Self care – the key to coping with shift work
When I first heard the word self-care I thought to myself, ‘Well, I self-care: I exercise, I try to eat in a healthy way, I take a long bath once or twice a week, I get a good 8 hours sleep when I can’. I was to find that the way I self-cared was ok but there was a lot more to discover – it was more than just ticking a box or ‘doing’ something nice for myself – especially seeing as I was not coping with the demands of shift work.
I was curious and open to finding out what true self-care was all about. I had been an international flight attendant for over 20 years; I was working many long hours of shift work and dealing with different time zones and feeling quite exhausted a lot of the time. Working long hours flying through the night I found really difficult, and the effects afterwards took a while to wear off. I would drag my body around some days and I was often moody, emotional and addicted to sugar and other stimulants such as coffee to keep my body going. I was more prone to getting sick and generally my zest for life and relationships had gotten lost somewhere along the way, due to the mental and emotional fog that I often felt that was a consequence of my lack of sleep.
I really enjoyed my job, but I wasn’t coping too well with the long hours or the shift work and I knew I needed to change something to support my body better. I had tried all sorts of diets that claimed to help the body feel lighter or more energised, even going to the extreme of an all fruit or raw food diet, all to try and feel more vital and have more energy. I realised in the end that none of these ‘quick’ fixes or ‘fad’ diets changed anything, and in fact ended up making me feel quite sick, not to mention the stress of trying to source good quality fresh food… often impossible and especially when I travelled to 3rd world countries or arrived in a city very late.
Initially I thought to myself that this wouldn’t work for my lifestyle, as I didn’t keep regular hours. I decided that I would try a few anyway and see if this would bring more balance to my lifestyle and support my body to cope with the demands of my job. It was clear that the way I was working was draining me, but leaving my job was not an option; I knew that there must be a different way to live and work – or at least I was open to this possibility.
Now many years later from these self-care talks I first heard about, I can say that I feel totally different when I am at work, and after long flights and the shift work I do.
I have even returned to full-time flying – after 10 years being part-time – and can say that I now cope better with my job than I did when I was in my 20s and 30s. This change didn’t happen overnight; it has been a gradual process of applying different self-care routines over time to see what works for my body. It was like using my body as a science experiment and it was very empowering to feel the positive effects on my body with the introduction of these new principles.
For example, my sleep rhythm used to be all over the place and I was always a night bird, getting to bed very late and finding it difficult to rise early in the morning, let alone feel good when I woke up. I began to go to bed much earlier when I was at home, building a more consistent rhythm and found that when it came time to work through the night, my body had a more solid foundation of deep rest. It was like I had made a lot of consistent healthy deposits into my sleep bank, so when it came time to work through the night my body had a lot of reserves that it could draw on without depleting me in any way. Sure, I would still get tired after my shift because it is not natural for the body to be worked through the night in this way, but I was not exhausted or drained as I had once been.
I also began to look at my diet and made adjustments there, reducing my caffeine intake and looking at the sugary snacks I continually grabbed to get me through, especially when I was at work. I began to feel that the short-term fix from the caffeine or the sugary snack gave me an initial high and then a definite low that got me craving more of the same to keep me going. I gave up coffee and started to sleep better and noticed the difference this made in sustaining my energy levels. I no longer had twitches from the coffee intake – which later made sense as I realised caffeine affects the nervous system. I started to opt for salads and healthier meals with more protein as a base, instead of loading up on carbohydrates, as this tended to leave me feeling heavier in my body because it takes more energy to digest them.
I also noticed that the way I pushed and drove my body through the night to stay awake was perhaps causing more harm than good, so I started to address how I was moving at work, and explored if there was a more gentle way to work that would support my body more. Much to my surprise it was clear that the push-and-drive approach was actually draining on my body and, that if I just worked with my body and the way it was feeling, which was often being more sensitive or tender during the night, I worked ‘with’ rather than against myself. With this I noticed that slowly, and over time, I felt more vitality in my body than when forcing my body with the push or drive I used to go into. I also noticed the conversations and the type of thoughts I was having and how this could drain my body as well, especially if they were negative.
This is just a snapshot of some of the true self-care tips I began to bring into my life to see if and how they might work for me. I was really amazed by the difference, not only in the level of vitality I would feel at work but also the quality of my home life after shift work on my long weekly flights.
It is a constant process of unfolding more of this self-care and adding something new to the mix and seeing if it works or not. I have fun with it, not making it a serious ‘to do’ list but a way of living that rewards me in many ways, whether I am working or at home. And I have found how easy it is to make some small adjustments in my lifestyle that can bring some great and lasting true change.