Living The Graveyard Shift

“Graveyards: the shift where you wake up for dinner and go to bed after breakfast.”

The word choice for the title here is intentional. We do not “live with” the graveyard shift. We live it. It will not bend and shape itself to life. Life has to do the bending, but it can be done successfully with the right maintenance plan. And each plan is custom-fit.

Existing on the other side of the clock will challenge almost every part of who we are and what we do. It doesn’t mesh with everyone’s capabilities – life for some might just refuse to wrap around this kind of schedule. We wrap our lives around this schedule, and it only works one way. The toughest to manage is family, especially younger children. Pets, noisy neighbors, and inconsiderate passers-by round out the myriad of obstacles to the seemingly “simple” task of sleeping through a sunny day.

The graveyard shift sometimes balances with a weekday/weekend schedule, but more often we will have the weekend falling on a Tuesday to Wednesday. It is always tricky to arrange a social life with friends who have weekends off. School schedules, depending on the shift span, are perhaps the biggest challenge. Morning drop-offs at school and afternoon pick up times can clash with a sleep schedule most of the time. Having a patient spouse, a good family friend, or even a helpful grandparent can make all the difference. But aside from the obvious social and family challenges, there are a few other factors that need to be addressed.

The Body and Health: this shift is not for everyone. Circadian rhythms can “learn” to be awake and asleep at unusual times if one arranges the variables in the best possible way, but for some, these rhythms are much more difficult to modify, and that’s just the way it is. If your system cannot adapt to this schedule, engineer the variables to the best of your ability. If you cannot custom-fit a schedule, you may want to return to days or even a swing shift.

Engineering the Variables: You need to create your own darkness. This means black-out shades and a sleep mask. The sun rises and sets on the most precise schedule known to man, but you instead need to create your own light and dark periods to function well. The pituitary gland at the base of your brain needs darkness. Light through your eyes (even with them closed) will confuse it. The sun provides us with transitional light at dawn and dusk, so we need to create a transition from active to passive. A winding-down period helps us to wind down from “the Zone.” An environment free of noise is essential (ear plugs can be helpful, as long as you can wake to an alarm when you need to). Learn to breathe in down-shift patterns to re-set your brain for sleep.

Diet: The Number One Rule is steadfast — carbs make you sleepy. Avoid sugar and junk food, because your stomach is used to resting for hours at a time at night, not trying to sort out an onslaught of random calories. Eating nothing during the shift is best, if you can do it. A hormone called ghrelin makes you hungry (especially at night), even if you don’t need food. Keep in mind that usually, we’re in a fasting state between dinner and breakfast. Try to keep it that way. On the other hand, eating can keep you awake, but weight gain will be a real problem. Some have quit the shift for that very reason.

Reality does not change, even though life changes constantly. The more structured your days are, the better you will handle the schedule. Discipline is key. Tempted to shop with friends for the day and “hope to get a nap before work?” That will most likely backfire. At 3 a.m. you will hit the Wall. Structure your days off, too, as best as you can. Vacations? Take them. Live like a normal human for a while, but the day before your shift, get back to the routine.

Some terms to learn (and live by)…

The Wall: usually around 3 a.m., the Wall hits if the routine during the day is compromised. You’ll know when you experience it.

Ghrelin: this hormone activates in your system to make you feel hungry. Its alter-ego, Leptin, makes you feel full. If you can, allow a fasting period of at least six hours (everyone’s clock is different, so find a span that works for you) and ignore ghrelin’s prompts. It’s lying to you. Yes, eating will help you to stay awake, but weight gain lurks on the ghrelin’s dark side.

Graves brain: Enough said.

Zombie shift: Another common term for working nights. Historically, the shift was created in graveyards. Night watch personnel used to literally watch for zombies, or those in caskets who might wake from comas or other conditions that made them appear deceased.

The “Q” word: never say it aloud. If you know what it is, you know what this means. If you don’t know what it is, don’t ask.

The Zone: family and friends need to cut some slack about this one. Night-shifters will switch into the Zone an hour or so before they punch the clock. It may take the same kind of time-frame to leave the Zone. Winding-down periods after work are golden for some grave-shift employees. Let them decompress.

Down time: flies at ten times the speed of work time. We work. We sleep. The time sandwiched in-between is cherished.

Life: Laundry, dishes, shopping, exercise, paperwork, family visits, vacations, holidays, kids’ plays, and all of the other corners of life that this shift can shove aside at any time.

Jet-lag: returning to work after vacation. Yes, it means the same thing for the same reason.

Nano-dreams: sometimes associated with jet-lag, or a compromised routine. Your brain needs to de-frag by dreaming. If you experience these tiny lapses into the dreamscape (dreaming with your eyes open), you aren’t getting enough quality REM sleep.

Exercise: pick something and do it. At least three times a week. Exchange new air for old in your lungs. Move. Stretch. Stay strong. Give your body a chance. In most cases, exercise helps us sleep better.

Caffeine: use it wisely. Caffeine, simply put, shuts down the “drowsy” receptors in your brain for a while. Find a source that agrees with you, but don’t overdo it. Hyper-caffeinated drinks can do more harm than good. It should be an axiom – caffeine is not a replacement for sleep.

The Bedside Clock: this can work both ways. Some experts say to turn the readout away from your bed to eliminate light. Yet leaving it facing you bears watching. For some grave-shifters, seeing the time will tell how many hours are left until the alarm sounds. This can have a calming effect and is great for head-math skills.

The graveyard shift needs to be lived to be understood. At all times on this planet, someone, somewhere, is at work. This shift exists in almost all fields, and employs the select few who can function and work efficiently at 2 a.m. while the rest of the population sleeps. If assigned to a graveyard shift, keep in mind that though it may or may not work for you, it can be done with the right planning. If it agrees with you, forge on with the best of your ability. For 24-hour facilities, be they law enforcement, medical, fire, travel, or the hundreds of businesses who need someone at the helm in the wee hours, graveyard workers are vital. You may not be seen except in passing in the mornings, but your value is immeasurable. Keep working the dark hours – the “world during the day” is counting on you!