It is important to state that this is not a replacement for an appropriate consultation with a medical professional who is experienced in managing sleep difficulties. What follows is what has helped me in my personal life and some of the clients that I have seen. After discussing what seems to be the most common issue and most helpful strategy, I will outline other things that have helped.
The most common obstacle to falling asleep seems to be the inability to ‘switch off’ – people talk about lying away in bed, feeling physically tired, but their brain is still racing. Of course, there will be other reasons that some people cannot fall asleep but this seems to be the most common. And what has helped them seems to be a variation of getting out of bed and addressing reasons that their brain is still racing.
A lot of people talk about the seemingly endless list of things they need to do the following day, and there is a part of them that is worried that they will forget one of the things on the list; they may be anxious that they will wake up late and miss the appointment or deadline; they might be anxious that they should be doing work instead of sleeping. Anxiety can be overwhelming in moments like this – especially when we need to sleep.
Counselling can help manage the anxiety and feelings of not being good enough. It helps to address core beliefs of not being smart enough, or never working hard enough, and helps people to see that, in fact, they are doing enough. Working on the root cause of the anxiety helps them to realise how much they are achieving, and helps them to feel more secure and safe in what they are doing.
Counselling can also be about outlining simple strategies to manage the anxious thoughts in the moment. Sometimes it helps to get out of bed and write down the list of things that need doing so that we don’t worry we will forget anything. It sometimes helps to plan the following day with what needs completing and by when. Spending a little bit of time with a visual representation of the tasks that are keeping you awake, brings a sense of calm and order into things. Anxiety can often feel chaotic, and if we gently introduce some order and boundaries, things can start to feel less overwhelming.
As always – get in touch if you want to discuss anything that has been mentioned. Counselling is a great space to work on those areas that directly and indirectly affect sleep. Sometimes it’s something simple, and other times it’s something deeper. With a little practice and support, it’s not an impossible goal to sleep and feel better.
And for other things that have helped me:
- Physical movement – any exercise that gets my heart rate up, and pushes me a bit each time, in the first half of the day, seems to help. There’s also research that links increased physical activity with improved mood!
- Magnesium – I take this daily for a number of reasons but there’s a lot of talk that it helps promote restful sleep. A lot of us are supposedly deficient in this, so worth looking into it!
- Starting again – I find that if I haven’t fallen asleep within a certain (short) period, it’s worth getting out of bed and trying again a bit later. Spending that time doing something to relax my body and brain is important – deep breathing, light stretches – rather than forcing myself to fall asleep and then becoming frustrated when I don’t. Someone described it to me as not sitting at the dinner table and forcing yourself to eat when you are not hungry. Pay attention to the signals of being tired!
- Consistency – Even on weekends, I find it helps to wake up at the same time every day (or as close as possible..). This apparently helps with sleep cycle and our internal body clock.
- Avoid caffeine – not entirely, of course, but I avoid having caffeine later than around lunch time. The half-life of caffeine – the time required for the body to eliminate one-half of a dose – varies between individuals but can be between 3 and 7 hours.
- Blue light – apparently the blue light from our screens (TV, laptop, smartphones) disrupts the release of melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep). I have a pair of the glasses that seem to help, and I have a blue light filter on my phone.
- Low light – not only does this make the rooms more relaxing and appealing (personal preference) having low light in all the rooms apparently prepares the brain for sleep. If I surround myself with bright white light, I find it harder to fall asleep.
- Bedroom – make this a quiet, calming and peaceful space. Avoid having clutter in the room; avoid TV screens if possible; avoid bright colours.
Reading also helps me to drift off to sleep. And be selective with what you read because reading non-fiction supposedly activates a part of the brain that needs to switch off for us to fall asleep!