Have you ever lain awake, either before sleep or when you wake during the night, counting how few hours sleep you’ll have unless you get to sleep? This is an extremely common problem and what you are actually doing is keeping yourself awake by being concerned about being unable to sleep.
An occasional night of poor sleep is to be expected and in itself is no problem yet night after night of experiencing sleep issues causes us to be over tired, and the brain is less able to function cognitively. Plus we can become sluggish, irritable, eat badly, and lose our enthusiasm for life.
Poor sleep becomes habitual. The more we try to break the poor sleep cycle the more we are enforcing it. It takes a completely new approach to overcome these habits.
Usually sleepers pass through five stages: 1, 2, 3, 4 and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. These stages progress cyclically from 1 through REM then begin again with stage 1. A complete sleep cycle takes an average of 90 to 110 minutes, with each stage lasting between 5 to 15 minutes. When we have problems with sleep we tend to wake at the end of a sleep cycle, 90 – 110 minutes after sleep, and then encounter problems returning to sleep.
It’s necessary to establish a good wind-down routine prior to bed. This prepares the mind to know that sleep is next on the agenda. No phone, no tv, no social media, no mental stimulus of any kind. And no getting up from the couch and heading straight for bed. Ideally, a 15 minute routine of gradually winding down is ideal. Turning off the tv, checking the doors are locked, fluffing the cushions, brushing teeth, whatever is able to be done to give a 10 to 15 minute nightly routine of bed preparation. This won’t always be necessary as time goes on yet it is necessary as a new routine is established and old sleep habits are overcome.
It’s very important to stay away from any mental stimulus as we go to sleep. Reading or listening to an audiobook or low impact podcast is fine, yet no tv and especially no phone use as this just mentally stimulates the brain.
Allow the mind to drift into sleep. If the mind is active then an excellent sleep exercise is to go through the alphabet mentally thinking of a girl’s name for each letter and then go through again finding boy’s names and then go through again finding different girls names etc. Persevere with this exercise. It’s like everything else with the mind, we have to practise to become effective. When first using this exercise the mind will wander onto other things, usually something we are worrying about, even if that is the lack of sleep, yet it’s important to keep returning the mind to the exercise. Eventually, over time the mind will be trained to sleep when beginning this exercise without the need to keep going through the alphabet several times.
If waking during the night stay in bed and use the exercise to return to sleep. Again this takes time and some patience to establish, yet it works because essentially the mind is being given something to do, an activity, yet the activity is boring and that is what sends the mind to sleep. Thinking about problems, issues, concerns and worries, or reflecting on the past just wakes us up, stimulating the mind rather than soothing it.
If waking during the night refrain from looking at the phone, or even from checking the time as this again just begins to fire up the brain cells, like little lights coming on, and reinforces the belief that we have sleep issues and won’t be able to return to sleep. Boring the mind is effective. Stimulating the mind isn’t.
It takes time to break old habits and establish new so improvement will be gradual. Yet with patience and perseverance, the mind will adjust and a peaceful and full night’s sleep will once again be established.