred creativity, improved athletic performance, a healthy metabolism, lowered stress levels and decreased anxiety. (Source)
I didn’t want to be missing out on all of the benefits of a good night’s rest, so I knew I needed to implement a strategy that would ensure sleep was a time of healing, not a fight to shut eye.
I’d love to share the tips that worked for me in the hope that you’re able to adopt them too:
1. Bath time and pampering
A warm bath with a few drops of lavender essential oil and a handful of Epsom or magnesium is the best way I’ve learnt to soothe my tired, stressed body and settle in for some TLC. At the beginning of my diagnosis I was experiencing a lot of panic attacks and anxiety attacks, resulting in me straining my muscles by tensing my body to cope with the violent emotion surging through my veins. The frustration and anger would burn through me and with shoulders up to my ears and clenched fists I’d struggle, with a very tired, fatigued and emotional Jess coming out the other side. A bath with either frankincense or lavender essential oil felt like a comforting hug; a way to teach my body to melt and let go of the pain from the day, before we try again tomorrow.
To pamper, sometimes I’ll add a face mask, wash my hair in some great smelling product, exfoliate, dry brush or make an effort to moisturise my whole body.
2. Yoga Nidra and Meditation
As someone who’s never meditated, unfortunately there were many ‘try and fail’ attempts before I persisted with calming my mind. One way I found that allowed me to continue meditation was trying yoga nidra. Also known as ‘yogic sleep’ yoga nidra is a state of consciousness between waking and sleeping, or the “falling asleep” stage. It is among the deepest possible states of relaxation while still maintaining full consciousness and has been found to reduce tension and anxiety. I find it much easier to perform before bed as I am already tired and ready to fly off to dreamland, but also because I am fatigued from the day and less likely to have a monkey mind distracting me whilst I am trying to focus.
To access, I downloaded an app called Insight Timer
which has many guided and non-guided meditations ranging from morning motivation to stress reduction to deep sleep relaxation. There are loads of app’s including HeadSpace
and Smiling Mind
that allow you to access audio files to assist, so half the fun is finding the app that is right for you.
3. Tea and a good book
TV is often the culprit when you’re struggling to fall asleep due to emittance of blue light that triggers your brain to stop making melatonin. Even if you fall asleep during your movie, the blue light exposure can delay the onset of REM sleep, leading to drowsiness in the morning and not feeling very well rested upon rising. One of the best pre-sleep rituals I’ve practiced is winding down by drinking a cup of tea and reading a good book. I made the mistake of attempting to read “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle before bed, before realising this was not a pre-sleep read – so make sure your text isn’t too complicated or requires too much thinking. Make sure your tea is caffeine free as well, as to not have the reverse affect intended!
My boyfriend’s Mum was the one to get me into aromatherapy. She has a big collection of Doterra oils and gifted me my first diffuser. It’s been 7 months now and I use it almost every single night burning various oils that reduce stress, promote sleep and encourage deep breathing. They’re so potent that you only need around 2-3 drops, and you can mix certain oils together to create a blend! My diffuser has a setting that allows me to choose how long it burns for, with the longest duration being 4 hours. Not only do they smell great but I really feel that they promote a deeper sleep and encourage me to rest much more deeply.
Often when the mind doesn’t shut up it’s because there are words left unspoken. I’m very wary about what I communicate to others regarding my feelings and current scary situation. Therefore, I feel like I hold a lot in and a lot of words, concerns and fears go unsaid to protect those around me. The last thing I want is for my external environment to reflect my internal fight – if both were negative and crazy I’d never get any peace. Protecting the world around me means not tainting it with my umbrella story, but going to bed with a million thoughts bouncing around means I struggle to fall and remain in dreamland. One effective way I’ve learnt to combat this is to journal out everything I am feeling as if the diary is the psychologist and I’m a word-vomiting client. I write down all my fears, concerns, worries, feelings and recaps of recent events and like a sponge, once it’s all squeezed out I feel much lighter, calmer and content. It’s like holding onto a secret whilst your brain is bursting at the seams, there is no relief until the thought is removed. I feel comfortable journaling knowing that no one else is feeling the weight of my words or struggling to comfort me. I also know my diary doesn’t pity me, a concern I have when communicating my pain to others, so I can be as open and honest as I like. Putting my thoughts to bed means I can then put my mind to bed and settle in for a great nights rest.
These are just five ways I’ve found that allow me a greater night’s rest, but I would recommend you practice any activities that allow you to feel lighter, happier and free. Some people also find praying a form of meditation or journaling so if speaking to God is your outlet I think it’d be a great winding down exercise to practice before bed too.
A good night’s rest has been one of the biggest ways I’ve regulated my mood and increased my energy levels. It’s one of the main ways I have learnt to cope with my mental health whilst living with cancer.