Insomnia is a complex condition because many things can throw off our natural sleep/wake cycles. Also, not everyone responds in the same way to different techniques that are used to reestablish a healthy cycle. An awareness of the things that might be disrupting your sleep, and a willingness to experiment are the keys to recovery.
The intention here is to briefly give the most important points about insomnia so that you can immediately begin cultivating better sleep.
Insomnia – What Is It?
We all know what it feels like to not be able to get a good nights’ sleep. Many things can disturb our sleep once in a while – a stressful day, overindulging in food or drink, and environmental disturbances like noise. Everyone experiences interruptions in their sleep patterns occasionally.
Some things can disturb our sleep for longer periods of time — children waking us up in the night, an ongoing stressful situation, the loss of a loved one, a health problem. Things like these can often interrupt our normal sleep patterns for weeks at a time. We label these disturbances as “insomnia” when they cease being temporary and become chronic. Generally when the disruption of our normal sleep cycles goes on for three or more weeks it is viewed as insomnia.
Developing Awareness of What Affects Our Sleeping Patterns
Insomnia is a condition that involves both the mind and the body. Your body has a daily natural cycle that supports our wakeful and restful periods. Because we are such complex creatures we can, and often do, override our natural sleep/wake rhythms. When we do that on a continual basis we tend to disrupt the function of these natural cycles. Then we often get frustrated and try all kinds of things to try to “get ourselves to sleep”. Unfortunately many of these things just disrupt the cycles further. Also, several factors may be interacting to make it hard to rest. For instance, we might have trouble sleeping one night, so we sleep in the next morning to try to “catch up” plus drink extra coffee to help stay alert which, in turn, makes it harder to sleep the next night. Over time we may get anxious about sleeping and spend time worrying that we won’t be able to sleep that night. All of these things combine to make it harder to sleep, so a vicious cycle develops.
The good news is that most things that create insomnia are under our control, even though it may not feel that way. The key is increasing our awareness of what is actually happening for us, and then making changes that strengthen our natural sleep cycle. To regain good sleep patterns we need to look at the mind and body as an integrated whole. Once we begin to look at it in this way, a lot of things about our insomnia begin to make sense.
Our bodies know how to be healthy, and we naturally know how to sleep. Our job is to think like a detective: to figure out what we might be doing that is getting in our own way, so that we can make changes that let our natural sleep/wake cycles resume.
How to Start
The 5 Things You Can Do About Insomnia are suggestions that you can try to support more restful sleep. While not all of them may apply to you, don’t be surprised if more than one factor is involved.
Experiment to see what works for you. This can be a process of discovering new things. An important point to remember is that it doesn’t have to be something that you struggle with yourself about. If you find yourself resistant to changing old habits, just encourage yourself to make whatever changes you can right now.
You can have a lasting improvement after working for a few weeks with this approach, but you may need to take a larger view of your health, some patience, and a commitment to try some new things.
If you are having a hard time sleeping, ask yourself the following questions:
1. Am I getting anxious and tense about not being able to sleep at night?
2. What am I doing that might be throwing off my body’s natural sleep/wake rhythm?
3. Do I give myself time to wind down from the activities of the day before going to bed?
4. Do I get caught up in my thoughts and fears when I am trying to sleep?
5. Have I created an environment for myself that promotes restful sleep?
The answers to these questions will start you on your way to better sleep – and quite possibly to an enhanced sense of overall healthiness. In the following section we will address each of these areas one by one.
1. Create a more relaxed environment in your mind
It is important to look at the way we treat ourselves when we are having trouble sleeping. The attitude that we take when facing life’s challenges is extremely important and recovering from insomnia is no different. Yet we may not even be aware of our attitudes about getting to sleep. It is important to listen to how we are talking to ourselves.
Often when we are having trouble sleeping we get locked into a cycle of anxiety and worry. Thoughts run through our head: “I’m not going to be able to function tomorrow. . . Everyone else seems to be able to sleep. . . What’s wrong with me? . . . Am I going to get sick and feel even worse?” These thoughts can become repetitive, and we can end up being frustrated and angry towards ourselves. This actually takes us farther away from being able to sleep. It also increases a general atmosphere of stress that we carry with us into our day. The hallmark of frustration is feeling that if we could just fix the problem everything would be fine. But, in this case, that becomes part of the problem. This may not describe your experience, but there are many people who spend sleepless nights feeling worried and frustrated and angry with themselves and their bodies.
One of the most powerful ways of changing this kind of atmosphere is to begin to cultivate an attitude of kindness and gentleness towards ourselves when we can’t sleep. By doing this we are cultivating a very different attitude than one of frustration and self-aggression described above. You may think “How can I cultivate gentleness towards myself when I am a wreck because I cannot sleep?”
I know it may not make sense right now. I know it is also not an easy thing to do. But even having the intention to discover how to be kinder towards our self starts to make a difference.
We can begin by seeing if we can simply generate some kindness and sympathy for ourselves in our present state. Here we are, feeling whatever we are feeling – maybe fear, maybe anger, overwhelm, or frustration. We could just try to connect with those feelings for a moment. Just letting them be there. Not trying to fix ourselves or change what we are feeling.
We could even think about all the people who are having a hard time sleeping. Who may be feeling much like us. We could generate some attitude of kindness towards them, as well. Wishing that everyone, including ourselves, might find a way to relax and get the rest they need right now.
We usually need a radical shift in our attitude when we can’t sleep. Very often people believe that they feel crummy after not sleeping simply because they are fatigued. Actually, a great deal of our daytime stress can come from the attitude we have taken towards ourselves all night!
It may be hard to believe that our attitude is so powerful that it could affect both our ability to relax at night and our general sense of stress during the next day. If you have any doubt about this, please take this brief exercise:
Imagine for a minute that you are lying in bed trying to sleep and several people are standing over you saying in edgy tones: “You are not asleep yet. It is getting late and later and later. You are going to feel terrible tomorrow all day. You are not going to do well.” Not very pleasant is it?
You may even be starting to feel uptight just reading this. Now imagine that those people are there for HOURS saying the same things in angrier and more frustrated tones! How do you think you are going to feel all night? Are you more likely to fall asleep being barraged by this kind of attitude? How are you likely to feel the next day? And the next night as you get ready to go to bed?
Now imagine a very different scene. Someone is sitting next to your bed exuding a sense of warmth, patience, and caring towards you. They are letting you know that whether you fall asleep or not you will be fine. Every time that you start to feel anxious you realize that they are there. You may or may not fall asleep, but how do you think you will feel all night? Do you think sleep is more or less likely with this kind of mental atmosphere than the other? How is this likely to affect you the next day?
Often just doing this simple exercise helps us to understand why it is counter productive to take an attitude of anger and self-judgment around our inability to sleep. Instead we could approach ourselves in a way that engenders a sense of relaxation. Of course, the last thing we may be feeling when we cannot sleep is kindness and acceptance of our experience. But even just the intention to treat the whole situation with gentleness helps to shift our attitude. Interestingly it can also be an introduction to a whole new way of dealing with our world whenever we are under stress.
We often do not realize how much our general attitude towards others and ourselves affects our experience. This is one of the things we look at quite a bit in our stress reduction classes. People are often surprised when they begin to realize how harsh an attitude they take towards themselves. This seems particularly true when they are having a difficult or uncomfortable experience. Yet it is possible to learn how to relate with a sense of appreciation and relaxation to our world and ourselves. I am not just talking about wishful thinking here. Many, many people have learned how to do this.
Don’t worry if you are not able to “be gentle” right away with yourself. For most of us it is a learning process. The key is pointing yourself in this direction. If you find yourself awake, frustrated, and struggling to go to sleep you don’t have to get even madder at yourself because you are not “being gentle.” Just become aware of what you’re doing and see if it is possible to generate some sympathy towards your situation. One thing you could do is to take a more accommodating and confident attitude towards yourself, EVEN IF YOU DON’T REALLY FEEL IT. This is called “acting as if” and it can be very helpful. You might remind yourself periodically: “I am fine. I may be tired tomorrow but I will do just fine. Meanwhile, I will treat myself just like I would my best friend if he or she had become very upset — with gentleness, spaciousness, and confidence that they would find a way to work it out”.
So far we have addressed both the possibility of physical causes of insomnia, and the importance of cultivating a helpful attitude. Now we can move on to look at how our behaviors might be affecting our ability to sleep.
2. Establish strong wake/sleep rhythms
When we can’t sleep at the normal time, a natural response is to try to “catch up” on our sleep at other times. For instance, when its possible we tend to sleep in some mornings or on weekends. Sometimes we might sleep in for three and four hours past our normal wake up time. Maybe we take naps during the day. All of this is very common and ordinary. But deviating from our sleep rhythm is one of the prime causes of sleeping problems.
We all have a biological clock that governs our sleep/wake rhythms. This is how our body knows when it is time to sleep and when to get up. Many things can affect this clock but probably the most essential is the time we get up each day. When we vary the time more than an hour or so we are asking our body to make a radical shift in this mechanism. It is very much like getting on a plane and flying to another time zone. To do that every once in a while is no big deal. But if we are constantly trying to make up for lost sleep by changing our patterns then we are throwing this rotation off continually. This causes a kind of repetitive jet lag.
Our body and our psyche do best with a daily rhythm that stays pretty much the same. Whenever we change that rhythm, we need time to adjust to the new schedule. This is what is responsible for “Sunday Night Syndrome” where you catch up on sleep on Saturday and Sunday mornings, but then cannot sleep well on Sunday night. So it’s a good idea to get up at the same time every day, EVEN IF YOU HAVE NOT SLEPT WELL THE NIGHT BEFORE. This is often hard for people to accept. It seems the opposite of what we want to do.
It is important however, because it will strengthen a regular rhythm, which you need if you are having trouble sleeping. It will also increase the pressure to sleep the following night (whereas if you sleep in you’ll have thrown off your sleep/wake schedule and decreased your chances of getting a good nights sleep the next night.) It is true that you may feel some fatigue the next day, but it is important to keep the larger goal in mind, which is to get your body back to a regular sleep pattern. Even weekends. If you want to sleep in, keep it to an hour or less. If you feel fatigued you may want to schedule a short nap in the early afternoon.
A short nap can be restful – especially if we have not gotten sufficient sleep at night. It can recharge our batteries for the rest of the day. Often the biggest challenge is to find a place you feel comfortable napping, especially if you work during the day. Although the benefit of naps has begun to be accepted in the transportation industry, many other kinds of businesses still do not recognize how helpful they can be. Yet people have found creative ways to nap at work. Lunchtime is often a time where someone can take a stroll, sit in their car, or find an empty room. Just leaning your head back for as little as five minutes can be quite beneficial, and will help restore your energy if you are fatigued.
You do need to be careful about when and for how long you nap. A long nap starts resetting your body clock, and can make it more difficult to fall asleep that night. If you limit naps to 30 minutes or less you will get the maximum benefit without decreasing your ability to sleep normally that night. Usually people do best if they take a nap sometime between 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm. If you nap after 3:00 pm you increase the risk of disrupting your sleep that night.
3. Getting Ready to Rest
What kind of activities do you engage in just before you go to sleep? We are not computers. Most of us cannot shut down with a click and then go right to bed. We need a “wind down” period for an hour or so to tell our system that rest time is approaching. What are you doing during this period? Are you working? Engaging in a great deal of mental activity? Are you surfing the Internet? Answering your e-mail? All of these activities tell our bodies that it is time to wind up, not down.
Ditto for activities that may generate strong emotions or anxiety. Are you having emotional discussions with your partner when you are just about to go to sleep? Are you doing your bills late at night? Do you watch the evening news? For many people, especially those working long hours or raising small children, this may seem like the only time to do these activities. But if your sleep is being affected you need to take care of yourself and find other times.
Create 1-2 hours of down time before going to sleep. This means turning off computers; letting go of work, bills, heavy housework, hyper or emotional TV; and not trying to work out finances or relationship issues. Turn off most of your appliances and electric lights. Use that time for relaxing activities like reading, sewing, yoga, or light TV. It works best if you develop a routine for yourself that you follow on most nights. In a very short time your psyche will associate this routine with getting ready to sleep for the night.
4. Let go of Thinking
Many people find that they can’t sleep because their mind gets engaged thinking about various things. Often people describe this as their mind “obsessing” or “worrying” about things that have happened or are about to happen. On any given night there are probably millions of people lying awake with their minds racing with plans for the future, worries about the past, or repetitive thoughts of self-criticism.
It is helpful to remember that there is a time and a place for real problem solving, and the middle of the night is not it! How many times have you laid awake at night thinking about something that was bothering you without making any productive progress on it at all? Better to remind yourself that there is another time to do your thinking, and that this is the time to sleep. Some people even find it helpful to write down what they are worrying about and then put it aside to address in the morning.
When our thoughts go on and on, even while we are trying to sleep, they keep us awake. It is possible to train ourselves to let go of our thoughts, or at least step outside of them, and be less caught up in relentless repetitive thinking. Exercises, which promote this ability to let go and be in the present moment, are called “mindfulness training.” Learning to be mindful in this way is not necessarily an easy thing to do – but it is quite helpful. It can be useful not only at night but also can help us reduce our stress and appreciate our lives in general.
5. Create an environment that promotes sound sleep
We all know that factors in our environment can disturb our sleep. Some of the most common offenders are noise, light, temperature, and the general environment we have created in our bedroom.
Your Bedroom is for Sleep
Can you think of a room or environment that always feels good to you, or did when you were growing up? Environments have a very powerful effect on the way that we feel.
For your bedroom you want to create a special environment that carries an association of rest, of pleasure, and of sleep at the end of a hard day.
Look around and see if your bedroom is a place that says “rest here.” Does it look like a peaceful place? Is it clean and uncluttered? Or does it have projects or papers that demand your attention? What could you do to make it a special environment?
One of the most common recommendations about creating this peaceful place for yourself is to only use your bedroom for sleep and sex. Do not do work in bed, watch heavy TV programs, or have arguments here. Move your computer somewhere else. Clear out the papers. You want a bedroom that you associate with sleep and intimacy and nothing else of your waking life! This can be challenging, to find room elsewhere for the other things of our lives. Most of us live in spaces, which have little available extra space. But necessity is the mother of invention! It is important that we create our sleeping space to be a relaxing refuge from daily activity.
Finally – You don’t want your sleep space to be one that you associate with tossing and turning in your bed either. If you cannot get to sleep in 20 minutes, get up and go somewhere else for a short time. Have a body pillow and a cozy blanket on the couch where you can curl up. Read a magazine or some other light reading. Do some knitting, crossword puzzles, or yoga. Wait until you get drowsy. Then go back to bed. If you still cannot sleep, repeat this again. Try not to get frustrated with yourself. Tell yourself you are breaking the habit of associating your bed with not being able to sleep and that your bedroom is becoming your refuge of rest and only rest.
Noise is one of the most commonly identified factors in an environment that is difficult to sleep in. Some regular or irregular Sound that disrupts the quiet atmosphere and either wakes us up or makes it hard to go to sleep. As intelligent creatures we come out of sleep when a noise occurs to make sure that no danger is present, but waking up to noise night after night can be very hard on us.
There are some things you can try if you have a noisy environment. You can wear earplugs all night, or put them in when there is a noise so it muffles the sound. You may want to try a machine that generates soothing sounds. All baby stores and many other stores carry these. They emit a variety of sounds that are soothing and can muffle the noises that happen in the night. You can get a machine that just emits “white noise” which is a steady airy kind of sound that is often the most effective. Some people find that the noise of a fan can be just as helpful.
Sometimes we may have to reconsider where we sleep. You can get stuck thinking that there is only one possible room for your bed, but you may need to consider making a change if the room you are in is always noisy. Remember this is your health we are talking about.
There is often another important way that noise disrupts our rest. Especially when the noise is repetitive, we can have feelings of anger and resentment that make it more difficult to fall asleep. It is important to recognize this because although we often can’t control noise in our environment, we do have power over our own reactions.
This is often a surprise for people. We have a tendency to think that someone or something is “making us” angry. In truth our reactions are not coming from them, they are coming from us! Usually the way we react to a situation emotionally comes from a complex set of assumptions and reactions to those assumptions. Often it is that we assume that whoever is making the noise is being inconsiderate. Or we may feel trapped because we live in a noisy area. We feel justified in our feelings – but it is the intensity of the feelings themselves that helps keep us awake. If we can own these feelings as our own reaction then we may be able to find ways of dealing with them other than keeping ourselves awake.
If it is a spouse, family member, or neighbor who is causing the noise, consider whether you have done your best to problem solve solutions with them that you can both live with. If that doesn’t work you might need to talk with a counselor about how you can work with these feeling so that they don’t interfere with your health.
Light – Consider whether your room is dark enough to get a good rest, and if not, think about what you could do to darken it more fully. Some people are very sensitive to light and cannot sleep if their partner has a light on or if there are no drapes on the windows. This is often a very difficult problem for shift workers who have to sleep during the day. See if you can find ways to darken your room more completely.
If you find you are waking up too early in the morning, or are not able to fall asleep when you want to at night, the problem may be that your body’s “sleep clock” may be set for the wrong times. Since light is such a powerful factor in establishing this inner rhythm, you may to reset your sleep clock by using light.
If you have difficulty falling asleep at night, try exposing yourself to sunlight as early as you can in the morning on a consistent basis. Then, an hour before bedtime, turn off all the electric lights in your environment. Though it may sound silly, try using candles for the period before bed. (This is great when combined with a warm bath.)
If you have the opposite problem – you are waking up too early in the morning – turn up your lights at night and expose yourself to natural light as late in the day as you can. Take a walk before or after dinner.
Before the invention of electricity human beings slept an average of 10-12 hours a night! But now we often have lots of lights on in our environment before going to bed. Researchers have found that although light from the sun has the strongest effects on our internal “sleep clock,” the light of even one light bulb can have an effect in telling our bodies that it is still time to be awake. I believe we have just begun to scratch the surface of how electricity affects our daily rhythms. This is why it can be helpful to turn off as many electric lights as possible during your wind – down period before going to bed, unless you are trying to stay up later.
Heat – Temperature affects our sleep and there is a natural cycle to our body’s temperature over the course of the night. Our temperature drops as we prepare for sleep and rises again as we begin to awake. It is always a good idea to sleep in a somewhat cool room as it supports our ability to get a good rest. Try turning down your heat to the point just before you wake up because you are too cool. Consider not using an electric blanket if you have insomnia, as it can interfere with the body’s natural temperature shifts.