Written by Hannah Keegan
Hannah Keegan is Stylist’s Deputy Features Editor. You can find her on Twitter at @HannahKeegan.
With the Jubilee bank holiday behind us, the Sunday Scaries are back and more anxiety-inducing than ever before. Stylist investigates how to tackle them
Lately, Beth, a 28-year-old investment analyst who used to have no trouble escaping into long, satisfying stretches of sleep, has begun waking up at 3am on the dot. Her eyes open and she feels consumed with anxiety. “At that point, I know I’ll be awake until 5ish,” she says. Her mind starts whirring: about the piece of work that suddenly feels unmanageable, the presentation she has to give later that week, the dinner she has to attend with her boyfriend’s family. Two hours later, when her alarm goes off at 7am, she is exhausted. “That’s the worst part,” she adds. “What used to happen at the end of an odd weekend is a regular occurrence now.”
It’s a scenario you’re likely familiar with. This night-time anxiety or, as it’s more commonly known, the ‘Sunday Scaries’ or ‘Sunday night fear’, is a sensation of dread and disturbed sleep that happens the night before returning to work, particularly after a weekend or a holiday. A LinkedIn survey reported 80% of professionals regularly experience it, while one survey carried out by an American homeware brand was precise enough to pin the beginning of the sensation to 3.58pm.
While the disruption created by the pandemic may have triggered this feeling for many, it’s the hellish nature of the current news cycle paired with a worry-inducing cost of living crisis that is no doubt exacerbating it. And as the Jubilee bank holiday draws to a close, there is also a general feeling of unease at having waved goodbye to one our last ‘built-in breaks’ of the year. If there were ever a time you were going to experience this uncomfortable sensation, it’s now.
Predictably, as is the case with Beth, the arrival of the Sunday Scaries is usually pre-empted by a thought about the coming day. “It’s a response to the perception of some sort of threat [such as having to be ‘on’ again],” clinical psychologist Jonathan Abramowitz told The Atlantic. Since Covid, however, the concept of the working week in general – and when we’re ‘on’ or ‘off’ – has grown more muddled than ever before, with most workplaces offering hybrid working, meaning we have little respite from professional and home stresses. But it’s not just the way that we’re working that’s causing this, but the intensity of the world and news cycle since 2020. “We have been experiencing low-grade chronic stress for years with peaks of anxiety within this,” says neuroscientist and psychiatrist Dr Tara Swart, author of The Source. “This means our brains and bodies are primed for danger, with cortisol levels always high, so it doesn’t take much to spike our anticipatory anxiety such as the Sunday Scaries.”
The result, Dr Swart says, is that we’re more likely to experience generalised anxiety. For Anne Helen Petersen, the author of Can’t Even, which delves into millennial burnout, this is akin to an ‘emotional flatness’. “Every day rolls into the next and your to-do list somehow seems endless, even though you’re not really doing much,” she says. “It’s mentally exhausting.” Similarly, *Faye, 30, finds herself reaching the end of her working day, which now takes place entirely through the eye of a webcam since her workplace went remote during the pandemic, only to feel deflated. “There is nothing to look forward to at the end of the day,” she says. This then brings on a sense of anxiousness, a feeling that she should be doing something to wind down, but what? She can’t relax when the world is metaphorically on fire.
Of the little we know about the after-effects of living through a global pandemic, one thing is already clear: it had a huge impact on our mental health. Research by King’s College London found that a third of people in the UK reported experiencing worse sleep since March 2020, while a recent survey found a quarter of young adults now claim the cost of living crisis is the leading cause of anxiety in their life. We already know that too much of the news (particularly when it’s bad) impacts our stress levels, with this peaking around events of ‘collective trauma’. To recap: in the last year we’ve witnessed a global pandemic, a war in Europe and school shootings in the US (there were 34 in 2021 alone), which would all undoubtedly fall under this category. And it’s a vicious cycle: the less we sleep, the more anxious we feel.
It’s enough to make anyone dread going to bed at all. If you’re someone who can’t get to sleep in the first place, the likelihood is your adrenalin levels are still high at night, meaning you quite literally can’t switch off. “Physiologically, there are things that should be happening before bed,” says Dr Allie Hare, a consultant in sleep medicine at Royal Brompton Hospital and secretary of the British Sleep Society. “Your heart rate should slow down, your core body temperature should drop a few degrees and you should feel a sense of sleepiness – and when our brain isn’t getting those signals, the drive to sleep decreases.”
There are, however, practical things you can do to trigger this process. Dr Hare recommends taking a warm bath or shower before bed as it leads to a decrease in body temperature once we get out. You should also create night-time habits that the brain will learn to associate with sleep. This can be as simple as doing a skincare routine or reading a book, the important part is you have to do it before bed every single night. “Much of our attitude to sleep is entrained,” says Dr Hare. “It’s about building cues.”
Practising good sleep hygiene can certainly help, but the crucial problem we have right now is that our bedrooms have become cues for wakefulness, not sleep. As many of us now work hybridly or completely remotely, we have the option to do so with our back propped up against pillows, surrounded by our duvets, and often we take it. “If you have been writing emails, taking calls and having meetings from your bed all day, then your body can’t just flick a switch and say, ‘Oh, I sleep here now’, at 10pm. Just the sight of the bed becomes a trigger for energy, instead,” says Dr Hare.
Because of this, Dr Hare recommends separating ‘work’ and ‘home’ as much as possible, even if your place is small. “It doesn’t need to be a separate room necessarily, but a place within your bedroom that is dedicated to work. And when you finish for the day you physically walk away from it for the evening. This helps to create mental separation and you’ll see your bed as a place of rest, not work and anxiety.”
While many have found that working from home does actually work for us, there are still cues we should take from our pre-pandemic lives. Back then, when attending an office every day was often mandatory, we were also getting a lot of good stuff without even realising it: time outdoors, the renewal that comes with moving between places, and socialisation – all of which boosted the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin.
When her company went hybrid permanently last year, restless nights and a feeling of being stagnant led Hannah, 29, who works in advertising, to trial a ‘fake commute’. Each morning, she now leaves the house, armed with a coffee and her bag on her shoulder as if she is literally commuting to the office, for a 30-minute walk. “The commute is where we often mentally prepare for work and also digest the day, so it isn’t a bad idea,” says Dr Swart. The daily movement and exposure to natural light helps keep our circadian rhythms stable, too, meaning we’re more likely to be able to ‘switch off’ in the evening.
Anne Helen Petersen, meanwhile, decided to create boundaries between the times during her day she was ‘off’ and ‘on’. “I began putting up a wall between myself and the internet,” she says. “I’d put my phone in another room on aeroplane mode in the evening and by removing push notifications I can decide when I want to engage with it, instead of it pulling me in every single time.”
While these tips sound simple, fundamentally they’re about finding a way to focus on something else other than your problems to give your ‘drive to sleep’ a chance to take over. “If you are stressed and anxious, no amount of ‘night-time tea’ or other marketable aids are going to cure that,” says Kathryn Pinkham, founder of the Insomnia Clinic. “You have to ask yourself, what is your antidote to stress? Build time for the thing you enjoy at the end of the day, the things that soothe you.”
For those who have found their anxiety skyrocketing in recent months, even veering into a panic disorder, more serious action is of course necessary. Last year Lauren, 27, began suffering from night-time panic attacks prompted by thoughts about the coming day. “I felt scared all the time,” she says. “The thing I found most helpful in those moments was alternate nasal breathing for five minutes – you inhale, then exhale completely while covering one nostril, then swap. It helps me return to a calm state.”
Dr Hare recommends creating a ‘constructive worry’ chart before bed each night. “You draw a table, write down anything that’s on your mind – from the unwashed dishes to the state of the world – and then write down what you’re going to do about it in a separate column. Even if there is nothing you can do, the act of writing will help you process it, meaning it’s less likely to cause you anxiety from being unresolved.”
At the root of it, night-time anxiety is often about safety. Do I feel calm, at peace? Is it safe for me to close my eyes? It is, of course, tricky to feel like that right now when the world appears to be on fire with no good news in sight. Uncertainty about the future – long-term or immediate – can manifest in ways we’re not even conscious of. It’s the dread we feel in the evening. The adrenalin that would shoot through Beth’s veins at 3am, causing her to sit bolt upright in bed. The lack of motivation in the daytime. But by simply being aware of the cause of the feeling, by acknowledging the Sunday Scaries as a night-time-specific anxiety, when our neuroses and glass-half-empty mentalities can flourish, you’re already giving yourself the opportunity to reshape your experience of it. Nothing is ever as bad as it seems come morning.
Images: Harriet Noble
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