Written by Jasmine Harding
We often take sleeping well for granted, until we start to have trouble sleeping. Whether short term or chronic, sleep difficulties can have a marked impact on our health, emotional stability, relationships, productivity and creativity. Insomnia can also be associated with psychological disorders such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. How common is it? A 2012 survey indicated that approximately 13% of New Zealanders between the ages of 20 and 59 experience at least one symptom of insomnia regularly and it is estimated that this has a societal cost of approximately $22m per year.
Sleep and wellbeing is also a chicken-and-egg situation for many people. Not sleeping well can impact on our wellbeing, and we know that everyday stressors such as family, health, finances and workplace issues can also interfere with a good night’s sleep. Many of us have had the experience of lying in bed trying to sleep, but our mind scans over the day’s events and we start to think about that report we were hoping to get to our manager but didn’t quite finish. We start to worry about how our manager views our productivity and our sense of urgency in finishing this report leaves us with a slight churn in our stomachand a fluttering heart. We attempt to problem-solve how to finish the report tomorrow with all our other deadlines. Then, before we know it, we start to worry about how our worry is impacting on our sleep and how bad we will feel tomorrow if we don’t sleep!
Sound familiar? This cycle is common and really unfortunate. The more we start to feel anxious about sleep and lose confidence in our ability to get to sleep or stay asleep, the more we find our minds in a heightened state of alertness. A state which is unlikely to evoke sleepiness.
In essence, what we have done is allowed our brains to turn on our stress response at the most inconvenient time – the time when we want to be feeling calm and relaxed. So how do we dial that stress response back down to calm a racing mind?
Psychologists use the term “sleep hygiene” to describe the routines and rituals around bedtime that help our brain prepare for sleep. Examples of sleep hygiene include setting up a wind-down period prior to bedtime, limiting blue-light exposure (that’s what your phone, tablet, TV and laptop emit), limiting alcohol and caffeine and setting your bedroom up so that it is conducive to sleep (comfortable bed, a room that is quiet and dark, not too hot or cold etc). Assuming you have taken sleep hygiene strategies into consideration, the following tools focus specifically on calming an active mind. As with most psychological interventions, certain tools may resonate more with you than others, and hence we encourage you to experiment to find what works best for you.
- Trying not to worry about not sleeping is hard to do but shifting your focus away from that worry is probably the best thing you can do to help your sleep. Physical arousal needs to be reduced for sleep to arrive. Try shifting your focus from “getting to sleep” to learning to associate bed with “being relaxed and restful”.
- You might find creating a pleasant image helpful in settling your mind. For example, think of one of your favourite holiday memories. Try to remember as much detail to create a detailed image in your mind’s eye.
Apply psychological flexibility
- Suppressing worrying thoughts and feelings typically does not work well. Take notice of thoughts and feelings as they arise and gently refocus your attention to what will be most helpful to you. In this instance, notice and decline the temptation to problem-solve your worries when in bed. Instead, accept them and let them pass.
- Some people find imagining their worrying thoughts and feelings as words written on clouds that are floating along in the sky. Simply watch them come and go.
- If worrying thoughts and feelings persist, it can be helpful to write them down on a notepad with the intent of addressing them at a scheduled time the next day.
- When our minds are really active, we often find our attention is on the past (e.g. “I didn’t finish the report”) or the future (e.g. “I have to finish that report tomorrow”). Grounding is a strategy that helps immediately connect you with the present moment. Engaging your senses is a powerful way to ground yourself.
- This could be done through focusing on the inhale and exhale of your breath and notice the physical sensations in your body as the breath rises and falls. Listen to the wind as it swirls and whistles outside or sprinkle a calming essential oil onto your pillow and focus on the scent.
Squash catastrophic thinking
- Research suggests that people can “catastrophise” the impact of poor sleep; that is, making the lack of sleep even more stressful by making it a “catastrophe”. For example, someone who thinks, “I can’t function if I don’t get at least 8 hours of sleep and if I don’t sleep well, I’ll feel terrible and will surely perform badly at work” is likely to feel more distressed than someone who thinks, “I didn’t sleep well last night, I’m stressed about that report, I should prioritise finishing it today”.
- When your thinking is becoming more of a hindrance than a help, consider squashing these thoughts by generating more helpful and balanced ways of thinking.
- Asking yourself questions like, “Is this always true?”, “What are the exceptions?” and “Would I think this of someone else?” can help generate more helpful and balanced thoughts.
Everybody is different and it can therefore be unhelpful to focus on a timeframe in which usual sleep should be restored. Overthinking the issue often results in it becoming more problematic. People often report that it does not take long to learn the tools, but rather it is the willingness to sit with unpleasant thoughts and feelings rather than trying to control them that is often the biggest challenge. Your bed should be a relaxed and restful place where you can let everything else go. If your troubles with sleep persists and impair your ability to function during the day, it is important to seek help. Consider talking to your doctor or EAP provider.
Psychological interventions such Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy are internationally recognised as effective treatments for insomnia.
People who are well rested tend to cope better with change, are more likely to communicate effectively, be more agile in their thinking and regulate their emotions effectively. Everyone deserves a good night’s sleep.
‘Sleep (is like) a dove which has landed near one’s hand and stays there as long as one does not pay any attention to it; if one attempts to grab it, it quickly flies away.’
– Viktor E. Frankl