Hey brain, lying awake every night isn't helping
October 22, 2019 4:14 AM   Subscribe

How can I compartmentalize work stress, so that I'm not consumed with anxiety about work even when I'm not there?

I'm in an impossible situation at work. In short, my boss has wildly unreasonable expectations, yet can't (or won't) provide me with sufficient resources, authority, or direction. She also has zero understanding of what I actually do (I work in a technical field), and reacts to every question or concern that I raise as if I'm being insubordinate. Every day, I'm being set up to fail – and everything I've tried to correct that situation has been like talking to a brick wall. Every decision I face is a choice between a bad option, and a worse option.

I'm already looking for a new job. But, in the meantime: I'm losing sleep. Most nights, I wake up in the middle of the night, and can't get back to sleep due to these worries. I had (for the first time in my life) developed really good diet and exercise habits – and those are now falling by the wayside, because I wake up and I'm too exhausted to work out. On the weekends, I might manage to briefly forget what's waiting for me back at the office – but then some thought reminds me of it, and it seriously brings me down. Yesterday, I called in sick to work – partly because I was exhausted from sleeplessness, and partly because I just couldn't face going in.

So, my question is: how can I forget about this stuff when I'm not at work? After all, there's nothing I can do about it (aside from finding a new job) – I've already tried everything that's within my power.

I've tried getting back to sleep by using a simple "counting the breath" meditation that I used to practice. This used to help me with insomnia, but it's not working this time.

Can I convince my brain to think about work when I'm at work, and think about other things when I'm not at work?
posted by escape from the potato planet to Work & Money (25 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
When I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work stress and can't get back to sleep, I turn on the light and read something engrossing until I can't keep my eyes open anymore, usually 30 minutes to an hour, and that works for me to get my mind off it so I can sleep.

For daytime, I go for a walk, either with my husband or listening to a podcast.
posted by abeja bicicleta at 4:26 AM on October 22, 2019

I've been in your shoes and still struggle with exactly this problem, due to exactly the same cause. Your boss sounds like my boss.

What I find is that wind-down time needs to start happen 3 hours or so BEFORE actual bedtime. Wind-down time is about calming habits that set you up for sleep. e.g. get cozy, make some hot chocolate, read a soothing book, go for a walk, listen to a podcast. You can't expect to stress all evening, then get into bed and immediately switch it off.

I TRY with varying degrees of success to not think about work as soon as I leave for the day. I try to link work-thoughts to actually being in the office so as soon as I've stepped outside the office it's time to switch off the work-brain. It's easier said than done, but when I'm doing it, I feel much better in my outside-work life. You're only paid to work a certain number of hours a day anyway. Why are you giving them your head-space, free, outside of those hours? Again, it's very easy to say things like this and hard to do. I recognise that. But it's a mindset that's helped me when I'm able to muster the mental discipline required to not think about work.

Good luck. I truly know where you are coming from (and wonder if you work in my office).
posted by unicorn chaser at 4:34 AM on October 22, 2019

We're animals, and mammals. We're conditioned to be alert when we're under threat. If there were a dog in this situation, we would change the environment to remove the threat. In transition, medication. So it's ok to take medication to sleep while you're transitioning away from the threat.
posted by Mistress at 4:39 AM on October 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Somewhere, years ago, I ran across the idea/statement/almost-mantra: we don’t solve big life problems lying in bed awake at 3am. I think it is both a direction/rule (“don’t do it”) and also a truth (“you’re not going to resolve this issue in this moment”) that gives me internal permission to follow that direction. It’s helped me a surprising amount with this kind of ruminatory insomnia.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:56 AM on October 22, 2019 [7 favorites]

A slightly modified version of Pater Aletheias' advice about bad dreams (content warning: OP is about child abuse, but the linked comment isn't) has been helping me a lot . As soon as I realize I'm not fully asleep, I consciously ask myself what highly-implausible thing would fix my situation. It's important to get this chain of thought in as soon as possible, because a fully-awake mind will just scoff, but a still-sleepy one finds comfort in the fantasy of everything being okay. I've only been doing it for a couple of weeks, but in that time my nights awake have become far less frequent. I'm definitely not saying "do this instead of medication/meditation/other forms of self-care," but it is something one can do in the very moment of waking up that might help, in addition to the bigger-picture solutions.
posted by teremala at 5:11 AM on October 22, 2019

I listen to soothing podcasts on low volume while I fall asleep -- interesting enough to keep my brain busy, but with a tone that's snooze-friendly. 99% Invisible works very well, for me personally.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 5:25 AM on October 22, 2019 [5 favorites]

I use a guided meditation for sleep that I found on Spotify. Even if I don't do the things it is telling me to do, just having a soothing voice to distract me helps. The one I use lasts 30 minutes and I rarely hear the end of it.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:47 AM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Sometimes putting on a a lightly boring audiobook helped me, but honestly, Benadryl puts me back to sleep and helps me stay asleep. I don't use it tons, but when I was having this kind of work stress, I could not really think my way out of it.
posted by dame at 5:54 AM on October 22, 2019

When I was having challenges in sleeping due to work stress (albeit not as sucky as the one you're experiencing), I found yoga nidra guided meditations helpful. This is one that I've used to much success...where I've found myself dozing out before the end fo the meditation.
posted by ellerhodes at 6:05 AM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hi I'm in a very very similar boat and have dug back out something that helped in the past.

Yeeeeears ago I was working on a play and got home late from rehearsal each night, and usually was too wired to fall asleep fast. I asked MeFi to help me create a playlist of chill-out and wind-down music, and holy crap does it ever work. The resulting playlist is named "Auditory Ambien" on my iPad; even today I don't think I get any more than four songs into it before I'm falling asleep. It may possibly be magic.

That post has the playlist I settled on at the bottom; give it a shot. When I get home from work I'll also create it as a Spotify list and post in here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:12 AM on October 22, 2019 [4 favorites]

I think you're on the right track with the meditation thing.

Here's something that has helped me. It's not a perfect solution, but it has always, always helped.

1.) 10 or 15 minutes of a mindfulness practice first thing in the morning. Something to help me separate my thoughts from ME. Something to help me see the difference between my thoughts and reality. It takes regular, constant practice.

2.) 10-15 (or more, if I can spare it) writing in my journal. Just barfing up all the things I'm mad about, all the thoughts that came up, and my observations about them.

I had to cut something out of my life to make room for this, I chose scrolling on my phone and feeling bad about myself and my life. That was an easy one, you might already be spending your time very wisely and it might be harder to find the time, but it's been very worth it for me.
posted by pazazygeek at 6:25 AM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

The app Headspace has several meditation exercises and something called Sleepcasts that are designed to help you fall asleep. A yearly subscription is required. Also there are several podcasts that are made to help people sleep. "Sleep With Me" is pretty popular but not everyone's cup of tea, It's done by a guy that basically tells stories and talks about TV shows and random stuff. Just boring enough to put you to sleep. "Sleepy" is a man with a nice voice who reads excerpts of classic books. Another one I like although not strictly for putting you to sleep is called "On a Dark Cold Night". A talented female with a pleasant voice tells original horror and suspense stories. They are pretty interesting and I am not usually interested in horror type stuff.
posted by Justin Case at 6:56 AM on October 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

I treat the voice that won't stop worrying about work like an annoying neighbor, stressed friend, or inappropriate co-worker. You already have the skills to deal with those people! Just apply them to the part of yourself that won't leave you alone. Have a conversation with that part of your brain. Politely change the topic when you need to. Be kind, but draw boundaries.

"I'm sorry it sounds like you've had a rough day! You can vent on the drive home from work, but then I really have some other things I need to think about, sorry."

"Bedtime isn't really a good time to talk about this, let's circle back in the morning?"

"That's not an appropriate after-dinner topic. Let's talk about something else! Seen any good movies lately?"
posted by Garm at 7:11 AM on October 22, 2019 [6 favorites]

As I get older, I find it harder and harder to avoid lying awake worrying. Therefore, I avoid coffee after noon, and have learned to also avoid chocolate in the evening for similar reasons. If I'm awake and obsessing, I get up and go read a non-digital book for a while, until I can remind myself that worrying is not actually getting anything accomplished. It's not productive.
posted by Peach at 7:25 AM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

+1 to benadryl if you have at least 3 more hours of sleep a head of you. Alternatively, if it's closer to 2hrs of sleep left, I actually have a few books saved on my phone (with a low light/redlight filter on my app, so it's barely visible in the dark), old comforting ones like Discworld, or boring ones (badly written scifi? yes that will in fact irritate me enough to distract me) that I use for this purpose. I read for about 30mins, and then turn off the phone, and usually can get another 30mins+ of sleep.
posted by larthegreat at 7:32 AM on October 22, 2019

I've always been a terrible sleeper, and sometimes my job is stressful. The stress definitely doesn't help me sleep, which makes everything worse.

What's helped me is a combination of sleep hygiene and exercise. I cut out caffeine after 11 a.m., and I removed the television from my bedroom, which was a lifetime habit that didn't do me any favors in the sleep or stress department. I still listen to mildly boring audiobooks at night, in the dark bedroom with light-blocking curtains, to stifle the work thoughts: I've found that UK accents are especially restful, for some reason.

Most days, I walk the dogs in the evening, so that I'm actually tired enough to sleep. I think this also gives me some reflective time to wind down all the concerns from work.

Around 9 p.m., I set my alarm for the next day and try to avoid looking at my phone again that evening. I turn many of the lights in the house, so it starts getting dark. There's a heated mattress pad in the fall/winter that I pre-heat, so my bed is warm and inviting (I keep the house cold). Even all this doesn't work for me, so sometimes I take a sleep aid with doxylamine succinate like Unisom.

Work offers mindfulness meditation courses during the day, as well as yoga. Both have worked for me in the past, but it's always a challenge to schedule. They're also something to consider.
posted by answergrape at 7:49 AM on October 22, 2019

This used to be me. Cutting caffeine out of my diet almost completely eliminated my anxiety and anxiety-related insomnia.
posted by maddieD at 9:18 AM on October 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

When this happens to me, I use a little trick--I tell my brain I'm going to "swipe left" on work thoughts and I make a little swiping left gesture with my finger. It seems like such a stupid little thing but it works for me. This is easier to do if you have experience with practicing mindfulness.
posted by zeusianfog at 9:36 AM on October 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

Spend some time when you're awake actively doing and thinking about something else. If the first thing I hear/feel/see when I close my eyes is work related, it is a bad sign for my night of sleep.

Video games and reading don't work for me, perhaps because they're too passive (although reading works for my partner), but gardening seems to work great - I can spend an infinite amount of attention on studying plant leaves for disease/bugs, pruning or dead-heading plants, pulling up weeds, and it gives me something to see and touch that - pun not intended - grounds me later when my mind is floating around looking for things to think about. Trying to do layout or patterning for a craft project would also probably work for me, or rearranging furniture and redecorating a room.

The other thing that seems to help is to make/have a plan. But my experience is that the more of my day and mind are occupied by tumult and stress, the more that will come out in dreams and insomnia as my brain tries to solve what may not be a solvable problem. The best you can do is probably try to be less personally concerned with what your manager thinks, see if you can find other people who are on your side or able to defend your work, and of course try to get out ASAP.
posted by Lady Li at 10:50 AM on October 22, 2019

When my brain insists on thinking and I'm trying to sleep, I build a house. I mentally construct or decorate the dwelling of my dreams. I let my imagination go wild. I've been working on a lake house which defies the laws of physics for the past few years. When I don't feel like working on the lake house, I work on my massive loft apartment. I still haven't figured out where to put the elevated bedroom space (it's got really high ceilings) despite working on it for the past three years.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 11:19 AM on October 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

You said it yourself, "[you are] in an impossible situation at work". You are worrying about something you cannot change. Why worry about something over which you have no control? You're already looking for a new job. Your boss has no idea what you actually do. That to me is a good thing. Tell your boss you are working on the Penske file. Seriously, it sounds to me like your boss needs you more than you need them. If they do not know what you do, they will have a real hard time interviewing someone to replace you. You took the day off and the world is still spinning.

It has always been my belief that I should not worry about things that are out of my control. I think about things I do control and how I can do that better, differently or pat myself on the back for a job well done.
posted by AugustWest at 11:47 AM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

I do the podcast thing. I use ones that are interesting enough to take my mind of things, but not so interesting that I want to stay awake. My favorite choice for a podcast is BBC's "In Our Time". The host has a conversation with three academics about some usually esoteric topic that I know nothing about and usually not that interested in (philosophy, religion, historical figures you've never heard of, etc.). It's been on for a long time - there are nearly 900 episodes to chose from.
posted by ShooBoo at 1:27 PM on October 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

I am back, with the link to Auditory Ambien on Spotify. I've added a couple other tracks to it in the past couple years, but I almost always fall asleep before I get to hear the newer tracks anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:53 PM on October 22, 2019 [4 favorites]

Also, another Spotify list: Sleep.

I use Insight Timer sleep meditations for naps, but they don't work as well for me for sleeping at night because I roll over and notice the earbuds, or the meditation ends and my brain tells me to get up.
posted by Peach at 6:02 AM on October 25, 2019

I hope you've escaped from the situation by now and no longer need the advice, but: I've had moderate success dealing with the middle-of-the-night rumination spiral of doom by converting four-letter words into other four-letter words, one letter at a time. Turn READ into BOOK, for instance: READ, BEAD, BEAK, hmm, not helpful, start again: READ, ROAD, ROOD, GOOD, GOON, BOON, BOOK. I find I have to pay just enough attention to this that I don't have enough to spare for rumination.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:26 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

« Older Neat indie things to buy from the US?   |   How do I battle the capitalist mindset? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.