How many times have I heard from friends that they have some sort of sleep challenge:
I can’t fall asleep. I can’t stay asleep.
I wake up way too early. I don’t have restful sleep.
I am too tired too frequently. If only I could nap.
Sleeping is no mean art: for its sake one must stay awake all day. ~Friedrich Nietzsche
If you are over a certain age, you probably have shared a version of one of those statements at some time in the not too distant past. What does a person do when he or she is tired and no longer feels the vim and vigor of youth?
I wish I had an easy answer to that question. From my experience, asking doctors doesn’t do much for solving the issue. They may take blood, do some tests, try a c-pap for sleep apnea, but most people hate c-paps, the blood work-up is generally normal, and no easy solution pops up. The doctor is frustrated and we are fatigued.
Some doctor's solution is: “Hey, when people get old, they take naps. Join the crowd. Enjoy them. You are entitled”.
No day is so bad it can't be fixed with a nap. ~Carrie Snow
I’m not a medical doctor so I am no expert on physiology, but I am a psychologist and I do have some thoughts about what might be going on.
The reality is that our bodies are changing and we don’t have the energy that we used to. The National Sleep foundation explains that our sleep architecture changes as we get older, meaning that we spend less time in deep sleep, which makes us feel more tired. The Foundation also notes that while many physical elements impact our sleep as we age, the psychological components can be even more powerful than the physical.
The physical changes we face are challenging enough, but when we add the distress we feel about these unanticipated physical alterations which zap our energy, we enter into a new emotional cycle...We worry, fret and regret. We are not who we used to be and that isn’t much fun.
The joke about “my get up and go got up and went” is way too true. No one likes to feel like a “has –been”. No one likes to look at younger folk, by ten or 30 years, and remember what life was like THEN.
So many losses accompany aging. Most of them are fairly concrete: we lose our work status; our children leave home; finances are not what they used to be. We may actually have a specified disability. All of these require a process of letting go and accepting what is.
Sleep issues are different. This change seems like one of those things that we SHOULD be able to do something about.
So we fret. We try different solutions. We give up foods, like soy, that nutritionists say might cause tiredness. We alter our use of caffeine. We change our exercise routine, eating schedule, alcohol consumption or computer usage. Sometimes these adjustments help; sometimes they don’t. Self-help books do help- but not always, either because they don’t provide OUR solution or we aren’t very good at sticking to the well -intentioned advice.
Admit it: Being tired makes us feel old and we don’t want to feel old. Another cliché, “getting old isn’t for sissies” is truer than we might want to accept.
I feel like I have been working on accepting my aging changes all along: my back aches at times, but I have learned stretches to alleviate the pain; I am enjoying, now, not working full-time at a demanding job with a fancy title and a powerful place at the table; I have created a whole new friendship network. These are just a few of the adjustments I have made as I have gotten older, all for the good.
But being tired is different. I want to be able to sleep through the night instead of sitting up at 4 AM writing this blog. I don’t want to feel tired all day. I hate running out of energy before I am through with my list of tasks.
I want it to be different. I hate taking naps, so that isn’t a solution. My husband loves taking naps, yet still struggles with the question, even at 80: is it ok to take a daily nap? Is there something wrong with me, physically, psychologically, humanly?
It is hard to accept this life alteration. Giving into being tired feels scary—if I do, is it a slippery slope to being tired all the time, sleeping way too many hours? Is this the real qualifying variable for the title: OLD? Does it leave me with a half of a life? Am I now distinctly different from those younger?
If you can't sleep, then get up and do something instead of lying there worrying. It's the worry that gets you, not the lack of sleep. ~Dale Carnegie
Worrying about anything wears me out. Being consumed with whatever is inhabiting my brain adds stress to my day and zaps my energy exponentially more than whatever my daily routine requires. So just think about what worrying about being tired does to me!
I wish I could just give you some advice: Don’t worry. Be happy. If it was that easy, we all wouldn’t worry and we would be happy. I do believe the old adage that worrying never helps. Acceptance does. The challenge is learning how to reframe from worry to acceptance.
For me, the best thing I can do is focus on today. Today I am tired. That doesn’t mean that tomorrow I will be tired. Today I can’t sleep. That doesn’t mean that I will confront that same experience tomorrow.
As Annie sings: The sun will come up tomorrow. In fact, as I finish this blog, the sun is coming up, today! Thanks to the joy of a new day. Tomorrow I won't be tired.
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