Sleep. One surprisingly little word for an activity that feels as though it can make or break us, depending on how much of it we get!
Some of us can be concerned about feeling we have not slept enough, whilst others have concerns about falling asleep too much, or at inappropriate times. This concern can become all-consuming, and if so, a perceived lack of (or surplus of) sleep can become a far greater issue, and may create stress, anxiety and worry!
The purpose of this article will not be to help you diagnose any of the sleep apnoeas – this is best left to your medical practitioner and/or a sleep specialist. Rather, this article will focus particularly on assisting those who are having trouble falling asleep at night.
Have you been having Trouble Falling Asleep at Night?
Have you ever noticed that the more you want sleep, the further from your reach it seems to be?
Dr Christopher Worsnop from the Department of Respiratory Medicine at the Austin Hospital introduced me to the concept of the butterfly analogy related to sleep: that when we try to catch a butterfly (ie sleep), we can try to actively chase it and catch it, to no avail – it is only when we stand still and stop trying to catch it, that the butterfly (sleep) may come to us.
This means that our most concentrated efforts to will sleep on ourselves will generally fail, and end up making us feel more anxious about how tired we are going to be etc.
Having an anxious mind/body is not conducive to sleep – that butterfly just isn’t going to come our way!
The alternative is to give up the desperate fight to sleep – and instead, focus on relaxing the body and the mind, because it is only once we are in this type of relaxed state that sleep can overcome us.
Learning to Relax
“But,” I hear you saying, “how do I relax, if all I want is to sleep?”
Here are some basic ideas for relaxing whilst in bed, with the aim of calming down the anxious/worried thinking that can contribute to having trouble sleeping.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
- Progressive muscle relaxation is designed to relax both your mind and your body, and aims to progressively tense then relax the various muscle groups throughout the body. Each muscle group is tensed with effort (yet not straining) for around 5 seconds, and then the tension is fully released with the resulting relaxation of the muscle. Scripts to help perform this can be found with a simple search of the web by entering the term “progressive muscle relaxation script”.
Finding your Calm Spot
- Imagine you are in the most relaxing, calming environment you have ever been to, heard of, or seen. It could be a beach, a forest, a mountaintop, underwater, or any other location that you find relaxing.
- Now REALLY imagine yourself there – what can you hear, what can you feel under your feet, is there a breeze, is there a pleasant aroma around, what can you see, all the little details.
- Worrying thoughts may appear in your head and try to distract you from this relaxing scene – just acknowledge them, let them go, and return to your pleasant imaginings.
- Simple yet effective, focusing on your breath can calm down both the body and the mind.
- You can try any number of techniques, from square breathing (breathe in for four, hold for four, out for a count of four, etc), to diaphragmatic breathing (one hand on the chest, one hand on the stomach, with the aim of feeling the hand on the stomach rising up with each breath), and simply just noticing your breaths as they go in and out.
- Again, worrying/anxious thoughts will most likely make an appearance – acknowledge them, don’t argue with them or judge them, just accept they are there, and return to focusing on your breathing.
If you find these things aren’t working, and/or you are struggling to stay calm and relaxed, it can help to get up for a few minutes. Go to the bathroom, have a cup of herbal tea or a warm cup of milk. If hunger is keeping you awake, then milk or a banana can be a good option to stave off distracting hunger pains in the middle of the night.
Optimising Your Sleep Hygiene
Poor sleep habits are just that – habits – so it WILL take effort to break them and create more healthy, sleep-supporting habits – but the results are definitely worth it! Persist with it, change doesn’t happen overnight, it will take a few weeks to create a new habit and for your brain to adapt and have a more adaptive sleep cycle.
Re-consider the following:
- Computer, TV, tablet and/or phone use at bedtime: the blue screen effect of all of these suggests to the brain that it is daylight, which is a time for being active, and your brain will struggle to switch off if you have been using these just prior to (or whilst in) bed. Switch them off at least 30 minutes before bedtime, switch your phone on to silent to avoid temptation, or put it out of the room altogether and invest in an old fashioned alarm clock!
- Activities in bed other than sleep (and intimate activities!): if you do things in bed other than these (eg watch TV, use the computer, sit on the phone, study, even reading,) your brain associates the bed and bedroom with these activities – and it will stay alert, rather than relaxed and sleep-ready because of this. So start convincing the brain that the bed is for sleep by avoiding doing any of these other things whilst you’re there!
- Heavy meals late at night / just before bedtime: heavy meals require some serious digestion, which is something that will keep your body active and your brain alert (traditionally, you would eat large meals during the day to fuel the day’s work and activities) – so if you need to eat late, consider having something light eg a sandwich or salad, rather than a heavy curry or pasta dish.
- Exercise late at night / just before bedtime: exercise suggests to your brain that you are wide awake and ready to work, so it is best to avoid this late in the evening, and try to do your strenuous exercise earlier in the day (morning is best, but this will depend on your schedule!). If you need to exercise later at night, try to keep it relatively relaxed, eg pilates or yoga, or a relaxing walk.
- Caffeine: this should probably be first on the list as something to re-consider! Caffeine is a drug that should be avoided or at least limited if you are having trouble falling asleep, as it is obviously a cause of sleeplessness. It is a sneaky ingredient too, and is actually present in tea, chocolate, soft drinks, energy drinks as well as the usual suspects coffee and cola. Replace with decaffeinated options, or have a glass of water instead.
- Blockout curtains: These may be a necessity for shift workers, but for those who don’t need to sleep during the day, it is actually a very healthy and helpful thing to have sunlight coming in through the curtains in the morning – this sunlight helps re-set your Circadian Rhythm. The sunlight in the morning tells your brain that it is time to wake up and start activities for the day – and in contrast, when the sun goes down, it is time to wind down and prepare for sleep.
- Naps during the day: if you are struggling to get to sleep at a reasonable hour in the evening, it is worthwhile re-considering having a daytime nap. Although it may feel like you NEED this to get through the day, it will just push back the hour of sleep that night, and will end up in a vicious cycle of napping to make-up for getting to sleep late the previous night. So avoid that nap (and caffeine!), and just plan on waiting to sleep until your optimal bed time at night – hopefully by training your brain and showing some tough love, your sleep will be easier to come by at night.
- Optimising your sleep environment: comfortable bed, reducing as much noise and outside light (eg street lights shining in at night) as possible, not having the room too hot or too cold, and maybe having some white noise (even just a fan) if there are distracting noises from outside.
- Have a strict bedtime and wake time: this means both weekdays AND weekends! Unfortunately our brains don’t realise it is a Saturday/Sunday and we really can sleep in – and because of the flow-on effects of sleeping in (ie staying up later Saturday and then Sunday night …) this will affect your sleep/wake cycle come Sunday/Monday when you are heading back to work/study. So where possible, try to aim for the same bedtime and wake time on the weekends, as you have on weekdays.
- Have a pre-sleep routine: this could be switching off TV/phone/computer for the night, having a cup of decaf or herbal tea, reading for a few minutes on the lounge, having a warm shower or bath, brushing your teeth and getting into sleep attire. Some breathing, stretching or meditation exercises can also be a great way to relax prior to going to bed.
- Having a worry diary, and scheduling some worry time each day: this is an approach to setting aside worries for the night instead of having them racing through your head. Keep a notebook beside your bed with a pen, write down a worry as it pops in your head, then return to your breathing/muscle relaxation to relax ready for sleep to arrive. Then every day, have a time scheduled where you review this list of worries, and problem solve those that CAN be solved, and let go of those that have no solution/s.
I hope this information and advice will improve your night’s sleep – I am more than happy to see you in a session to discuss these or other strategies further.
Author: Lauren Burrow, B Psych (Hons), Grad Cert Health Promotion.
Lauren Burrow is a Brisbane Psychologist, endeavouring to provide her clients with a welcoming, reassuring and non-judgmental experience. She assists her clients to identify helpful strategies to overcome their issues, to broaden their existing skills in coping and functioning, and provides them with psycho-education to assist with understanding and managing the symptoms they are struggling with.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Lauren Burrow, freecall 1800 877 924 or book online today.