Years ago, when I woke in the middle of the night I would start imagining how exhausted I would be the following day, calculating the remaining hours in bed before having to get up. Now, however, I am very different. If I wake, I reassure myself that I am not going to stay awake forever, I will eventually get more sleep and my body and mind know what they are doing so I don’t need to worry!
Over the years, having worked with people experiencing various sleep difficulties I have learned several techniques which help with falling asleep and returning to sleep once woken. To fall asleep now I busy my brain with simple maths whilst simultaneously paying attention to my breathing. Adding numbers to each other works for me - 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 and so on until I make a mistake and start again. The objective is that my mind gets tired and I sleep. Sounds too simple? It works for me but if you are not keen on counting or adding numbers, perhaps you could list every car or colour or boy’s name that you know starting with the letter A and work your way through the alphabet. For example, Adam, Brian, Charlie and so on. If you go awry, you start again. The idea is your mind is engaged, it gets tired and you fall sleep. After consistently doing this (in other words after a little practice), your mind associates the task with sleep - be consistent, try it every night for at least a week before trying something new.
One of the first and most important things to put into practice when trying to improve sleep is set and stick to a bedtime routine. Go to bed and get up at a set time and stick to those times. Even on weekends or days off allow yourself only a one hour lie-in. (I know that this might not be possible if you work shifts or have small children but try to stick as closely as you can to a routine). Do the same thing every night so you are sending signals to your body that you are preparing for sleep. Have a wind-downtime, put on your bed clothes, brush your teeth, cleanse, moisturise, read a book but avoid your mobile, computer and all forms of screens before sleep time (I’ll explain why hereunder). Having a shower before going to bed can help you sleep. After having a warm shower our core body temperature drops which helps us feel sleepy.
Avoid caffeine if you are trying to get a good night’s sleep. Not only is it found in coffee and tea, but also in cola, chocolate and energy drinks. I love my morning coffee and I do know it is a stimulant but I’m addicted! If you also love an early morning coffee, simply have it but avoid all caffeine from midday onwards. Even if you are able to fall asleep easily at night, caffeine affects the quality of your sleep. In fact, going without caffeine for just one day can improve your sleep.
It may seem like we get a great night’s sleep if we have been drinking alcohol but, in reality, the quality of our sleep is impaired. We fall straight into a deeper sleep if we have had alcohol but we miss out on our initial sleep phase, REM (Rapid Eye Movement). Never drink alcohol to unwind, relax or to help you sleep because alcohol disrupts dreams, diminishes sleep quality and is linked to anxiety and depression.
Is your bedroom conducive to a good night’s sleep? Is it a nice relaxed area? Try to keep bedroom temperatures cool – neither too warm nor too cold. I promote decluttering because a tidy bedroom feels good to spend time in and it is somewhere you should feel comfortable in (and can access without tripping over things!) and our rooms are easier to clean when they are tidy.
At night, bedrooms should be free from technology and bright lights. This is important for sleep because light affects the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps you get a great night’s sleep. In fact, melatonin will not be produced (by the pineal gland) unless there is only dim or no light. If you watch television in bed, your brain will associate bed with the stimulus of tv (i.e. with being awake) and not with sleep therefore watching television in bed is a habit worth breaking.
Be Kind to You
I am always saying that our beds are for adult fun and for sleeping, but bed is not a place for worry or stress. If you are unable to fall asleep do not panic – there is no need to increase anxiety levels. Talk to yourself calmly, reassure yourself that your body will take care of sleep when it needs to. You will not stay awake for ever. Do not start counting the hours until you have to get up. Like my old habit of “If I fall asleep now I’ll only get four hours sleep and I’ll be exhausted tomorrow!” Soothe yourself with the idea (which is true by the way) that you will sleep when your body needs it and you will catch up on missed sleep tomorrow night.
Learn relaxation skills
Calm breathing is a wonderful sleeping aid – there is a plethora of information available on line (or http://carolinecrotty.ie/calm-breathing/) Keeping a journal can also be a great way to relax especially keeping a daily gratitude journal wherein you write three positive things for which you are grateful – these do not have to be earth-shattering and can be as simple as ‘I took time to enjoy the drive home from work today’ or ‘I had a lovely dinner this evening’. Learn to be grateful for the little things in your day because this fosters positivity (and who doesn’t want to be more positive?)
The jury is out on naps! Some experts say avoid naps at all costs and others say naps are awesome! If you have small children and they keep you awake at night, then you need to sleep when you get the opportunity because your night time sleep is broken. For others, if you really want to nap then do not do so for too long (i.e. no longer than half an hour) and not after 3.00pm because napping during the day may interfere with night time sleep. It is ideally best to get to bed early if you are so tired that you need to sleep during the day.
If your alarm is sounding every morning but you feel like you have only just got into bed, then you may need more sleep. Instead of setting the alarm to go off even earlier to allow you time to adjust to getting up, simply go to bed earlier every night until you wake with a zest for life.
Exercise is great for sleep but not too late in the day. The same can be said for eating late – give your body time to digest your food before heading to bed, however, do not go to bed hungry as that can also disturb sleep. Eat a snack if you are peckish before bedtime. In my experience, it is best to avoid phone calls at night time especially if they cause stress. Get out of the house/office/car and get some daylight, every day, because sun, even through the clouds, benefits both our mood and sleep.
Keep a pen and writing pad beside your bed – if you wake in the middle of the night because of a worry or because you need to remember something write it down and deal with it the following morning. Keep a note of the worries that are preventing you from falling asleep and over the following days make a plan to tackle them. Always attempt to be solution-focused - ask yourself what you can do to change your situation or seek the advice of others if you cannot think of a solution – I always say “start talking and keep talking.”
Keeping notes in your mobile is not the same as writing in a notebook/writing pad because accessing your mobile in bed may encourage you to stay awake reading on line or to flick through social media sites. Try to remember that in order to get a good night’s sleep we are attempting to keep bedrooms free of screens and that includes mobiles!
At the end of the day…we need good quality sleep because it helps our immune system, it helps regulate our mood and it also helps restore our bodies and brains. The results of poor sleep include increased blood pressure, higher stress, impaired memory and slower brain functioning; general forgetfulness; reduced ability to function in our day to day lives – in other words “Sleep Is Important”. We know what children are like when they do not have enough sleep and we are not much different – we are at best grumpy (or perhaps that’s just me!)
The above are some tips to help get your sleep in order. We each need differing amounts of sleep so it may be an idea, if you have difficulty sleeping for a prolonged period of time to speak with your doctor or medical advisor as this article is for information purposes only.
Caroline Crotty B.Soc.Sc. M. A. (Counselling & Psychotherapy) works in private practice with adults and adolescents in Cork City and in Bantry, Ireland. Caroline also devises and delivers wellbeing talks and workshops. For further info contact Caroline via her website here or via Twitter here