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Community Episode 4: My Job Is Ruining My Sleep! (Listener Question)

How to cope when your job robs you of sleep.

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The stress of trying to fall asleep when you know the alarm is going off extra early can be maddening. Listener Suzana calls in to ask how to wind down for an early bakery shift. Host Kate Berlant talks to sleep expert Dr. Shelby Harris about the wider sleep challenges shift work presents in our society. And meet trucker Antoinette, who has adapted her unpredictable sleep schedule to her life on the road.

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Read Community Episode 4 Full Transcript Below:

[MUX IN: Theme music]

Photo credit: Sela Shiloni

KATE [VO]: Hi, I’m Kate Berlant, and this is, “Are You Sleeping?”, a podcast from the sleep experts at Mattress Firm and Vox Creative.

As we continue our journey deeper into sleep, we’ve got more questions from you, our listeners. And today we’re talking about dealing with unusual sleep schedules.

[MUX IN: Automated tone and “Next message”]

SUZANA: Hi, my name is Suzana and I own a bakery. Occasionally, I do go in early for an early morning Bake Off, starting at 4:30 in the morning. So on those days, I have high anxiety about missing my alarm clock and not waking up in time. So my question is, how do I calm my mind and body to be able to, like, sleep well, at least for a good six hours so I’m not just stressed in bed all night long?

KATE [VO]: I think we all know that feeling that Suzana is describing. Maybe you’ve got a big day at work, a super early appointment, or, you know, you just really want to catch the sunrise. But knowing that the alarm is coming robs you of rest. Like you’re so stressed about waking up that you never really fall asleep.

So I wanted to ask our sleep expert, Doctor Shelby Harris. She specializes in behavioral sleep medicine. Shelby, how can Suzana chill out and drift off to sleep?

Clinical psychologist, Dr. Shelby Harris

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Yeah, it’s, that’s a great question. So, some people, it’s a lot of anxiety. I mean, I have some patients that are just annoyed by the fact that they can’t sleep and they’re tired during the day. So, it becomes a very reinforcing cycle overall.

KATE: The torturing, because that’s what happens, you wake up and you’re like, “It’s 3:00 a.m. I need to go to sleep,” and then you punish yourself and you get obsessed with how much sleep you’re losing and then you’re just awake, awake, awake.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Right, that’s why I love meditation, first of all. So, if you are someone who notices that your brain is just going a million miles a minute and you’re getting anxious about sleep, and you’re trying to force it, meditation during the day helps you to be more aware of when you’re doing that to let that thought process go a little bit easier.

KATE: Yeah, that makes sense, practice meditation so you can hope to overcome anxiety as you struggle to fall asleep. What else are things that Suzana or anyone could do before you get into bed and start stressing out about waking up so early?

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: I mean, wind down time is really important. It’s not like the one thing that’s going to fix all your sleep issues, but I think we often just try to crash into bed. And I think what we’re talking about in our society, we’ve been using this term revenge, bedtime procrastination, or momsomnia, it’s all this, it’s sleep procrastination essentially. I fall prey to it myself. We get sucked into watching things on our phone or whatever it is we want to do, and we burn the candle at both ends, where we get up early for work and we don’t go to sleep when we really should.

[MUX IN: Steady drum beat, piano and guitar notes and chords]

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: So, I’m a fan of trying to get people to, sure wind down, I also want people to do something that’s enjoyable as well. So give yourself a little time, if you like to watch TV, do something just to kind of enjoy a little bit of the time, instead of now thinking, “Now I’ve got to prepare myself for sleep.”

Because if you go into it with less resentment, it’s going to be easier to unwind a little bit too. [laughs]

[MUX RAISED]

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: And then once it’s time to really start winding down, give yourself a good half hour to an hour of buffer. So what does that mean? So really start to dim the lights, stay off the screen, stay off social media, work. The other thing I always encourage people to do is turn their phones off, turn anything off that might awaken them, noise canceling earplugs, whatever you can to do that.

And if you can do that, that tends to help set the stage for sleep.

KATE: Yeah, [laughs] honestly, I think that’s advice that most of us could follow every night. I mean, I think sometimes we just assume sleep is so natural that it should just magically happen. But we actually have to put some intention behind it. So, what else can Suzana do for these four-am mornings?

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: It depends how many days a week this person’s getting up at four a.m. So the ideal would be, okay, if you have to get up three days a week at four a.m., let’s get you doing that every single day so that your body gets more used to that early awakening time.

Now that being said, it doesn’t fit into everyone’s life. It’s a struggle and there’s no easy answer for it, and it’s really having to work individually with every person. Like, I get asked a lot of, like, “What’s the way to fix shift work?” It’s like, it really depends on everyone’s individual situation. Do you have family? If she doesn’t want to go to bed at seven, six p.m. to get up super early, are there ways that on the days that you don’t have to get up as early that we can adjust the schedule, but maybe not as harsh of a shift? So there are medium ways, intermediate ways that we can really do it, but the more that you can keep it routine, which is not ideal in a lot of people’s lives, the easier it is for those early morning wake ups so you’re not having horrible sleep every single night.

KATE: I can totally see how creating a consistent sleep schedule would help. But, I also imagine if you’ve got kids or even just a social life, going to bed super early and missing out on time together might just be too big of a sacrifice. So, how else can we manage a changing work schedule, or even catching an early morning flight?

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: The other things that we always talk about are, you know, like limiting caffeine within eight hours of bed, limiting alcohol within three hours of bed, limiting heavy meals within three hours of bed.

The next thing would be get some light.

[MUX IN: Guitar chords and notes]

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: There are these great sunrise alarm clocks that are out there, there’s a lot of stuff to help just kind of, or smart light bulbs. There’s a lot of stuff you can do to just kind of bring up the light in your bedroom, right when you get up in the morning.

KATE: And for people like Suzana, who’s a baker, or I’m thinking of essential workers who have to work hours way outside a nine to five, creating that consistent sleep schedule might just be a constant struggle, and a bigger issue.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Shift work sleep disorder, yep. It’s the flip of what your body wants to do, right? So, it’s torturous for some people, right? Like, “I’m so tired. I’ve been up all night. And then when I actually want to sleep during the day, I can’t do it.” You’re fighting against your biology.

There are different ways that we can adjust to it, like when I worked in the hospital for years, we’d have residents and faculty come in and staff struggling with shift work disorder and we come up with light schedules and, or bright light exposure, melatonin and all this sort of stuff.

Our bodies have a circadian rhythm that’s meant to do the same-ish bedtime every day and the sameish as wake time. And when you’re doing shift work you have to be hyper-focused on what your schedule is. So it really is about planning out in a 24, even 48 or longer hour kind of plan, where you’re going to be able to get sleep and that, it becomes very much a focus for many people who struggle with it.

KATE [VO]: It sounds like it takes planning and intention to make it work. But what if you’re constantly on the move?

ANTOINETTE: You know, I like to say, “Out here, you live your life in 10 hour shifts.” You take a 10-hour break, you might drive 10 hours or you might be up for 10, you know. It’s like you’re kind of living 10 hours at a time.

KATE [VO]: We’ve been talking about shift work and trying to sleep on ever-changing schedules. So, I wanted to introduce you to someone we met while researching this show, because she lives these realities every day.

Long-Haul Driver, Antoinette McIntosh

ANTOINETTE: Hello everyone, this is Antoinette, also known on TikTok as NY Trucking Princess. I am today just a little bit east of St. Louis, Missouri in, uh, Edwardsville, Illinois.

KATE [VO]: That’s Antoinette McIntosh. She’s a long haul trucker and she documents her life on the road for social media.

ANTOINETTE: Today, I am picking up paper rolls to be, I guess, manufactured into toilet paper, um, at a different facility. So I am on my way to Ohio.

It’s about three hundred and fifty miles, three hundred and seventy five miles. So a good five-and-a-half, six hours and I’m being loaded today, you know, the trucking game is like a hurry-up-and-wait type of thing sometimes. So that’s what I’m doing.

KATE [VO]: There are about three-and-a-half million truck drivers in the United States. People delivering breakfast bars, t-shirts, and tires — driving long hours to make sure shelves are stocked and packages are delivered.

Some return home at the end of the day. But many, like Antoinette, are pulling off the road at highway truck stops to find sleep in a different town every single evening. Like this recent night.

[MUX IN: Sounds of Antoinette recording while driving, you hear the truck rumble and her shift gears, turn signal clicking]

ANTOINETTE: Look what I see in the distance. If you guys don’t already know, this is the Iowa 80 that I’m coming up on. It is, uh, reportedly, according to them, the largest truck stop in the world. It has about 900 parking spaces. And inside there are multiple restaurants.

[MUX IN: Machine voice saying, “Turn left onto I-80 West.”]

ANTOINETTE: Okay, here we go everyone, this is the entrance welcoming all the drivers.

KATE [VO]: Antoinette parks and sleeps at truck stops because it’s convenient. She can get a bite to eat, take a shower, and wash her clothes. Plus, she feels safer stopping here, because Antoinette stands apart from the majority of truckers. Here’s how she put it recently for her online audience.

ANTOINETTE: I’m basically in this industry like a triple minority, okay, I’m a woman, we make up about only six percent of drivers out here. I’m a Latina, I’m an Afro Latina at that, and I’m an owner-operator. So my mission on this platform is to let people see the differences, you know, if I can change at least one person’s mind, you know, as far as racism, classism, sexism, then I consider that a good thing. So that’s my whole mission here. All right. You have a good day.

KATE [VO]: There are few things you should know about Antoinette. First, driving is in her blood. Her dad was a trucker and so are fifteen of her cousins.

She loves the adventure of the open road. She’s even driven all the lower 48 states.

And something else you should know about Antoinette is that her world is pretty much ruled by sleep: when she has to snooze and when she can be awake and driving. There are federal regulations she has to follow. So after ten hours of rest, she can hit the road for eleven hours of work.

Now, if I’m a creature of habit, Antoinette is a queen of adaptation. She criss-crosses the country in her big rig for months at a time. From Maine to Minnesota, Florida to Illinois. And that’s where I caught up with her on a video call, just south of Chicago.

ANTOINETTE: It’s challenging, you know, I’ll have to either pull over and take a power nap and then I’m refreshed again, or, I’ll sleep while they’re loading me like, you know, at the loading dock and stuff, because most of the time these places take at least two or three hours. So, while I’m, you know, getting loaded, I’m sleeping. So it kind of refreshes me, that way, you know, when I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go.

KATE [VO]: Antoinette prefers to drive at night because there are fewer cars on the road. So she sleeps during the day whenever she can. And that works for her. She’s always been a night owl. She calls the sun her kryptonite.

And Antoinette absolutely has to be well-rested for her job. Because, you know, she is behind the wheel of an eighty-thousand pound vehicle cruising down the highway.

[MUX IN: Sound of a truck engine/wheels driving]

ANTOINETTE: It is a 2016 Freightliner Cascadia with a 76-inch sleeper. Um, it’s like a maroon color.

KATE [VO]: And her rig is impressive. It’s 72-feet long including the trailer. And it’s got all of her creature comforts right behind the driver’s seat.

[MUX IN: Gentle guitar strings and beat]

ANTOINETTE: It has double bunks inside, fridge, all my cooking utensils and things like that. It has a couple closets and, I have like the 14-inch gel mattress and I have memory foam pillows and things like that. So, you know, just, it’s kind of like a home away from home.

KATE [VO]: There are tall curtains that block off the driver’s seat from the bed. And once you pull those closed, you’re in your own little cozy cabin where everything has its place.

And Antoinette’s cab is more spacious than I’d expected. There are cubbies for her food and clothes. There’s a microwave and an iPad. Granted, she can touch everything from her twin mattress, but it’s organized and efficient. No space goes to waste.

But as prepared as she is, there’s one thing she can’t always predict.

ANTOINETTE: I have, you know, the alarm clock, so I know when I’m supposed to be up, but there’s no like, real schedule.

It could be one day I’m driving, you know, until six, seven o’clock in the morning, and then going to sleep right after that. Or, it could be one day I’m driving during the day and then I go to sleep that evening. So there’s no real consistency in that way, no.

KATE [VO]: Even though Antoinette doesn’t have a set sleep schedule, she does have a sleep routine. And she puts a lot of energy into creating a sleep environment that works for her.

ANTOINETTE: I normally keep the engine running, so it’s kind of loud, and you know, I have like the iPad or whatever, I’ll have that going too, in order to put me to sleep.

[MUX LOW BEHIND HER: Sounds of a spray bottle, curtains being drawn]

ANTOINETTE: You know, I’ll spray down my bed and my pillows with lavender sometimes and, you know, burn candles and stuff beforehand, you know, and it’s, like a calming thing for me. There’s blackout curtains in the cab, so like once you pull those, it’s like, you can’t really see outside and the outside can’t see you.

It’s very comfortable. It’s, you know, what you make it.

KATE [VO]: Part of this is kind of unimaginable to me. Sleeping in a different place every night, endless miles on the road, but, in some ways it’s not so different from how a lot of us live.

Antoinette’s life is busy. It can get stressful. Her schedule is constantly changing. And she has to find sleep regardless of what’s going on around her.

ANTOINETTE: I am actually out here coming from Pennsylvania on the way to Chicago-land area. It is Friday, it’s the weekend! Yay. Not that it makes a difference out here on the road anyhow, sometimes I don’t even know what day it is. So, yeah, that’s about it. I am on the way to bed. Ciao.

KATE: So Shelby, no matter how adaptable Antoinette is, and how comfy she’s made her truck, that’s got to be hard. And it seems like Antoinette is dealing with some of the same issues our caller Suzana talked about.

I mean, I know that for me, sleeping at different times each night would be so disorienting.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: Yeah, I think essentially shift work is a form of almost like creating jet lag, especially when you’re talking about people are working different shifts. Our bodies are really meant to keep the same sleep schedule seven days a week. That’s how our body internal circadian rhythm gets set.

KATE: Uh, okay, so here’s what I think I know about our circadian rhythm. It’s like our internal clock, yeah? So our bodies release melatonin at night which makes us feel sleepy. And then when the sun comes up in the morning, our bodies naturally slow the production of melatonin and then we feel alert. And the more that we keep a sleep schedule, the easier it is to then fall asleep and wake up on time. But then, of course, the flip side is if we don’t have a consistent sleep schedule, our internal clock gets thrown off.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: It’s also an issue in our society, like, people are just not willing to change their old ways until sadly accidents happen. Especially like trains, it takes some bad stuff to happen before they’ll actually start to really look at shift work being an incident.

KATE: Yeah I mean, it sounds like we need some big systemic changes when it comes to work schedules. And let’s just hope that’s coming. Are there other risks to moving your sleep times around? Like, what does it do to your body?

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: For the people who are doing more shift work routinely, we find that there’s higher rates of obesity, higher rates of diabetes, higher rates of even certain cancers, colon cancer, breast cancer, there’s a lot, higher risk of mood disorders in people who are working night shifts or rotating shifts or inconsistent shifts.

KATE: Ugh, I had no idea. And that’s really scary because I read that nearly 20% of Americans work shift hours. So, obviously not everyone can adapt their work schedule to their natural circadian rhythm. And sounds like there are some pretty serious implications.

But it does sound like there are some important things we can strive for, right, like creating a consistent sleep schedule and protecting the hours we do have to rest. And, you know, when we need a little extra help, there’s always the waking lights and sleep aids you mentioned.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: We need to make it a priority, but we need to find a way to do it in a tempered way. Sleep is super important, but you don’t have to sleep perfect every single night.

KATE: And it’s so individual. It seems like there just isn’t this one number that works for everyone or one way to sleep.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: A hundred percent.

KATE: Thanks, Shelby.

DR. SHELBY HARRIS: It’s my pleasure.

[MUX RAISED: Theme music]

KATE [VO]: For the most part, Antoinette has made a life of sleeping on the road work for her. It gives her freedom. And her truck is a comfortable haven where she strives to get the rest she needs. And for our caller Suzana, it sounds like there are ways to prepare ahead of time for those super early shifts at the bakery.

But not everyone can adjust to shift work. And the grind can be exhausting. So, if nothing else, I hope this episode has given our callers, and all of you, some tips and tools for dealing with life when a perfect sleep schedule is out of the question.

[MUX IN: Theme music]

KATE [VO]: Thanks to Doctor Shelby Harris for her expertise, to Suzana for her question and Antoinette, for sharing her life behind the wheel.

We’ll see you in two weeks with a brand new, full-length episode of “Are You Sleeping?”. We’ll meet an Olympic athlete who’s got some medal-worthy sleeping problems. ‘Til then, from the sleep experts at Mattress Firm and Vox Creative, sweet dreams.

“Are You Sleeping?” is an informational podcast and does not substitute medical advice. Contact your doctor if you’re seeking medical advice on your sleeping habits.

[THEME MUSIC THROUGH END OF EPISODE]

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