Can’t sleep? It sucks, doesn’t it? You feel tired all the time, irritable, overwhelmed. You long for the release of sleep but as soon as your head hits the pillow you can feel the tension rising in your body, your thoughts start to race and you just know you’re going to be spending another restless night watching the hours slip by in frustrated wakefulness.
I’m a terrible sleeper. I have spent a lifetime struggling with my busy brain, enduring regular bouts of insomnia. Even if I’m tired at 11pm, my brain isn’t. I don’t even have to be worried about anything, it is quite happy having imaginary conversations with people, reliving scenes from the day and playing me music if there’s nothing to worry about. Better if there is something to worry about though; it likes to have something to work on. As a result I have long ago given up the fight and resorted to staying up into the early hours in the hopes that I’ll be so tired I’ll fall asleep quickly when I do finally go to bed. It’s not an ideal response and usually leads to compounded sleep deprivation, low energy levels, low levels of patience and a general lack of consistency in endeavours. Some nights I’m existing on as little as three hours’ sleep which is disastrous for my long-term health.
I know I’m not alone. According to a CDC study in 2014 35% of people in America aged 18 or over received less than seven hours’ sleep per night. A 2016 study by the insurance company Aviva revealed that 37% of Britons feel they do not get enough sleep (source: Time). So why are so many of us unable to get enough hours of good quality sleep?
Why Can’t You Sleep?
Insomnia is a tricky customer with a number of contributing factors including stress, noise, room temperature, acid reflux, overactive thyroid, stimulant use, jet lag, shift work, snoring, restless leg syndrome, chronic pain, mental health disorders, Alzheimers, Parkinsons, nightmares, night terrors, medications and food/drink consumption (source: nhs.uk). In other words, it only takes a small combination of lifestyle choices or physical circumstances to interfere with a good night’s sleep and disrupt your overall sleeping pattern, causing insomnia. Add to that our increasingly always-online work and leisure habits and our brains are struggling to switch off. There’s too much to do, to think about, to watch and read and listen to, too many people wanting to connect with you at all hours of the day from their respective corners of the globe. We’ve forgotten how to offline, unwind and sleep.
If the problem persists it can evolve into chronic insomnia which, according to this article by Huffington Post, has been linked with many mental and physical health risks. Often sufferers attempt to resolve the situation by either sleeping in (guilty), napping through the day (guilty), drinking alcohol to help bring about sleep (guilty), exercising in the evening to become physically tired (guilty) and watching TV or browsing on a laptop, phone or tablet into the night to distract from the sleeplessness and resultant anxiety/boredom (guilty). Unfortunately these techniques are often counter-productive as they can prevent you from falling asleep or provide poor quality, broken sleep which interferes with re-establishing your natural sleep pattern.
What can you do? Ten suggestions for a better night’s sleep
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) recommends maintaining a regular sleep pattern and resisting napping or sleeping in late to compensate for lack of sleep during the night. Set a time for going to bed and for waking up and stick to those times, every day.
It also suggests relaxing for an hour before bed, with a bath, a book, some gentle yoga, meditation or writing in a journal. The key is to get offline, away from the blue light of electronic devices, and to unwind your busy mind and tense body.
Another suggestion is to make your bedroom as dark and quiet as possible. I use lined curtains to block out light and ear plugs to muffle sound because I am extremely sensitive to stimuli when I’m on the edge of falling asleep.
Exercise is recommended but no later than four hours before bed, otherwise you risk stimulating your system again.
Deborah Jacobs of Forbes recommends you avoid caffeine from 2pm onwards and alcohol for the three hours before bed. Caffeine will keep you awake for up to six hours and alcohol will interrupt your sleep, making you more tired the next day.
She also recommends keeping your bedroom cool and at a stable temperature, at around 18°C, 65°F to avoid restlessness from an overly warm system or being woken by a cold core, as our bodies cool down while we sleep.
webmd suggests you refrain from eating and drinking just before bed, unless you enjoy heartburn, a busy digestive system and increased trips to the toilet!
The same article also suggests writing out your ideas, worries and to do lists a few hours before you go to bed. If you want to clear your mind, write it all down. I’d expand this: if you find yourself mulling over an issue while in bed, keep a notepad by the bed and make a quick note and promise yourself to review it in the morning. This gives your brain “permission” to let go and relax. I’ve found it works for me.
Finally, if all else fails, get up! There’s no use lying in bed awake. Interrupting your sleeplessness for a brief break might help you to reset. When you do go back to bed, get up at the usual time in the morning. Don’t sleep in or you’ll risk breaking your sleep pattern. Go to bed earlier the next night instead.
In extreme cases, seek some advice from your GP who may be able to refer you for some CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to explore further the thoughts and behaviours that are keeping you awake.
30 Day Sleep Challenge: Establish a Good Sleep Habit
I have seen numerous articles over the years providing tips on how to overcome insomnia and occasionally I’ve tried to implement them but I’ve been spotty at best. It’s not funny anymore, I’m tired of being tired. It’s time to tackle sleep and I’m inviting you to join me in my 30 day sleep challenge.
Happiness Objective: to improve productivity, mental and physical health by going to bed by 11pm and/or getting at least 7 hours’ sleep every night for 30 days without having to resort to sleeping in late or taking naps during the day to recover from sleep deprivation
Step One: This week I challenge you to go offline no later than 11pm and be in bed, lights out, by 11:30pm. Choose a bed time that will give you at least seven hours’ sleep, earlier than 11:30pm if necessary, but don’t go to bed any later than midnight even if you can sleep later in the morning. The goal here is to become used to going to bed earlier and rising earlier in order to reset your body clock to a more typical pattern.
By switching your devices off at least half an hour before going to bed you will give your mind and body time to unwind and let the effects of the stimulating screen glare dissipate. You can fill this time in any relaxing way you see fit: journalling, meditating, yoga, reading a book. If you prefer to have longer to unwind then switch off the electronics earlier but leave at least a minimum of half an hour before going to bed. Spend some of this half hour keeping a sleep journal to record your progress. Write in your physical state before sleep and in the morning, your emotional state, any issues you encounter trying to sleep or during the night, any environmental factors that may have caused them. See if you can establish a pattern and determine what works best for you.
Step Two: Make yourself accountable. Tell someone that you’re doing this and ask them to check up on you. Post it up on Facebook or Twitter, text your mates, tell your family. Comment in the section below and let us be your accountability partners. Ask people to call you out if they see you online after 11pm or out of bed after your chosen bedtime. It’s easy to make excuses to yourself but harder if you’re having to explain to someone else exactly why it’s so important that you watch epic fail videos on YouTube at midnight when you have to get up for class or work the next day. Make peer pressure work for you!
I’m going to implement these steps too and I’ll be back next week to report on my progress. I’d love to hear how you get on – comment below and let us know! Alternatively you can join me on my Facebook page or Twitter page and join in the discussion there. Looking forward to hearing from you!
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