I Get Enough Sleep, But I’m Still Exhausted — Here’s Why
By Karen Habashi
Photo © Tyrvaen/Twenty20
Jun 15, 2021
If you were to ask me the last time I felt really energetic, I'd probably tell you some time before my first born.
And I know many mothers feel the same, because we'd commisserate on Facebook groups and in-person.
Usually, there's always some solution that worked for another mom. Some parents would try suggesting drinking more water, getting more sleep, exercising and eating healthier foods. And yet, I tried all of that. And I was still exhausted, all of the time.
Need some additional strategies to incorporate more rest in your daily life? Here are seven.
Who I Am
To be honest, I have never been an early riser, but I don't think it's about waking up early. The way I see it, I'm not fatigued due to lack of sleep, because even with eight hours of solid sleep, I still wake up feeling run down. Sometimes, I could wake up energetic, but within a few hours I was back to feeling drained again.
What was going on?
Because I have a chronic illness, I know that exhaustion and stress can be related to an underlying physical condition. But I get regular check-ups and nothing appeared to be wrong or out of the ordinary.
Seeking out a solution and coming up short left me feeling lost. So I gave up, and surrendered to the idea that I will always feel this way. I will never feel completely rested again, and I will be a walking zombie for the rest of my life.
And this isn't uncommon. Many mothers start to live on survival mode. I can’t tell you how many times I found my phone in the pantry or reheated my coffee — one time, I was extremely exhausted and my daughter told me the ice cream is too cold so I microwaved it. Classic mom brain fog.
The Self-Care Conundrum
Everyone knows that self-care is important. There's an entire industry around it, but it's overwhelming because one thing isn't a magic solution. What works for you may not necessarily have any impact on my life. And it's a possibility that none of it will work.
But self-care and the many things it promised is what made me begin to research a question I'm sure many of you have Googled: Why am I exhausted?
A few months ago, in the heat of my research, I read an article by Saundra Dalton-Smith that explored the concept of rest.
Before that, I had always seen rest as one thing: sleep. And it's easy to see why, since it's what people suggest when you tell them you're tired. But I was quickly beginning to discover that I had made most of my needs secondary — things I had once prioritized pre-kids were slowly slipping away.
So yes, I was just focusing on sleep. Which is essential, sure, but not the only way I could take care of myself.
Internet research can be dubious, but there are gems hidden among the rubble. And sometimes, when you apply someone's teachings in your own life, sometimes it works out. Not always, and that is the tricky bit for already stretched parents, but in this case it didn't hurt for me to try. After all, I was feeling exhausted all the time.
The Many Restful States I Now Look For
On a good day, a deep sleep, with no waking up through the night, can make you feel great. But for me, for a long time I've felt like I’m half asleep. My brain was active.
Of the types of rest I've learned about, the most important to me is sensory rest.
Dalton-Smith recommends being "intentional" about unplugging.
I feel like this has been especially important during this pandemic, since everything is virtual. Whether it's my kids' online learning or Zoom calls — complete with all the additional noises around us — it is very easy to be overstimulated.
So I've decided to actively unplug every day. I have set an achievable time limit for social media, and I have made an effort to just close my eyes for two minutes and just focus on my breathing. I pick whichever room is quietest at any given time, and turn off all the lights.
Like so many people, my mind isn't at ease just before bed.
I can sleep for seven to eight hours, but wake up feeling irritable and foggy. It's because I didn't give myself the opportunity to quiet my brain.
So I again placed some importance on breaks.
Dalton-Smith recommends that people "schedule short breaks to occur every two hours throughout [their] workday." But as many parents know, this is very seldom possible. So I adapted this to a structure that works for my day.
With the lack of work-life balance in many people's lives right now, it's easy to throw yourself into more assignments, workshops and meetings. Because you have to do something, right? But I've chosen to break from that routine by stepping away when I can. I'm not militant about times, but I just know that my goal is to step away.
Another thing I do is mentally unload before I get into bed. In a voice memo. I say everything on my mind, whether it's about my writing, family — whatever I need to get off my chest and out of my mind, I say in this voice memo. It's a good exercise for me, and I've noticed it has helped.
But I'm trying many things. I've even adopted a mindset of not over-booking. It's very easy to want to fill our days as much as possible, but what that tends to amount to is back-to-back days, and stacked weeks. You wouldn't workout seven days a week without a rest day — my brain needs those rest days, too.
Social and Emotional Rest
This is something I was exploring even before the pandemic.
Dalton-Smith says this section is important for determining the differences between those social interactions that are enjoyable, and those that are exhausting.
What social and emotional rest means to me is being authentic around the people I surround myself with. Not performing, just being me. My goal in this regard is to speak candidly, without shame. And to say no to things, and not just agree for the sake of agreeing. This is not about being contrarian — for me, it's about not feeling the stress of trying so hard, and overthinking.
I found that once I decided to live more in this way, to "live out loud" as some people say, I was seeing myself surrounded by people who were encouraging and understanding. They were OK with the no, and there was no social gymnastics with the goal of toxic positivity. And that puts my mind at social and emotional rest.
Little ones having trouble getting to bed? The Psychology Foundation of Canada writes here about sleeping strategies for young, active minds.
Another holdout from pre-pandemic life, spiritual rest is just one of those efforts I use to feel a bit more grounded.
And this could mean many things to many people. Dalton-Smith recommends prayer, meditation and community involvement — the latter of which can be challenging outside of Zoom right now.
What I've discovered is that for me, praying, meditating and even just stillness are effective ways of getting into a more restful state.
It's funny to think of how rest used to only mean one thing to me. A solid eight hours.
But in a moment of stress and exhaustion, I started reading.
And what I've learned is that there are so many tanks that need to be filled in the world of rest, that focusing on just one may not necessarily have the outcome you're seeking. I know, because that's exactly what I was doing and I always felt winded, foggy and groggy.
As parents, we don't always have the time to do the research, but I'm glad I took some time to explore the many facets of rest, because now I have tools that work for me. And after applying what I've learned, and using these tools, I don't feel like I've been run over by a truck every morning — at least not every day.
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