Sleep difficulties include sleeping too much or too little, disturbed sleep, and difficulty falling asleep or waking up. Most sleep difficulties are the result of a number of different factors which work together to disrupt your sleep. In this article, we will go though some of the common causes of sleep disturbance and practical guidelines for dealing with these.
Establish a regular waking time
Establishing a regular sleep-wake pattern is very important, especially waking up at the same time each morning. The time that you wake helps to set (or synchronize) all of your body’s circadian rhythms. In fact, you should try not to vary the time of day that you get up by more than one hour, even across the weekends. In particular, avoid laying in bed until midday on the weekend if you get up at 6 o’clock each weekday morning for work.
Establish a proper sleep environment
The discomfort caused by a rumbling stomach, persistent aches and pains, or being too hot or cold, can prevent you from relaxing enough to fall asleep. Therefore it is necessary that all your immediate needs have been met before you try to sleep. If you are hungry, have a light snack or a warm milk drink (caffeine-free) before you go to bed. If you are in pain, take a mild pain reliever. It is much easier to sleep if you are comfortable.
Noise during the night (such as traffic) is another common source of sleep disturbance. Even if you do not awaken and cannot remember the noises the next day, the noises can interfere with your normal sleep pattern. If you sleep in a place that tends to be noisy, try to shut out sound by closing windows and doors, wearing earplugs, or sound-proofing the room. Even if you think that you cannot fall sleep without a radio or television in the background, remember that this noise will disrupt your sleep during the night. A clock radio that will automatically turn itself off may be useful.
A light room will make it more difficult for you to sleep. Therefore, if you have trouble sleeping, it will be helpful to darken the room before going to bed and to ensure that the morning light does not wake you up in the morning. If you have a tendency to oversleep, it may be helpful to allow the light to enter the bedroom in the morning.
Allow a wind-down time prior to sleep
Make sure that you stop work at least 30 minutes before you go to bed and do something different and non-stressful, such as reading, watching television, or listening to music.
Use your bed only for sleep
Your bedroom should only be used for sleep, and of course sexual activity (which may help you to sleep). Activities such as eating, working, watching television, reading, drinking, arguing, or discussing the days problems should be done elsewhere, because their associated arousal may interfere with you getting to sleep. These activities also make you associate your bed with wakefulness and alertness rather than drowsiness and sleep onset. It may be useful to remove all objects in your bedroom that are not associated with sleep.
Do not stay in bed when you are not asleep
If you have been having problems falling asleep, only go to bed when you are sleepy. If you do not fall asleep in about 10 minutes, get up and go to another room. Stay up until sleepy and only then return to your bed to sleep. If you return to bed and still cannot sleep, repeat the preceding instruction. Do this as often as is necessary to fall asleep in 10 minutes.
Coping with worry and anxiety
One of the most common causes of sleep disturbance is anxiety. Many people find it difficult to wind down when they climb into bed at night after a hectic day. Often this is the first chance they have had to think about things that are concerning them. People can find themselves lying in bed worrying about their problems when they would really rather be asleep. The feelings of tension and arousal that accompany these thoughts make it more difficult to fall asleep, therefore, these individuals also begin to worry about their sleeplessness as well as their other problems. They may end up tossing and turning well into the night. If you think you are having trouble sleeping because you are anxious about things that are happening in your life, there are two things you can do to improve your sleep.
Set aside time for problem solving during the day
Bed is not the place for thinking about things that distress you. If you do not normally find time during the day for thinking about things that are happening in your life then you need to set aside a time each day to do so. It should be a time when you are alone. Try to think of ways to resolve your problems. Usually this will require you to make decisions, some of which may be difficult because they concern important features of your life such as family and work. However, putting off stressful decisions only extends your feelings of anxiety. In most cases the uncertainty that accompanies difficult decisions is much more stressful and unpleasant than living with the outcome of the decision once the, decision is made. Talk to your therapist or health worker if you would like more information about useful problem solving techniques.
Get out of bed
If you find yourself unable to stop worrying about things when you are in bed, get up and do something that is distracting yet relaxing, like knitting, listening to music, or reading a book. You may even want to listen to a relaxation tape. Do not return to bed until you feel sleepy again. When you do go back to bed, if you find that you are still worried and sleepless, get out of bed again and do something relaxing (as above) until you are sleepy enough to return to bed once more. At first you may find you need to get out of bed a number of times before you are finally able to fall asleep. The important thing is that you will learn to associate your bed with sleep and not with worry.
Avoid napping during the day
It is not uncommon for people who have had a particularly bad night’s sleep to feel sleepy the next day. This daytime sleepiness can make it very tempting for you to take a nap in the middle of the day or early afternoon. However, if you have insomnia and nap in the afternoon, you make it much more likely that you will have another night of poor sleep. This is because when it comes time for bed you will be less tired and will need less sleep because you have slept during the day. You will probably take longer to fall asleep and you will awaken more frequently during the night. The next day you are likely to feel sleepy again and will be tempted to have another daytime nap.
As you can see, this pattern of napping soon becomes a vicious cycle that makes your original sleeping problem even worse. If you have insomnia, no matter how tired you are during the day, try to avoid daytime naps (unless you are doing shift work). Stick to regular sleep times by going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning. If you cannot get to sleep until later than your normal sleep time, do not sleep late the next morning – get up at your normal waking time. By following these instructions you will help to ensure that your natural body rhythm works with you, helping you to sleep at the times you want to sleep.
Avoid caffeine late in the day
This drug is found in coffee, tea, cocoa, cola drinks, as well as some over the counter medications. Consuming caffeine before bedtime, or drinking too much caffeine during the day will increase feelings of energy and wakefulness and make it more difficult for you to fall asleep. Any caffeine consumed after about 4 p.m. will still have an effect by the time you go to bed.
Sometimes individuals get into a pattern of drinking too much caffeine during the day, sleeping badly at night time, and then consuming even larger quantities of caffeine the following day to help ward off sleepiness. Such behaviour sets up a vicious cycle which is to be avoided wherever possible. Some helpful suggestions about caffeine are provided below.
• Limit caffeine intake
• Avoid drinking caffeine after about 4 p.m.
• Avoid using caffeine as a means of staying awake
Nicotine stimulates the nervous system by releasing a hormone called ‘adrenaline’. Adrenaline acts to arouse the body and mind, making you alert and ready for action. Your body normally releases small doses of adrenaline throughout the day and large doses when you are faced with something challenging or threatening. Therefore, smoking prior to bedtime causes adrenaline to be released, thereby increasing energy and liveliness at the very time when you want to be relaxed and ready for sleep. If you are a smoker and you normally have trouble getting to sleep at night, it is best that you do not smoke for at least an hour before going to bed (preferably an hour and a half), since this is the length of time it takes for the stimulating effects of nicotine to wear off. Furthermore, if you wake up during the night and cannot go back to sleep, try not to smoke because the nicotine will make the sleeplessness worse.
Avoid excessive alcohol
A popular belief about alcohol is that alcohol will help you sleep if you are uptight and anxious. One or two glasses of wine or beer in the evening may help you to relax, but regularly having several drinks in the evening causes you to get much poorer sleep overall. As the alcohol in your system is broken down by your body, you tend to awaken more frequently and you spend less time in the deeper stages of sleep. If you drink regularly you may find that you come to depend on the alcohol to reduce your anxiety and help you get to sleep. Not only will alcohol leave you feeling unrefreshed the next morning (because you are robbed of better quality sleep), but you are likely to have rebound anxiety which will last throughout the day and make it even more difficult to sleep at night. Alcohol is not the solution to sleeping problems so do not drink before you go to bed.
Avoid sleeping pills
The use of sleeping pills (sedative hypnotics) for any length of time causes as many problems as it solves. While sedative hypnotics will help you fall asleep and will decrease your anxiety in the short term, these benefits will disappear in the long term if you continue to use the sedatives regularly. That is, you will begin to feel anxious and sleepless even though you are taking the pills. When this happens you will be tempted to take more sleeping pills since doing so will bring back the benefits of the drug. Unfortunately, however, these benefits will not be permanent either so that after a time you again experience the unwanted symptoms of anxiety and sleeplessness. The process that makes you less sensitive to the benefits of the drug over time is called tolerance. While sleeping pills are useful for overcoming temporary sleep loss, the development of tolerance means that these drugs do not provide a long term solution to sleeping problems.
Continual use of sleeping pills also has the disadvantage that you will find it extremely difficult to give up the drugs because doing so will cause you to experience withdrawal effects. The levels of anxiety and sleeplessness that you experience after stopping the drug are likely to be greater than the anxiety and sleeplessness that made you start using the drug. Coming off sleeping pills can also cause you to have vivid dreams and nightmares. These dreams are often highly emotional and disturbing.
If you do not use sleeping pills, or use them only occasionally, take heed of these warnings and do not start using them regularly. If you do use sleeping pills every night to help you sleep, it is recommended that you talk to your family doctor about reducing your intake of sleeping pills over time until you can stop using the pills altogether. Your doctor can help you come off the sleeping pills slowly without causing too many unpleasant side effects. Do not stop taking your sleeping pills without first talking to your doctor.
Take a late snack
A light bedtime snack, such as a warm glass of milk or a banana will help some people get to sleep. These foods are high in an amino acid called tryptophan, which is thought to be involved in the biochemical systems that induce and maintain sleep. If nothing else, the snack will prevent you from getting hungry during the night.
Don’t exercise before going to bed
Avoid exercise in the three hours before you go to bed, otherwise you may still be too aroused following the exercise to be able to fall asleep.