FIFO Life Part 27: The First Night Effect – Why can’t I sleep properly?

FIFO Focus Director Sandra Lam joins Big Al as part of the REDFM series FIFO Life.

In part 27, Sandra talks to Big Al about the dreaded first night effect – when it’s difficult to sleep when separated from your partner for FIFO work.

The first night effect – sleepless when separated by FIFO work.

You’ve probably all experienced this – regardless of how long you’ve been living this FIFO arrangement. First night in bed alone again – and you cannot for the life of you, get to sleep. This is a common occurrence for the partner staying at home but is also common for the partner flying to site.

In this short segment, we explain why this is the case from a physiological and psychological perspective. Perhaps armed with this information, you are better able to manage the “sleepless not in Seattle” situation. Of course, we will also provide you with some tips, as we usually do!

The weird thing

Did you know that according to several studies, women in long term relationships actually don’t sleep as well with their partner, and wake up more often during the night, than men, who experience no change sleeping with someone or sleeping alone? Yet, women would much prefer to sleep with their partners than sleep alone. Why? It’s all to do with our physiology and psychology.

The Psychological elements

Women forego restful sleep for the dulcet tones of snoring and other bodily tunes because of increased safety and security (and the subsequent decrease of the stress hormone cortisol) and the release of the anxiety easing ‘love hormone’ –  oxytocin. The increased oxytocin that comes from mating and cohabiting fosters emotional attachments, while being separated results in drug withdrawal type symptoms that are not too dissimilar to the parent-child attachments.

That’s right ladies, we would give up anything for the feelings of psychological closeness and our preference to give the spear to our male counterparts in the event of a wild animal trespassing on our property.

Also, the amazing human mind knows when you are in a different and unfamiliar situation and need to protect yourself (and your little-lings if you have them). So when in a strange bed for the first night, or in a situation when you are now king/queen of the jungle, you will sleep with half your brain awake. Yes, this is a scientific fact called the First Night Syndrome. Scientists haven’t worked out whether it’s the right side of the brain or the left side of the brain that stays awake but suspect the two sides just take turns – no fighting – just take turns like the caring sharing hemispheres they are.

The psychological reasons why we find it difficult to sleep could quite simply be because we are worried about our partner. Will they get to site safely? Will he/she be ok managing the kids full time without me again? It is a natural human function to care about the ones we love and want to know their every movement so we can rest assured they are ok. The thing is, being spoilt by technology and easy access to communication means we expect to be able to reach our partner immediately, and when we can’t, we lose our ability to cope. Psychologically, we are after some level of control and when we don’t have it, we stress, and when we stress, we have difficulty sleeping.

The feelings of worry generally dissipate when we hear from our partner however there are times when even checking-in and reporting that they are safe, is just not enough. In these cases, it may have to do with your attachment style.

Our attachments style plays a major role in relationships ranging from how we select our partners, to how we progress in relationships and even to the point of how we end them. Psychologists believe there are generally three attachments styles (1) secure – which comprises about 50% of the population, (2) anxious and (3) avoidant.

Securely attached adults offer support when their partner feels distressed and do not think twice about going to their partner for comfort when they themselves feel troubled. Their relationship tends to be honest, open and equal, with both people feeling independent, yet loving toward each other. People with anxious attachment styles tend to form a ‘fantasy bond’ with their partner whereby instead of feeling real love or trust toward their partner, they often feel emotional hunger. They’re frequently looking to their partner to rescue or complete them. When they feel unsure of their partner’s feelings and unsafe in their relationship, they often become clingy, demanding or possessive. This particular style is very difficult when in a FIFO relationship with fears of infidelity or the distance making the partner’s fond heart wander. The final is an avoidant style and these people generally emotionally distance themselves from their partner by displaying independence when in actual fact, they don’t like being alone and therefore engross themselves in creature comforts. Some other avoidant types live in a state of being afraid of being both too close to or too distant from others resulting in being overwhelmed by their conflicting feelings so erupt with emotional storms and become unpredictable in their moods.

People with anxious, and to a lesser degree the avoidant attachment styles, do experience great difficulty with the first night effect than the secure types. Being aware of this and working towards a more secure attachment style (which is possible by the way!) will be a major breakthrough in managing the stress of being separated by work.

So what can we do?

Now that you know about the physiological and psychological effects, you may be in a better space to deal with the first night effect. Nevertheless, here are some tips that will help calm your mind and reduce your anxiety, which is the root of the cause.

Creating W.A.R.M.T.H

Warm shower before bedtime – Surprisingly, the best conditions for a good night sleep relates to the balance of temperature between your body and your room. The change of body temperature from a warm shower then jumping into a cool bed actually helps with sleep. Warm shower also helps calm you so take one before bed.

Anxiety management – there are a number of ways to try and reduce your anxiety. Reducing physical obstacles include making sure your house is secure and if possible, know that your partner is safe. After that, practising anxiety reduction techniques that tap into as many of your senses as possible is helpful. Let’s start with touch – dedicate a comfortable set of PJs that make you feel great especially for these lonely nights. Perhaps you’d like to spray them with your favourite comforting smells which could be your or your partner’s cologne/perfume or relaxing essential oils such as lavender. Listen to music that relaxes or uplifts your mood. If you’re prone to hearing every single noise when you’re alone, perhaps downloading an app the creates ‘white noise’ which has positive effects by blocking out disturbing sounds and also promoting relaxation if the sounds you are choosing reflect the sounds of nature. In terms of taste, as much as you’d like to, the taste of alcohol, although relaxing you initially, has the opposite effect when trying to get a good night’s sleep. Instead reach for the trusty chamomile tea.

Room readiness – the best rooms for sleep are those that are cool, dark and relatively quiet. The only noise you should be able to hear are relaxation music or mediation tracks (or white noise replicating nature – I love the sound of birds chirping at night). Try to get your room in this state as best you can. Keep the main light off and use the bedside lamps instead.

Minimise screen use. You know that the smartphones, ipads, tvs and anything that emits blue light is bad when you are trying to sleep. Your brain, as soon as it sees blue light, thinks it’s day time and wants to wake you up. Refrain from using them 30 mins before bed.

Talk – if you are having a rough time with your first night, talk to someone – over the phone being preferable over using a screen to type messages. It’s amazing how feeling connected and hearing that someone cares about your welfare can impact on your anxiety levels.

Hugs – creating oxytocin to replace the ones that are no longer there is a great way to provide comfort. You can do this by giving hugs to your children, your pets, or, believe it or not, watching cute clips on Facebook or YouTube – you know, the ones with cute babies (human or fur babies) – the ones that make you say “awwwww”.  But if you are going to do this, make sure you do it before your 30 mins no-screen time.

Seeking help for sleep

If you find it difficult to get to sleep even after a few nights, don’t be afraid to seek help. Although not always common, separation anxiety does occur in adults and it helps to know if that’s what is happening. Or you may quite simply be feeling lonely, in which case, there are things that can be done about that too. So reach out if you need to. No-one will judge you for wanting a better nights sleep.

The content in this post is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. We recommend consulting with a registered health practitioner or contacting us for more tailored support.

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