If you heard about a pill that could strengthen your memory, improve your mood, help you solve problems and read social cues better while cutting your risks for heart disease and immune system disorders … would you take it?
A recent article in the New York Times posed this question, and like most readers, I quickly answered yes. Reading on, I learned that this “miracle treatment” is as simple as getting a good night’s sleep.
Though it is common knowledge and makes sense that quality sleep is important, it was good to have a refresher on all the issues that sleeplessness can cause. I often struggle to get good sleep, and I’ve noticed that many of my clients do, too.
It turns out we’re not the only ones. The Centers for Disease Control report that one-third of Americans don’t get enough rest. Around 80 percent say that they have difficulty sleeping at least once per week, and for some, chronic sleep deprivation has become a nightly struggle.
HOW MUCH SLEEP DO WE NEED?
Adults over 18 years of age need an average of 7 hours per night to maintain alertness during the day and support good overall health. But don’t assume you have a problem if you tend to sleep less. Some people wake refreshed and ready to go after 6 hours, while others need 8, 9 or more. Experts say that the best way to tell if you need more sleep is being able to get up, get going and remain alert for most of the day.
More good news: waking up in the middle of the night doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve developed a serious sleep problem. New research shows that humans may actually be programmed to function quite well with two long periods of sleep. However, if you wake at night and can’t drift back off, even after a little light reading or soothing music, you will begin to feel the effects of insomnia, the term medical experts use for chronic sleep loss.
WHAT CAUSES SLEEP PROBLEMS?
There are many issues that can rob us of a good night’s sleep. Looking after a newborn or a loved one who needs round-the-clock care can disrupt sleep cycles. Travel is another common trigger. There are serious medical conditions such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome that can cause us to wake frequently throughout the night. However, for most of us, the causes are much more straightforward.
By far, worry and anxiety are the most common culprits when it comes to sleep loss. When bedtime draws near, issues that have troubled us all day long can easily gain control of our minds. Our thoughts race in circles, with one concern leading to dozens of others. And the more we worry about not being able to drift off, the harder it becomes.
CREATING A CALM FOUNDATION FOR SLEEP
The good news is that even serious insomnia can be successfully addressed. Here are some basic suggestions that will help you create the right climate for sleep, inside and outside your body. These tips will also help you ease away from potentially stressful thoughts that can keep your mind churning at night.
Add exercise to your day. Working out is proven way to reduce the effects of everyday worry and stress. Studies show that even a short walk or a few minutes of housework, dancing or stretching can do wonders if you’re having trouble sleeping at night. However, be sure to stop exercising at least 3 hours before bedtime, since the stimulating effects of a workout can keep you awake.
Skip caffeine at least 8 hours before bed. If you’re a coffee or tea lover, switch to decaf in the early afternoon. Avoid treats like chocolate, caffeinated soft drinks, and coffee-flavored ice cream or yogurt. Check over-the-counter medications, too; some may contain caffeine and other stimulants.
Eliminate alcohol. Many people find that a glass of wine or a cocktail makes them feel drowsy, giving them the impression that alcohol is a good sleep aid. Research shows just the opposite, however. Drinking in the evening will cause you to wake during the night, reducing the efficiency of your sleep. So while it’s tempting to relax with a drink, you should cut alcohol out if you’re experiencing even mild sleep problems.
Establish a healthy routine, starting with a regular bedtime. You will be able to fall asleep more readily if your body is used to going to sleep the same time each night. Choose a bedtime that works for you and stick to your routine, even on weekends and holiday breaks. You may need to go to bed a bit earlier for a period of time, just to break the cycle you’re currently in. Consistency over time is the key.
Create restful comfort. Your bedroom should be dark, with air temperatures on the cool side. If your neighborhood is noisy at night, use earplugs or a white-noise machine to mask outside sounds. Many people like to sip caffeine-free bedtime tea as a way to soothe away thoughts of the day and add extra comfort.
Embrace relaxation. The goal is to stop working, viewing or reading anything stimulating for at least one hour before bed. Music, poetry, yoga, meditation and deep breathing exercises are all ways to clear your mind and establish a peaceful state before sleep. Some people enjoy a warm shower or bath with essential oils. There are many phone apps that can help you, including Headspace, which will help you learn the fundamentals of meditation, and Calm, which offers guided meditations, sleep stories, music and more.
Try different approaches to see what works for you.
Process thoughts before bed. If your thoughts are part of what is keeping you awake at night, try keeping a pen and paper by your bed and write down what is on your mind. Perhaps start keeping a daily journal to add to your routine. There are computer journal programs too that some of my clients prefer. You can use your phone to create voice memos. These days, we have more options at our fingertips.
Make your bedroom a screen-free oasis.
New research shows that the blue light emitted by TVs, phones, laptops and electronic readers can actually stimulate wakefulness. In fact, many experts recommend that we reserve our bedrooms for sleep and sex only, so that our bodies know when we lie down in bed, it’s time to rest. So many of us are tied to our screens, but limiting the amount of screen time at night is a good step toward better sleep.
If nothing seems to work, get help. While a few simple steps may help you reestablish a healthy sleep routine, the issues you’re experiencing may be a symptom of stress levels that have become unmanageable. Grief, trauma and unrelenting family or work stress can all trigger periods of insomnia, even in an otherwise happy and productive life.
Research shows that therapy can be even more effective than sleep medications in dealing with sleep loss. Seeking the help of a mental health professional is a wise, responsible way to address the underlying anxiety that may be contributing to your sleep issues.
YOU DESERVE A GOOD NIGHT’S SLEEP – AND A HEALTHY LIFE
As a therapist working with adults of all ages Oak Park, I am here to support your well-being. If you are struggling with fears or anxieties that keep you awake at night, let’s talk. Call me at 708-990-3867 or click here to send me a confidential message.