Feel tired, but have ‘busy brain’ at night?

People with insomnia often describe waking at night or not sleeping well and feeling wide awake with a racing mind, finding it hard to switch off. This situation arises when brain ‘nervous energy’ levels are too high during sleep, and also leads to feeling tired during the day. David discusses how stress and being busy affect how the brain operates during sleep, the impact this has on performance and strategies for improving sleep and energy levels.

Reducing ‘nervous energy’ improves tiredness and sleep

Understanding that a lot of the tiredness in insomnia is not from lack of sleep, but from worry about not sleeping or too much ‘nervous energy’, is an important concept and can shift the focus on to strategies that work, rather than continuing to get more and more anxious about and focussed on sleep. It also highlights that the way to sleeping better and feeling less tired is slowing down and taking time out, rather than pushing harder and just keeping on going.

Video Timeline:

  • 00:00 – 00:37  Introduction
  • 00:37 – 02:13  The stress-performance curve
  • 02:13 – 04:13  How does insomnia develop?
  • 04:13 – 06:17  What contributes to nervous energy?
  • 06:17 – 07:52  What can be done?
  • 07:52 – 08:28  Summary

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This week on Sleep Hub, we’ve been talking about busy and how busy has an impact on sleep. So I’m going to talk a little bit about a concept we use when we’re thinking about busyness and how that impacts one’s sleep and try and sort of talk through what I think is happening.

Sometimes I’m seeing people who’ve had trouble with sleep or insomnia in the clinic and then also how it relates to people who just feel like they’re not sleeping that well, but not necessarily got bad enough insomnia that they’re going to need to come and see someone like myself in my practice.

So I’m going to talk through these curves. So this is the stress on this axis. I sort of call it “nervous energy” rather than stress, but it’s typically called the “stress performance curve”. So this concept has been around for a long time. It has been around for around 100 years when it was first described in 1908.

The concept is that at low levels of nervous energy or stress, we have low levels of performance and we all get that sort of in the morning where you wake up with not much nervous energy or not much sort of intrinsic adrenaline and feel a bit sluggish.

Have a cup of coffee. Have a shower. Walk to the train station. Get into the office. Answer some phone calls and emails and within sort of in the zone where we’re close to our optimal performance and have got a fair bit of nervous energy going, so we feel like we’re on top of things and really into the day.

Then we will all recognise there are periods in the day with multiple phone calls, lots of things happening at the same time. So this pushes us over the edge a little bit where we feel like our performance or our judgment, ability to make good decisions and be considered about things isn’t as good because we’re feeling a bit, technical term, frazzled. So we get a bit frazzled because the sort of nervous energy levels get a bit too high and performance starts to drop.

Maybe we’re sort of good at monitoring ourselves rather than bite someone’s head off and make some bad decisions. I’m not that good at that. We sort of back off here and just take a bit of time out and come back into this sort of zone.

That’s on a day to day basis. But this actually applies more on a week to week and month to month basis. So we have people who are busy or exposed to a lot of stress or have a sort of thinking style of worry. Often they’re operating a lot in this type of zone and it doesn’t take much just to push into this area of the curve.

So if people are managing but then they just get a bit busier and in getting to this part of the curve, they can start to feel tired because performance starts to drop off and often at the same time, they’re not sleeping well and then start to attribute the tiredness to, you know, “I’m tired because I’m not sleeping well.”

So I can start to worry about sleep, which actually increases that sort of stress and nervous energy. So I feel more tired, get more worried about sleep, or compensate or cope by being busier, keeping on – being like a busy bee because if you stop, you’re going to have to rest or you’re going to fall asleep.

Then people end up in this part of the curve with that sort of – they feel like they can never switch off, like the brain is on 24/7 and that’s the sort of people I’m often seeing in the clinic who will say, “Look, I can’t switch off at night or I go to sleep for an hour or two. But then I’m awake. I’m wide awake and the brain is ready to solve any problem.” Little problems become big problems and then just can’t get back to sleep or restless during sleep and hot and sweaty and moving around and frustrated.

Then often a nice description of that is “tired but weird,” feeling really exhausted but also at the same time feeling wired, full of adrenaline to the brain, on really sort of high adrenaline levels.

So often people at this point, they’re really focused on sleep and sleeping better as the pathway to me feeling better. But even if I’m a sleep specialist, often it’s not sleep. Sleep is just a by-product of being busy getting into this range or being a bit overly busy and then compensating and getting worried about sleep and pushing right into this side.

So the way to get back into this zone is to pull back on nervous energy levels and reduce those. So to understand what we’ve got to do to pull back on nervous energy levels, it’s helpful to understand how we can get into those high nervous energy levels in the first place.

So my sort of thinking about that is we can do it by behaviour. So just being busy if – lots of people tell me, “I run on nervous energy. I’m a busy bee during the day. I’m constantly running from one thing to another.” As soon as I get up to – just before I go to bed, that will build up your brain adrenaline levels and have you running in that high nervous energy type of state.

So just by our behaviour, we can build up nervous energy levels. Often it’s a coping strategy that I see people use. If they start to feel tired, they just go harder to compensate for that.

Another way of getting into these high nervous energy levels is really if we’re exposed to a lot of external stresses. So that’s a body’s defence mechanism. If there are threats to us or threats to our family or our work situation, things we don’t necessarily have control over, but they all come at once. It can increase our adrenaline levels and increase our sort of fight/flight response. Then I separate worry out from stress. Really think about worry as – yeah, stressful things happen to us and worry is about how we think about it and how we conceptualise it, how we process it.

There are different thinking styles. It can have a different effect on how the brain or body reacts. So a thinking style that’s more about the – always in the “what if,” “what could be,” “What did that mean?” “What does that mean for my future?” That really keeps the brain and body engaged in a high adrenaline type of state whereas a thinking style about, “Right. I’m here. This is all I can have control over at this point,” are more sort of observer type of thinking style rather than a judgment or emotion type of thinking style.

Just disconnect that adrenaline system so people have less tendency to get into these high nervous energy levels and interestingly a risk factor for insomnia is a thinking style or the tendency to worry. So, people with that thinking style has a much greater risk of developing insomnia than those that don’t have that thinking style.

So then in terms of what we do, a lot of it is about changing that thinking style. So rather than necessarily focusing on sleep itself – again, it seems a little strange for me as a sleep specialist to say that. It’s actually focusing on changing thinking style to less of that worry or “what if” or “what could be” sort of thinking style. Addressing specific anxiety or worries about sleep and then more general thinking styles.

We have recently been using a technique called mindfulness-based meditation and mindfulness-based therapies for that and find that a really helpful technique.

We combine that with cognitive behavioural therapy which is another therapy that has been used for a long time as a sort of a worry management sort of tool.

Another way of reducing nervous energy is as best we can managing stress. Now a lot of stressors I’ve talked about, it’s external. So it’s things we don’t really have control over. But sometimes we can at least control how long we’re exposed to stress for over a stressful situation. Just engineer ways of trying to remove ourselves from that for a period of time or if we recognise we’re getting exposed to lots of stressors, try to put in place strategies to manage them and manage our behaviour.

So recognise if we’re like a busy bee and running from one thing to another or overcommitted or never having some down time, setting aside some time.

Kris wrote a great blog post on “prioritise me time” throughout the week and that’s really important in terms of allowing some time to – for the body just to wind down and adrenaline levels just to settle.

So hopefully that has given you a bit of a concept about how busyness and stress and exposure to stress and worry and thinking styles can contribute to poor sleep, but more importantly to not feeling well and can get us into a vicious cycle of getting into this “tired but wired”. Importantly, addressing some of these factors can get us back into this optimal performance zone where we both feel healthy and we’re able to perform at our best.

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