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How to beat fatigue

Tips from the university’s Sleep and Depression Lab on how to combat fatigue this time of year
By: Michelle Grady
December 09, 2021
An exhausted man sits on a couch with his hands covering his face.

Nicole Carmona of the university’s Sleep and Depression (SAD) Lab shares some helpful tips to beat fatigue this season.

Are you feeling downright drained right now? You’re not alone, says Nicole Carmona, a PhD student conducting research in the university’s Sleep and Depression (SAD) Lab

“The pandemic has caught up with people,” she says. “For a long time, we didn’t have the same social connection and engagement with hobbies that refill our resources. And pandemic-related factors like stress, anxiety and a feeling of isolation have certainly impacted our fatigue levels.” 

Plus, many find this time of year draining enough as it is, with shorter days and more darkness, the end of semester and holiday obligations.

How to tell if you are fatigued

Even though fatigue is subjective, there are some tell-tale signs to look for. 

If you’re finding it more difficult to do your normal day-to-day functions, then you’re likely fatigued, says Carmona. “If you feel like your boundaries are getting a little bit blurred at work or at school, that can lead to a state of mental or physical exhaustion,” she says. 

Carmona studies central fatigue, which is related to a feeling of decreased motivation to maintain your performance on tasks, as well as an increased perception of effort over time, and can be mental or physical. “Though it's hard for us to measure that objectively, I study the behavioral outcome of this feeling: disengaging - and that would be something to look out for.” 

If you’re beginning to feel like you don’t have the resources to complete tasks that are part of your day-to-day work or school routine, you’re likely in a state of fatigue. 

The good news is that it is indeed a state, much like being happy or sad, and it can come and go with some intervention. 

Is an irregular schedule a contributing factor?

Carmona says that, although the end of daylight savings time in November is often the named culprit for people’s sense of exhaustion, it’s not the whole picture. “I think daylight savings time gets a really bad rap. People say that they feel very impacted by it, but something that we focus on in insomnia research a lot is the phenomenon called social jetlag, which is basically jet lag without travelling.”

The more variability you have in your sleep schedule, the more it’ll leave you feeling drained, she says. “If you go to bed at 11 p.m. on a school night and wake up at 7:30 a.m., but then go to sleep at 3 a.m. on the weekend and sleep in until 11 a.m., it creates jetlag within your body. So, on a week-to-week basis, people are creating a lot more variability than shifting their schedule by one hour from daylight savings.” Keeping a regular sleep schedule - particularly being consistent in the time you get out of bed in the morning - can be helpful if you are noticing signs of insomnia and fatigue.

Lacking light, lacking lustre

Bright light is hugely important to our biological clocks, though, says Carmona, and how much we get of it will impact how alert and awake we feel in a day. “Now that the sun is setting a little after 4 p.m., we get less light in a day and that leads people to feel pretty tired.”

When the weather turns cold and the days are shorter, you might feel more inclined to stay in and rest. But this is actually contributing to your central fatigue, says Carmona. “Something people don't realize, because it sounds counterintuitive, is that you have to spend a little energy to get energy,” she says. “Our bodies seem to be telling us to stop and withdraw so we can replenish our resources, but we don’t end up feeling more refreshed by doing this.”

Tips for reducing fatigue

To shift out of a state of fatigue, Carmona shares some tips below.

Focus on the role your thoughts play

Staying away from generalized thoughts is important, says Carmona. Saying things like “I’m so tired, today is going to be horrible” can prime our bodies and minds for a horrible day. “When we wake up and make those snap judgments, we tend to look for all the evidence that confirms that we're feeling tired and horrible and that things are harder than they usually would be,” says Carmona. 

“Fatigue is associated with this perception of increased effort, so coming up with a coping statement like, ‘yes, I'm tired and things may be harder, but does that mean I'm not functioning at all? Or does it just mean that I might have to put more effort in today?’”

Consider whether sleep is the whole picture

Sleep - or a lack of it - is often a scapegoat, says Carmona. “People are always surprised to hear that the amount of sleep that you get isn’t actually a good predictor of how fatigued you'll be the next day, it's really more about our perception of our sleep.”

A past graduate from the lab, Andy Harris, did her dissertation on this, and she found that people's rating of their sleep quality was a much bigger determinant of how they felt the next day, rather than the actual amount of hours that they got. 

“Ask yourself: has there ever been a time when I slept really well, and still felt tired? Or conversely, when I felt like I slept really poorly and still was able to perform well? Like if you think about studying for an exam, and you're up late, and then you're able to do fine on the exam and do what you need to do throughout the day, that’s a sign that it’s more likely the thoughts around your sleep than your actual sleep,” says Carmona. 

Variety is fuel

Exerting a little energy can pay off big time as far as generating new energy, says Carmona. This can come in many forms: if you’ve spent a significant amount of time on one task, switch it up with something else to find new energy.

“The research shows us that how we think about our resources matters more than what these resources are,” says Carmona, “So if you're feeling depleted from one task, you can actually work on another task and be fine - it often doesn't mean that you're depleted for the whole day.” 

Get outside for some sun - early

Sun is so important for us, and Carmona says the earlier you get outside for some in the day, the more it’ll count. She suggests that, when we wake up, we try to get bright light exposure within the first couple of hours of waking, but ideally within the first hour. Why is that? “Think of your circadian rhythm - it’s like our body's clock, and it functions like a wind-up clock. If you get consistent exposure to light when you wake up at a regular time every morning, it's a really powerful way to wind that clock and set it at that time,” she says. It also leads to more reliable times of feeling alert and energized, and then sleepy and ready for bed.  

Nap only when necessary

Naps are great for sleepiness, but not fatigue, says Carmona. But it’s important to distinguish between the two before napping. 

“Fatigue is not predicated on how much sleep you got the night before, it’s a state that can ebb and flow with motivation and effort,” says Carmona. “Sleepiness is directly related to how much sleep we're getting. The longer you're awake and active in a 24-hour period, the more sleep pressure you’re accumulating.” 

You’ll want to watch for cues like your eyes rolling back, your eyelids getting really heavy or your head nodding forward. If you’re reading a book and you read the same sentence over and over, or miss a chunk of the TV show you’re watching, a nap may be helpful. “But, naps should be used in moderation. The sweet spot is between 20 to 30 minutes if you really feel like you have a lot of sleep pressure.”

As ‘normal life’ returns, scheduling sleep may be more challenging 

In September 2019, the lab launched their app, DOZE, external link, which helps users learn about their sleep patterns and make changes to improve their sleep. This app will soon be available for download in the app store.

And they found that, unlike what might have been expected, sleep in student-aged populations was actually better over COVID.

“Students could stay in bed longer, so they weren't that sleep deprived,” says Carmona. “What this goes to show is that when we have a normal schedule, especially when things go back to in-person, many students do end up being sleep deprived, because they have a lot of things to do: extracurriculars, homework, classes, studying and then late-night social media engagement can push their biological clocks, which naturally tend to go a bit later during that age range, even later. So it's like they have a tendency to go to bed later and their bodies want them to wake up later.”

So as “normal” returns, students should be watchful for insomnia, as well as hypersomnia (excessive daytime sleepiness).

Reach out to the Sleep and Depression Lab

In addition to conducting research on sleep disorders like insomnia and their connection to mood disorders, the SAD Lab also provides free Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to community members living with insomnia. To learn more, contact the SAD Lab by email at sadlab@ryerson.ca.

“If community members who are reading this would like to receive insomnia therapy and they meet the eligibility requirements, we'd be happy to have them participate in our study,” says Carmona. “It’s our way of giving back to the community.”

Carmona says that students looking for more information about a good night’s sleep should check out the lab’s app, DOZe, external link, which they launched over the pandemic. 

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