Having Trouble Sleeping?
By: Beth McHugh 2007
Sleep is essential to good mental health and even just a good life! One night of bad sleep can interfere with your day. It’s no wonder then that chronic sleep deprivation can interfere with your life. The main causes of poor sleep are depression and anxiety, together with structural throat problems. But there are also other, less critical, reasons for that “tired all the time” feeling. Let’s have a look at some basic sleep hygiene rules.
- Irregular waking patterns
Sleep researcher Dr. Adam Fletcher claims that waking up at the same time every day is a cornerstone of good sleep therapy because it keeps your body clock in sync. Although it is tempting to sleep in after a late night, it is not in the best interests of your body. The main habit that people fall into is sleeping in at weekends. This effectively resets your body clock so that having to wake early on Monday morning is the equivalent of suffering jet lag. And you’re doing it every week! It is a mistake to “catch up” on lost sleep by spending time in bed over the weekend. For a long-term cure for sleep problems, it will be necessary to adjust your weekday habits so that sleeping in on the weekends is no longer necessary.
- Hypnotize yourself as to what your bedroom is for
The bedroom is essentially used for two functions: sleeping and sex. If you have a sleeping problem, it is necessary to remove all other activity cues from the bedroom. That means no TVs, no computers or other activities that increase heart and breathing rate. Having electronic gizmos in your bedroom sends a subtle message to your brain suggesting that the room is a playroom and that is not what a sleep-deprived person needs. Also cluttering your bedroom with electronic devices (even electric clocks) floods the body with unnecessary electromagnetic fields. These can cause disruption to the pineal gland deep inside the brain and interfere with the production of melatonin and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are essential for good quality sleep.
- Declutter your bedroom
Is your bed a rumpled mess with sheets half pulled off and blankets tossed onto the floor? Does the rest of your bedroom look like a hurricane’s been through it? Be honest, would you have trouble knowing whether a burglar has entered your bedroom or not?
If the answer to the above questions is “yes” and you have chronic sleeping problems than cleaning up the bedroom may well be one of the keys to better sleeping. A neat and tidy room, with minimal clutter, and clothes kept out of sight in the wardrobe or dirty linen hamper, sends messages of calm to your brain encouraging lower blood pressure and respiration rates. Having a calming bedroom leads naturally to better sleep. So if your sleeping quarters could do with a cleaning makeover, go for it. Fresh sheets and a pleasant appearance can make all the difference to your stress levels when you’re in the bedroom at night.
- Kill the lights
When you are asleep, melatonin levels rise in the brain, but only if the environment is completely dark. We humans are naturally evolved to sleep out of doors where there are no artificial lights and our brains function better the closer we strive to replicate that natural environment. That means having no light in the bedroom.
This is another reason for removing electronic devices, which normally have small LCD lighting, from the bedroom environment. Blinds should be tightly closed to minimize street lighting. If you must get up during the night to use the bathroom or get a drink, try not to turn on the lights.
Exposing your eyes to light during the night disrupts melatonin levels and makes it harder to return back to sleep. Better to fumble around in the dark for a few minutes than to experience the full glare of the bathroom light. If you need a drink of milk from the fridge, close your eyes if possible on opening the door. The milk is usually in the same place, so you should have no trouble finding it. There is usually enough ambient light to make your way around the kitchen without resorting to having your eyes stimulated by the full force of the kitchen light.
- Worry and anxiety and their effect on sleep
We all intuitively know that anxiety and worry are professional sleep killers. Yet we can’t always avoid worry and anxiety in our lives, so how do we deal with worry and get a good night’s sleep?
One of the ways that we commonly deal with issues that are troubling us is to distract ourselves from them through the use of work, entertainment and socializing. These activities may work up to a point during the day, but it is impossible to keep up such a regime of distraction 24 hours a day. So it’s not uncommon to feel reasonable during the day only to find that your demons arrive in full force just as you’re trying to get to sleep at night after a hard day of metaphorically running away.
It’s amazing what turning out the lights can do to your peace of mind. Suddenly everything that happened that day or even last year or ten years ago decides to take up center stage while you’re trying to ease your tired and stressed body into blissful oblivion.
If this sounds like you, then you have several options open to you. Identify the problem and try to resolve it. If you can’t resolve the problem on your own, try enlisting the help of family and friends. If this is unsuitable, or it is in fact your family that is the source of the problem, or alternatively, the expertise of your friends is not sufficient to be of assistance, then you may need to seek professional advice from a counselor.
Meditation can also be of great assistance in calming a troubled mind. Getting into a regular habit of 15 minutes of meditation morning and night can make a significant difference to your overall stress levels.
Another solution is to have an official “worry hour” during the day, when you set aside time to think about the problem that is worrying you, perhaps even write about it, and try to contain the compulsive worry to this time zone. Then, as worries occur during the day and night, you can tell yourself: “I will think about that during my official worry time.” This is a very effective means of restricting the time spend worrying over issues in your life. However, it must be practice regularly so that it becomes a habit.
Give the nightcap a miss
Although alcohol is a well known muscle relaxant and it does make you more relaxed, it sounds like an excellent sleeping aid, right? Wrong!
Alcohol is often used to unwind at the end of a long and stressful day but unfortunately taking alcohol before bedtime leads to shallower and more fragmented sleep. People who regularly use alcohol in order to get to sleep have poor quality sleep with frequent arousals during the night. Hence regular nightcappers often report that they feel like they haven’t been to sleep at all when they wake in the morning. This is because of a disruption to REM sleep caused by the alcohol. While alcohol does result in a person falling asleep faster, the length of time asleep is punctuated by frequent wake-ups, leading to that “drained” feeling in the morning.
Of course, regular use of alcohol for the purpose of getting off to sleep results in tolerance to the substance, whereby more and more alcohol is required to achieve the desired effect. Alcohol also contributes to snoring because of its known muscle relaxant effects, which can lead to frequent sleep apneas, where the body stops breathing for many seconds, before warning systems wake the person. Repeated episodes every night lead to chronic exhaustion and even falling asleep at inappropriate times during the day.
A better solution to alcohol is honey, milk and chamomile tea. Honey can stimulate serotonin production and chamomile tea relaxes. Having honey in chamomile tea increases the effects. Also warm milk contains tryptophan, another chemical which aids sleep. Honey is warm milk is used in mental hospitals to assist patients to sleep, even those on heavy doses of sleep-inducing drugs.
Daily exercise is a must for good sleep and is often overlooked as an aid to better sleep. Not only does exercise work the muscles and cause the body to become naturally tired, something that sitting in a office chair all day cannot deliver, but it helps to release calming endorphins that promote feelings of calm and wellbeing.
Solo exercise such as walking, running or swimming also encourages problem processing to occur while at the same time letting out physical tension associated with those life problems. In fact, exercising has staved off many a nervous collapse in many people. Sitting thinking about problems, or worse, mulling about them in bed, does not allow for the release of stress hormones which accompanies such thoughts. Exercising is the perfect way to process and release, in one step. One proviso is to not exercise heavily close to bedtimes as it will have the effect of putting your body clock back. Instead exercise early in the morning or just before dinner in the evenings.