O sleep, O gentle sleep, Nature's soft nurse, how have I frightened thee. That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down, And steep my senses in forgetfulness? - William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2
When I was an actress travelling the USA on a national tour, I seriously struggled with insomnia, sometimes enduring night after night of wakefulness. I was so desperate for sleep I tried everything from meditation to medication, hot toddies to hot baths - nothing worked. At one point I was awake four consecutive nights, barely making it through my lines on stage and bungling my choreography before large paying audiences. No amount of caffeine or sugar helped. I was at my wits end trying to uphold my professionalism and my sanity. This was the beginning of my quest to demystify sleeplessness and unlock the secret to a revitalizing night’s rest.
Sleep problems are epidemic. According to Statistics Canada, about 43 per cent of Canadian men and 55 per cent of women report having trouble falling or staying asleep. Whatsmore, over the past few decades, both sleep quality and quantity has declined. While some of us have struggled with sleep since the day we were born, others, like myself, became acquainted with insomnia later in life due to anxiety, depression, life-transition or any number of circumstantial, psychological or physiological reasons.
Sleep debt adds up and takes a significant toll on our mood, our health and our happiness. Studies have linked reduced sleep with weight gain, diabetes, hypertension, low mood (think emotional exhaustion as well as physical exhaustion), poor memory, lack of concentration and even behavioural issues in children.
Don’t be discouraged though. Researchers have identified a number of effective ways to set yourself up for a good night’s rest.
Let’s Talk Sleep Hygiene
While you can’t scrub away your anxious thoughts or deodorize your stinking sleep patterns, small lifestyle changes can have a big impact on your sleep-wake cycle. Sleep hygiene refers to a set of basic good habits that encourage your body to unwind and recognize when it’s time when to go to bed.
As you can imagine, the nomadic lifestyle of a touring actor, with its revolving door of time zones, hotel beds and early flights, did not set me up for sleep success. The stimulation of late night performances and the green glow of hotel alarm clocks messed with my melatonin. Toss in an affection for coffee and red wine and you’ve got yourself an exhausted ingenue.
So what can you do to get your snooze groove on? To start, try these basic lifestyle adjustments.
1. Limit Caffeine
Don’t worry, I’m not trying to come between you and your morning coffee. But if you are struggling with sleep, I suggest you reflect on your caffeine intake and begin limiting the amount you consume. The effects of caffeine can last as long as 5 to 6 hours in your body, so avoiding caffeine in the late afternoon and limiting your intake to 1-2 cups per day can be significantly helpful. If coffee is your answer to an afternoon energy slump, try herbal tea or water. An afternoon crash can often be attributed to dehydration. Caffeine is a diuretic so a big glass of water or hydrating tea may be far more effective at putting the pep back in your step. If you must have your java, know that different coffees are different strengths. Consider replacing your drip coffee with an Americano. One shot of espresso diluted in water has less caffeine than your regular drip. Check and compare the caffeine content of your favorite beans. You might be surprised at what you find.
Going cold turkey on caffeine can be a big shift for your body, so ween yourself off gradually in order to avoid an addiction headache.
Everyone responds differently to caffeine, so treat this as an experiment. If you round out your dinner with an evening espresso and go on to sleep like a rock - more power to you!
2. Nix the Nightcap
Not to be a Killjoy, but I have to say it - alcohol interferes with sleep quality. A drink may help you relax and even fall asleep more easily, but that glass of wine (or two or three) will also cause you to wake up more often throughout the night as your body works to clear alcohol from your system. This causes you to miss out on the deeper and more restful levels of sleep like REM sleep. If you are struggling with falling and staying asleep, resist drinking before bed. And if you do succumb to a glass, wait a few hours before crawling into the sheets. This will allow your blood alcohol levels to return to normal and not interfere with your night's rest.
3. Dim the Lights
Our homes have been invaded by screens and artificial light. TV’s, tablets, computers and iphones vie for our attention at every turn. Digital screens are a major culprit in keeping us awake at night. Until the advent of artificial lighting, the sun was our primary source of light. We spent our evenings in relative darkness. Having constant illumination throws off our body's biological clock or circadian rhythm. Blue light, the short wave-lengths that emanate from our devices, trick the retinal cells into thinking it's daytime. Similarly, artificial lighting impairs the body’s ability to produce melatonin, a hormone that our body generates as it gets darker and that induces that groggy, sleepy feeling.
So how can you embrace the darkside? As the evening progresses, turn-off or dim your household lights. Click off the TV at least an hour before you plan to go to sleep. If you are working on your computer, try an anti-blue light filter or light blocking glasses. Even your iphone has a screen bright enough to disrupt sleep, so be sure to reduce its brightness.
In the natural rhythm of sleep, we wake up many times in the night. If you wake up and need to navigate to the bathroom, resist flicking on the lights. Use soft nightlights to help guide you and keep rooms as dark and calm as you can.
Even your alarm clock can be a disruptive. If you are grappling with zzz’s, consider going without its luminous gaze. Not only is the light potentially stimulating, but it’s presence can stir-up anxious thoughts. Have you ever watched with growing anxiety and frustration as your clock counted down the remaining hours of potential rest? Turn your clock away from you or set an alarm in your phone and hide it out of reach.
Many years ago people were more active. Exercise was blended into daily life. Your great grandmother chopped vegetables and wrung laundry with a baby on her hip, while your grandpa walked 20 kilometres to school in the sleet and snow. Our anscestors did not spend hours each day commuting in cars, slumping at desks or lounging in front of the TV. Your body needs physical activity to tire itself out. The harder it works, the more sleep it needs to recharge. Schedule time for cardio exercise and weight bearing activity in your day. Go for a run, follow a work-out video, take the stairs or park farther away from the grocery store entrance. Do not exercise too close to your bedtime though, as this will rev your body up and make it harder to fall asleep. If a morning exercise routine hampers your zzz's, plan to exercise in the early evening so you have time to wind down.
5. Re-condition Your Body
To borrow wisdom from Master Yoda, "You must unlearn what you have learned."
Let's unpack this concept in relation to something we Psych nerds like to call Stimulus Control. Do you snack while you watch TV? Nosh during Netflix? Crunch while you Crave? If yes, imagine you suddenly went on a restrictive diet. Everytime you sat down to watch a show, you'd immediately start craving a snack because your mind has linked the behaviour of eating with watching TV.
Our mind can make similar associations with the bedroom. If you spend an inordinate amount of time time tossing and turning anxiously at night, you may begin to experience nervousness at the thought of going to bed. Similarly, if you do stimulating things in the bedroom (watch TV, read, snack or work) you may unconscously associate this space with wakefulness. Can you fall asleep on the couch or at your desk, but as soon as you head to bed, you're wide awake? If so, it's time to recondition the mind and teach your body that the bedroom is where it enjoys lasting and rejuvinating slumber.
Use the bedroom for sleep and sexual intamacy only. Remove the TV and do your work in another room in your home. If you are in a studio apartment, put up a room divider so that you cannot see your TV or desk from your bed. Follow a consistent sleep schedule with the same wake-up time every day, including on weekends. This resets your biological clock for more regular sleep.
Now for the kicker: Only go to bed when sleepy. You want to be falling over with exhaustion so that you have a better chance of crashing when you hit the pillow. Your body will begin to think, "When I go to bed, I crash hard and it's awesome." With time, your bedroom will begin to elicit sleepiness by association. If you go to bed and can't fall asleep within twenty or thirty minutes, get up and do something boring. Keep the lights low, listen to audiobooks or podcasts, journal, meditate, but avoid engaging with something too stimulating. Once you feel yourself get sleepy again, go back to bed.
6. Master your Mind
Intrusive thoughts keep us up at night. While we may long for sleep, our mind can have other plans, dizzily rolling out problematic scenarios, self-criticisms, and that all time classic - the What if thought. What if I lose my job? What if I get sick? What if I never sleep soundly again? These thoughts can take on a life of their own as they whirl us through worst case scenario after worst case scenario. To achieve a peaceful night's rest, you must redirect your thoughts in such a way as to make yourself feel calm. Noticing your thoughts, acknowledging that they are just that - thoughts, questioning their logic and considering more helpful perceptions can be an effective cognitive-behavioural approach to taking the reins on a runaway mind.
The belief we hold about sleep may contribute to our frustration and cause us to perceive a night of sleeplessnes as worse and more harmful than it is. Studies have shown that people with insomnia tend to hold similar beliefs about sleep. Can you relate to any of these thoughts?
I can’t function on less than 8 hours of sleep.
While it may feel uncomfortable, the truth is that we are able to function on fewer hours of sleep than the recommended 7 to 8 hours. Sleepiness may ebb and flow throughout the day with moments when you feel okay and times when you are aching for a nap and falling apart at the seems. It may be unpleasant, but it will not be the end of the world. Just promise me you'll avoid driving and operating heavy machinery.
I shouldn't wake up in the middle of the night.
It is normal to wake up several times throughout the night. Sleep has a natural rhytm, cycling through 4 stages from non REM to REM sleep many times over. Between cycles we may wake up briefly. Waking in the night only becomes a problem when we can't go back to sleep for a long period of time. If you wake up, don't panic. While chronic insomnia can be harmful, short term of sleep deprivation will not make you sick or have long term effects. Trust this as a normal part of sleep and reassure yourself that you are doing what it takes to get yourself back on track.
If I am tired I should go to bed earlier and spend more time in bed.
As we discussed above, you want to go to bed only when you are tired and ready to fall asleep. Tossing and turning in the sheets may increase your sleep anxiety. The longer you have been awake the more sleep pressure you have. You want to build up sleep pressure. Avoid naps and persist as best you can throughout the day just as you would if you were a jet lagged traveller trying to acclimate to a new time zone. The fatigue you feel in the day will increase the liklihood that you will fall asleep more easily at night. When bed time rolls around, you are apt to be a knock-out.
Instead of fighting sleep deprivation, reframe how you are thinking about it. If you have one sleepless night you are less likely to have another. You are getting things back on track.
Studies have shown that people who meditate enjoy better sleep quality. As a relaxation technique, meditation can quiet the mind and shift the body away from it's stress respone to a calmer, more peaceful state. If you struggle with anxiety and racing thoughts, meditation presents an opportunity for you to practice disengaging with your mental chatter and giving over to deep relaxation.
Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on one thing such as the ebb and flow of your breath or a burning candle and bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. When you notice your thoughts drifting back to your to-do list, self-criticism or a looming problem, compassionately acknowledge their penchant for distraction and gently bring your awareness back to your breath or the flickering light. Meditation is a process of refocussing again and again on the present moment, so be kind to yourself if you struggle to clear your mind like a still and pellucid pond.
To benefit from a mindfulness practice, consistency is key. I suggest practicing during the day, beginning with 5 or 10 minutes of meditation and ideally building up to 20. The goal is to create a reflex response to more easily bring forth an experience of relaxation. In time, you will be able to evoke this state of relaxation at night when you can’t sleep.
The Bottom Line
Nearly everyone has an occasional sleepless night, but if your life is being disrupted by persistent insomnia and you are not experiencing improvements with these lifestyle changes, consider contacting a professional for support. A medical doctor can assess you for any underlying physiological causes of sleeplessness. A knowledgable registered clinical counsellor can help you create a sleep plan that is unique to your lifestyle, and support you in identifying and resolving anxiety, depression or other psychological stressors that may be contributing to your unrest.
Click here to book an appointment.
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