Many of us suffer with periods of poor sleep, where we spend endless hours staring at the alarm clock as we struggle to get to sleep and stay asleep, or we find ourselves waking up much too early and then feeling exhausted throughout the day as our time in bed failed to leave us feeling refreshed. When this pattern repeats, these periods of poor sleep can build up into a cycle of anxiety about sleep in general, and thus we can get into a vicious cycle.
The symptoms I have described can be diagnosed as insomnia when they occur regularly each week for at least a month and cause distress, and they are of concern as they can lead to problems functioning during the day. We all know how short tempered we become when we are tired, and how tough it is to get even the simplest of tasks completed. Some days it can feel like we are wading through treacle when all we really need is some good quality sleep. As a counsellor, I often see that poor sleep is additionally associated with anxiety and depression, and therefore disrupted patterns of sleep can be indicative of other problems in a client’s life.
Our dream patterns are also important, as dreams are in effect a form of stress control where the patterns of stress arousal during the day are worked through in the brain and in a sense ‘deactivated’. In normal sleep, we fall into REM or dream sleep about every 90 minutes, with around 2 hours a night spent dreaming; but if a person is depressed they can have excessive dream sleep, which leads to higher stress arousal and exhaustion. Some anti-depressants reduce our amount of dream-sleep, as does a pattern of the brain naturally starting to wake earlier than normal. It is therefore both the amount and the quality of our sleep that we need to pay attention to.
If you are finding that your sleep patterns have been changing for the worse lately, and your GP has ruled out a physical cause, then here are some tips to help you recondition your mind and body back into a good sleep pattern:
- Allow enough time for the amount of sleep you need, and expect that it will take about 15 minutes on average to fall into the first stages of sleep.
- Make sure your room is dark enough for you to get to sleep and stay asleep
- Don’t drink more than two glasses of alcohol or smoke cigarettes before bed
- Don’t drink caffeinated drinks in the two hours before bedtime
- Avoid screens and TV just before bed, as this stimulates your brain rather than helping it to switch off
- Avoid long naps during the day were you fall into dream sleep or interrupt a healthy sleep pattern.
- If you spend prolonged periods trying and failing to sleep, then start with the expectation of a few hours of good sleep, and build from there, rather than aiming for a full 8 hours straight off. This will reduce your frustration and anxiety that can build up as you get closer to bedtime.
- Make sure that you only use your bed for sex and sleep! By this I mean that you need to condition yourself to associate bed with restful activity, and not as a place where you work, spend a lot of time watching TV, or checking your social media accounts.
- Make sure you have a good amount of physical activity during the day so that your body is physically tired. This is particularly important if you have a job where you spend large amounts of the day indoors, sitting or staring at a screen.
- Establish a good wind-down routine before bed, which might include a warm bath, reading and doing some relaxation or meditation.
- Invest in making your bed a place where you feel happy and relaxed. If we spend half our lives in bed, then it’s worth having that be a warm, quiet and comfortable place that you look forward to visiting each day.
- Find a comforting place to go in your mind as you lie in bed preparing to sleep, and don’t allow your thoughts to race all over the place trying to solve your problems, or replay moments of the day that caused you to become upset or excited.
- If you do find yourself waking up for more than half an hour, then don’t just lie in bed getting anxious about not sleeping, get up and do something very low-key and non-stimulating. Don’t put the TV on, check your emails, or make a snack, just sit in a quiet room and read or listen to calming music until you start to feel sleepy again.
- And finally, if you have a lot of stress in your life then your lack of sleep may be a symptom of that, so consider talking to a counsellor about your concerns. Seek help rather than allowing the problems to build up and feel unmanageable.
If the subject matter in this article resonates with you, then counselling might be a good option to help you to move forward. I offer a free 20-minute consultation so we can explore how I might be able to help you.