Sleep has always been elusive for me, especially since I left home for college in 2010. I always envied those who seemed to be able to sleep easily without any adjustments in their environment. Over the years, I came to understand some of my triggers for not sleeping well: drinking caffeine past 12PM, having difficult conversations close to bedtime, living in an apartment off a busy street with constant car traffic and street light, obsessing over my job performance at an unfulfilling job, sharing a bed with intimate partners…the list goes on.
The thread that seems to tie all of these conditions together is the environmental and subsequent somatic stress I experienced. And the bitter irony of sleep disorders is that they can often be both a signal for and symptomatic of an underlying mental health issue. In particular, insomnia has been linked to an array of anxiety, depressive, psychotic, and substance use disorders (Khurshid, 2018). From my own life, I can also tell you that not getting adequate sleep has contributed to more instances of illness than I can count.
And yet, getting adequate sleep is a privilege and not a right.
People who work in healthcare settings or the service industry often have schedules which vary from week to week inhibiting the structure required for a regular bedtime. Add to this the pervasive fear that one might be furloughed or fired due to the deleterious economic effects of the pandemic, and one can see how peoples’ quality of sleep may be impacted. Furthermore, discrepancies in quality of sleep have been shown to not only be a genetic issue but a racialized one. Recent research indicated a correlation between sleep disturbance and likelihood of cardiovascular disease among people of color, especially African Americas in the United States (Egan et al., 2017).
What does all of this mean?
Sleep is as much a personal issue as it is a systemic one. Tricia Hersey, activist and founder of the Nap Ministry, calls rest “a spiritual practice, a racial justice issue and a social justice issue”. Professor Matthew Walker on the Feel Better, Live More podcast hosted by Dr. Rangan Chatterjee referred to REM sleep as “emotional first aid”. Sleep and all its synonyms provides the necessary foundation for scaffolding resilience so how can we access it?
Oftentimes, I witness my clients overwhelmed by the amount of care that they have to show in all areas of their life. The oft-quoted but unrealistic idea of “self-care” feels unattainable. Self-care becomes another commitment that they have to check off their to do list rather than an intentional ritual to self-regenerate—especially when already fatigued. As sleep lays the groundwork for all other forms of self-care, I argue that it should be approached first.
What is one small step that you can take today to improve your relationship to rest? How can you find accountability in your action? Perhaps you tell a friend or family member about your small change, and request that they check in with you about it regularly. Maybe your technology can assist by providing an alarm or reminder alert on your phone. Although the healing work of sleep occurs in solitude, the pathway to better rest doesn’t have to happen in isolation. For ideas on how to improve your sleep, check out the Sleep Foundation’s recommendations.
Egan, K. J., Knutson, K. L., Pereira, A. C., & von Schantz, M. (2017). The role of race and ethnicity
in sleep, circadian rhythms and cardiovascular health. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 33, 70-78.
Khurshid, A. (2018). Comorbid insomnia and psychiatric disorders: An update. Innovations in
Clinical Neuroscience, 15(3-4), 28-32.
Marielle Grenade-Willis is a current counseling intern with People House and a master’s student at the University of Colorado – Denver. With a B.A. in Sociology/Anthropology and a background in dance, dramatic, and vocal performance, she applies a somatic and systemic approach to the individualized work of counseling. Marielle works from a client-centered, experiential, narrative, and trauma-informed perspective with her individual clients. Prior to People House, she worked extensively in nonprofits focused on animal conservation, food access, and refugee welfare; and has had her poems read and published throughout the Front Range and beyond.
If you are interested in working with Marielle, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-428-6267.