We’ve all had problems going to sleep at times. The stress of day to day life sometimes keep us awake at night. Even the people who do studies of sleep sometimes have problems. Lack of proper sleep can cause daytime fatigue, irritability (yep that one is me), and problems concentrating during the day.
I’ve read several articles and most agree that in the U.S there are anywhere between half to one third of the population that have had some type of sleep problem at some point in their life. Any one, at any age, including children, can experience problems sleeping. I know as a mental health professional, it’s one of the first questions I ask patients. Lack of sleep is normally a sign of stress, depression, anxiety, and occasionally a medical issue. For any sleep problem which last more than a few days or weeks, it’s best to contact your doctor to find the cause and rule out any serious issues. For the rest of us who are stressed, overly tired, experiencing anxiety, or just can’t stop thinking about the day, here are some things that might help us fall asleep. This post will focus on adults. I’ll write something about helping children in another post.
Before heading to the medicine cabinet, try a few things first. Studies show that the sleep we get through sleep medications is not always what we need. They have been shown to negatively effect our REM sleep. Google it and you’ll find more information. Like all medication there is always the possibility of side effects. Some common side effects of medicine induced sleep are constipation, memory problems, dry mouth, headache, heartburn, and mental impairment the following day. One of the scariest side effects I found was in a study that states sleeping pill users may have a higher rate of cancer and dying earlier. Of course, there is always the possibility of the medication becoming habit forming. Taking sleep medication long term can mask the real cause of a sleep problem.
Some things to try:
- Deep breathing – Deep breathing is something many therapists teach their clients, and it can help you fall asleep as well. Why? Deep breathing has a natural calming effect on both the mind and the body. If you’re concentrating, really concentrating, on deep breathing, you are not thinking about whatever was running rampant in your mind. How to do this? Lay in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and focus on counting your breaths for 5 – 15 minutes. When your mind starts to wander off start counting from one again. This type of meditation has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate, reduce anxiety, and help sleep.
- Read – Tossing and turning is stressful; it can cause your body to release adrenaline which in turn will make it harder to fall asleep. A distracting activity such as a good book will allow your body to naturally calm down, and sleep will take over.
- Count those sheep – Your grandmother or mother probably told you this one. Imagining something else or visualization will actually reduce anxiety by getting your mind off what it was thinking about and will allow your brain’s natural method of shutting down to begin.
- Soft music – I’ve read that listening to soft, calming music one will help. I think satellite TV and cable TV need to have a station at night for just this purpose. Maybe they do, and I haven’t found it. Calming music will help you fall asleep as well as possibly extend the length and depth of sleep. Maybe try some classical music. There is probably an app for that.
- Stop looking at the clock – As tempting as it is, stop it. What difference does it make if you know you’ve been fighting sleep for the last hour? Or that you woke up at 2 am? It will add more stress if you think about how many hours of sleep you have left before having to wake up. Just “let it go.” While we are talking about clocks, put that phone in the bedside drawer, so it doesn’t light up. Turn the sound off. If you’re worried about missing an important call from your children, who might be out late at night, most phones have a setting that will allow only those on your “favorite” (for me that is my family) list to call between certain hours. I know for sure that my iPhone does. I use it. *note…If you’re calling me between the hours of 10:30 PM and 7:00 AM, and I don’t answer, you are not on the list.
- A journal or list – Now we come to one of the things that sometimes keep me up at night. Thinking about things I didn’t do that day or need to do the next. For some it’s the worries about the day or the next day. Whatever it is, write it down! Keep it by your bed and write it down. It will give you a feeling of control and hopefully allow your brain to rest especially if you feel you might forget it in the morning.
- Caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, or other stimulates – Just stop doing these several hours before bedtime. For me, I have found that if I drink a caffeinated beverage any time after 5:00 PM, I’m not going to fall asleep easily. It might not be that way for you. Though I have seen an occasional person who actually falls asleep after caffeine, that’s few and far between.
- Avoid sweets – Have you ever noticed after you wake up from a nap (yah, right, what’s that you ask) or even sometimes in the morning, you crave something sweet? Or maybe it’s at night when you start to crave something surgery. Sugar is a natural stimulant. It’s what many of us reach for during that 3:00 PM slump at work because it gives our body carbohydrates. Carbohydrates get us moving, so the last thing you need at night before bed is something that is going to get you moving.
Not all of these will work for everyone. Experiment until you find something that helps. Everyone needs sleep. It’s one of the ways your body recycles both physically and mentally. Some sleep experts agree that behavior therapy and cognitive therapy are two types of therapy that can often help. So if you can’t find the key to sleep and there are no medical problems maybe counseling can help.