ARC Blog

Battling Anxiety as a Shift Worker

Almost 15 million Americans work full time on evening, night or rotating shifts, while the average adult works a total of 47 hours per week. Both long and shift/rotational working patterns are linked to a host of health issues, including a heightened risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers. However, irregular sleep also affects one’s mental health, raising the likelihood of anxiety and depression. How can shift and rotational workers battle anxiety while working challenging hours?

Night Shift Less Detrimental than Rotating Shifts

Studies carried out on those with rotating shifts indicate that they can find it harder to get a good night’s sleep, than those who simply work night shifts. In addition to having a higher risk of heart disease, workers whose schedules vary considerably from day to day or week to week have higher blood pressure, weigh more, and tend to smoke more than those who have regular schedules. Tobacco is used as a ‘crutch’ to stay awake during the night since the body’s natural circadian rhythms prompt us to feel sleepy at night time and wakeful by day. It is easy to see how rotational shifts can trigger anxiety. By reducing both the quantity and quality of sleep, these shifts can make it harder to battle common conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Rotating Shift Workers Have Lower Levels of Serotonin

A study carried out by C Pirola et al, published in the journal Sleep, found that people who work rotating shifts have significantly lower levels of serotonin (a hormone and neurotransmitter in the central nervous system which plays an important role in sleep regulation). Interestingly, one of the issues that many people with anxiety have in common is low serotonin levels. The latter is actually a prevailing theory for explaining social anxiety and is the reason why selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often prescribed for this disorder.

Lowering the Risk of Work Shift-Related Anxiety

Those who are battling anxiety should aim to lower the level of shift rotations. Working at night can interfere with one’s circadian rhythms but even working regular shifts at night is preferable to working constantly changing shifts. Additional steps to take include practicing optimal sleep hygiene. Create a dark, silent ambiance in your bedroom (relying on aspects such as blackout curtains and weighted blankets), sleep at the same time every night, avoid watching television or using electronics in the hours leading to bedtime, and avoid stimulants such as coffee in the afternoon. If symptoms persist, consider cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help highlight important behavioral changes you can make to boost your sleep quantity and quality.

Sleeping well doesn’t just mean getting a specific number of hours every night. It involves following a nightly routine, sleeping as much as possible during the night, and taking steps to improve sleep hygiene at home. If insomnia becomes a persistent problem, seek professional help to lower the chances of sleep deprivation triggering anxiety.

Jane Wilson is a freelance writer and editor. For much of her life, from her teens onwards, Jane suffered from stress and anxiety covering many areas of her life. During her 20s she worked on finding ways to reduce these stresses while building a career. She now works from home so she can spend more time with her growing family.


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