Question: How many of us have a spouse, partner or friend who has ruined shared moments by the mobile ping of “you’ve got mail”? I know a few.
The Americans know this problem. A recent bestseller was entitled “Don’t get married to a Blackberry and divorce your wife” and a couple of years ago, the little Blackberry blighter was actually cited as a factor in 1.8% of divorce petitions.
But the wired generation have more than digitalis coitus interruptus to concern itself with so let me ask this: Do you jump to attention the minute alerts pings on your phone or laptop? Do you answer emails at 10pm, even when they could wait till the morning? Would your friends or colleagues describe you as an always-on kind of person?
Or, to put it another way, are you reading this mindfully or is your multi-channel mind already racing ahead to the next to-do, should-have-done or, must-do next item on the agenda?
If this is you, then welcome to the world of wired and tired.
Plain old exhausted just doesn’t do it anymore. This new definition of fatigue is a unique style of burnout where you are knackered without knowing it.
So, instead of getting an early night, the natural solution to feeling sleepy, the wired and tired person is buzzing about in a state called hyper-arousal – which admittedly sounds kind of fun - but feeling not being able to fall asleep, or not getting enough quality sleep is no laughing matter.
Other signs of being wired and tired include lowered immunity, weight gain around the middle, cravings for quick-fix carbs and falling ill the minute you go on holiday or take a much-needed break.
Specialists think that our always-on culture has a lot to do with it, which is only exacerbated by the caffeine or sugar fixes that often masks the deeper levels of fatigue underneath.
I don’t just have an academic interest in this subject; I have first hand experience.
A couple of years back I was writing a 65,000-word book, running a business, being a mum and training for a marathon. In the midst of this manic schedule our family home was burgled, resulting in an unplanned house move.
In typical fashion, I was in denial, insistent that my increasingly insomniac tendencies were merely helping me get through my workload. Oh yes, the wired and tired individual feels invincible, until it all comes crashing down.
An injury at mile 23 of a training run enforced rest and a re-think. Before you ask, even though all marathon manuals tell you not to run the full distance beforehand, my wired personality just wanted to be really prepared.
It all boils down to how the human body handles stress. The chief architect of the body’s stress response are your adrenal glands and one of the key hormones is cortisol.
Cortisol is a vitally important hormone and the wear and tear of having to adapt to prolonged stress disrupts the body’s normal balancing process and leaves us prone to various health problems. In other words, messing with it can prove harmful.
It’s important though to make the distinction between ad-hoc stressors that trigger small spikes of cortisol as part of our “fight or flight” response and chronic stress that feels much more insidious and ultimately, overwhelming.
Your sleep patterns are a good measure of how stressed you really are. Healthy adrenal glands will secrete cortisol according to a circadian rhythm and stress can cause that natural rhythm to break.
If you begin to shift away from this healthy cycle it’s likely you will begin to feel more tired when you first wake up, often relying on caffeine and sugar to get through the first part of the day, but by the time of day we typically unwind, you can feel too wired to fall asleep. This type of sleep pattern is no longer unusual. In one large- scale study of British employees revealed only 15% felt revived by their sleep.
Eventually, there is a shift away from “wired and tired” to just plain exhausted. In my opinion, this is the path to conditions such as chronic fatigue, once known as “yuppie flu.”
The lesson here is that wired and tired doesn’t go away by itself. In all honesty, it took a good six months for me to feel back to normal balance. Good nutrition, better sleep and moderating exercise were all vital but it’s sometimes about thinking more broadly too.
Part of my recovery plan included an entire summer out the office, working instead from laid-back French town. While I’m not sure I’ll be lucky enough to repeat the adventure next summer, as a family we plan to invest in a camper van to make regular mini-break escapes easier. If you live life to the max, I recommend you take rest seriously.
Wired and tired
Diet is key. Eating a good breakfast, ideally containing protein, will serve up the amino acids that help you make hormones later in the day. A light snack before bed can also promote sleep.
Exercise is also helpful; it increases the flow of oxygen, glucose and water and stimulates the body’s production of feel-good endorphins. You can get too much of a good thing however. Over-exercising, commonplace in the “wired and tired” type-A personality and doesn’t help recovery. So, if you’ve thrown yourself headlong into training for a triathlon (or marathon in my case), I recommend a re-think and looking instead at interval training two to three times a week, and plenty of time outdoors.