Counting sheep isn’t working. Reflecting on sleep difficulties.

I would like to reflect today on a very annoying, and very common, sleeping problem called night time waking. Night time waking is a form of insomnia impacting roughly 15% of Canadians. There are three types of insomnia, trouble falling asleep, waking during the night, and waking in the morning wide awake. You can have a combination of any of these, and they all share one feature- being distressful. You sit in bed starring at the clock, knowing and also wanting to sleep, but being unable to. It might be because your body is sore, your mind is racing, you’re worried about something happening the next day- but all you know is falling asleep it tough. Then you do, sleep that is, for what seems like ten minutes. When you wake up you stare at the clock and it takes forever to fall asleep again. You might even wake up early in the morning and feel wide awake, despite barely having any sleep, and cannot get back to bed even though you know halfway during the day you will be restless.

Here are some sleep hygiene ideas (in no relevant order) to try to change your sleeping problems…

1. Do you nap during the day? If so, perhaps try meditating for 15 minutes instead as napping can alter your sleep schedule and make it harder at night to fall asleep.

2. You do need natural light- if your sleep schedule gets weird during winter you might be impacted by the change of seasons, blue light therapy can sometimes help alter your sleep cycle (Circadian rhythms).

3. Don’t drink caffeine too late at night, even if you think it does nothing to your level of attention, it is impacting your brain, nervous system, neurons, etc. I try not to have coffee four –five hours before bed. The same goes with large meals, digesting takes a lot of energy and can keep you up even if you don’t “feel it”.

4. This might be hard for people who work shift-work, but try to establish a normal bedtime routine. This means trying to go to bed at the same time, and doing a prep-routine before (brushing your teeth, etc.) each day to get in the habit of training your body that this routine= time to get sleepy.

5. Your bed should be for sleeping- many people watch tv, read, or listen to music in bed. This trains your body to associate your bed with “awake” time, and so when you go to lay in the bed two hours later your body unconsciously thinks “okay, time to pay attention” versus “time to rest.” Put a chair beside your bed and do those activities in it.

6. If your mind is racing, write it down. Sometimes putting ideas on paper and putting them at your bedside to look at later can be really helpful.

7. A really important one- it’s been 20 minutes and you can’t fall asleep, don’t stay in bed. Get up, walk around, and try again when you feel sleepy. Not everyone needs 8 hours of sleep.

8. Have a bath 1-2 hours before bed. It raises your body temperature and makes you sleepy.

9. Count sheep- don’t laugh, this is a valid technique. It doesn’t have to be sheep, but to count something or imagine an image (like two dangers doing the tango) running in your head at a slow pace can be soothing and help you ignore other racing thoughts. Imagine it in vivid detail and when your thoughts go somewhere else (like what you’re stressing about) just breathe then go back to the image even if you have to restart.

These are some strategies to try. If you have these symptoms three nights a week, if it takes you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, and you’ve had this happening for many consecutive days despite what you try- you should probably see a doctor. Not that I am advocating for medication, because many people do not want to take sleeping pills (they often report side effects of being groggy and feeling heavy in the morning) but your doctor can get you in to see a psychologist (unless you go to a private practice) to see what is causing the insomnia. Often times, insomnia is a symptom related to depression, anxiety and other concerns, and is not the main issue to solve. Psychologists can help with these problems, and also teach you many ways to get into a relaxed state before bed (through hypnosis, meditation, etc.) that might help your insomnia.