Of all the physical reactions I experienced after my husband’s brain injury, I think exhaustion was the most difficult to deal with, the most unbearable, and the hardest to overcome. From the moment I learned that Hugh was awake and screaming at the accident scene, I could not lie down in my bed without imagining that chaotic scene and the pain he must have felt. Many nights, I left my bed and paced the house, surfed the web, or tried to meditate and forget the images in my mind. When those thoughts began to ebb away, worry took over. The silence of the night leaves great space to worry. Will he get better? Can we pay our bills? How is this affecting the kids? It’s hard to admit that for six months after Hugh’s accident, I never slept through the night unless I took a sleeping pill.
In her article, Goodnight. Sleep Clean, Maria Konnikova states that “…there is a difference between the kind of fleeting sleep loss we sometimes experience and the chronic deprivation that comes from shift work, insomnia and the like. In one set of studies, the Veasey lab found that while our brain can recover quite readily from short-term sleep loss, chronic prolonged wakefulness and sleep disruption stresses the brain’s metabolism. The result is the degeneration of key neurons involved in alertness and proper cortical function and buildup of proteins associated with aging and neural degeneration.”
This explains why I felt 10 years older on nights when I tossed and turned for hours. For caregivers, sleep is essential. When we don’t sleep well, or don’t get enough sleep, we suffer any number of problems the next day — from feeling irritable to experiencing poor concentration, attention, and judgment.
And it’s not only caregivers who are losing sleep. According to Dr. Robert S. Rosenberg, sleep medicine specialist, people with TBI may be losing sleep as well. “In several studies, the proportion of persons with TBI who are found to have sleep apnea is 30 to 50 percent,” he says.
Wow, what a combination! Sleepy, irritable caregivers with sleepy, irritable loved ones! Luckily, if people recognize this problem, they can find help.
Signs of sleeping problems after TBI include fatigue, moodiness, sleep disruptions, and snoring. Dr. Rosenberg mentions these signs as indications of a sleep disorder that can be treated. Getting a referral for a sleep evaluation may be helpful.
As a caregiver, here are a few strategies that helped me toss the sleeping pills, and finally return to a normal sleeping pattern:
- Exercise tires my body and also helps me calm down. A walk after dinner became part of my routine with Hugh, and has helped us both sleep more soundly at night.
- Switching to decaf coffee and tea helped. I might have benefited even more from cutting back on dark chocolate, but I didn’t, so I’ll never know.
- Avoiding upsetting subjects like money problems or medical worries in the evening helped. It’s hard to fall asleep right after a tense discussion. Reserve the evening for winding down, reading, or sweet pillow talk!
- Guided imagery recordings at bedtime pre-occupied my mind so the negative thoughts that usually crept in were pushed aside.
- Counseling helped me better understand my own worries and anxieties, making it easier to manage them. Speaking to a professional about sleep problems could prove helpful for many caregivers.
Putting some extra effort into ensuring a good night’s sleep is worthwhile because the benefits are so great. Adequate sleep could help your loved one improve his or her outlook and performance, and if everyone sleeps well, relationships may improve, too.
There’s no feeling quite like bounding out of bed full of energy in the morning. Everything looks a little brighter and better after a good night’s sleep.
- New York Times Online, Opinion Section. “Goodnight. Sleep Clean.” By Maria Konnikova. Jan. 11 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/12/opinion/sunday/goodnight-sleep-clean.html