If you ask a good sleeper what they do to get to sleep, chances are they will shrug and say, ‘Nothing’. They simply put their head on the pillow; if they wake, they might turn over, or have a sip of water, but they just sleep without thinking about it.
If you ask an insomniac what they do, they will give you a long, detailed list – it might include avoiding late nights, slowly winding down and performing relaxation techniques – and yet they still don’t sleep.
What I’ve learnt from listening to people with sleep problems is that if the focus of your life becomes getting rid of insomnia, you can paradoxically remain stuck with it. It’s the struggle to control and avoid your insomnia that actually makes it worse, when instead, by using a blend of mindfulness and acceptance, and building a new sleep pattern, you can say goodnight to your sleep problem, whether it’s a few restless nights or a lifetime of insomnia.
Sleep: strategies for a better night's rest
Stop struggling, start sleeping
Being mindful of and accepting your struggle with insomnia is the first and most essential step to sleeping naturally. It is all too easy to fall into a pattern of mindless thinking, where we are completely unaware of things going on around us or our own behaviour. For example, we can often be doing something or having a conversation, but our mind is elsewhere.
At a basic level such mindlessness is harmless. However, when you can’t sleep, a lack of awareness of what is going on can keep you struggling when you don’t even know you’re doing it. You can spend night after night trying to work out how to fix your insomnia, and of course this over-thinking literally keeps you awake.
Mindfulness is about putting your mindset in the right place for sleep. It helps you to see your unhelpful struggle with sleeplessness and helps you to let go of it. By choosing to be still and gently taking notice of what’s happening, rather than struggling, you are informing your brain that sleeplessness is no longer a threat.
Welcome your worries
It might sound bonkers, but welcoming your insomnia is the key to getting you back to sleep.
When you are trying to fall asleep, there is nothing more annoying than a racing mind. Your brain becomes home to a gang of little monsters. Intent on keeping you awake, they eagerly jump from solving your life problems to churning through old memories, then running through the events of the day and revisiting conversations. They can also become catastrophe analysts, relentlessly going over questions such as ‘Why did my poor sleep start?’ or ‘How am I going to fix it?’
Fighting these thoughts only brings them back more strongly. However, when you welcome your thoughts, you can look at them and put them into context.
You respect the fact that they are a product of your mind, but you have the mental clarity not to take them as the literal truth. You no longer need to struggle to get rid of them, but rather accept them for the bits of noise or objects that just so happen to have arrived in your head. If you acknowledge them by saying, ‘There goes my mind babbling on again’, it creates distance between you and your thoughts. Then you can let go of them and turn your attention back to being still and calm in bed.
How to cure anxiety
Dealing with your feelings and fears
As anyone who suffers from sleepless nights knows, hot on the heels of unwelcome thoughts comes a vast range of unwelcome emotional reactions, physical responses and unhelpful urges. The most common is anxiety. On going to bed, you might notice your heart or breathing rate quickens, especially if you don’t fall asleep in good time. This often leads to the urge to toss and turn or to get up rather than lie awake in bed.
If you feel fear, you might experience muscle tension and have the urge to take a sleeping pill. Feeling bored and restless might prompt you to reach for your eReader or turn on the radio.
Much like your thoughts, you have little control over the way you feel, and trying to control feelings often only makes them worse. By contrast, learning to welcome them offers a powerful way of resetting your emotional thermostat, allowing you to sleep soundly at night.
Ten surprising ways to feel less anxious
Your new sleep pattern
Once you have begun to accept and let go of your struggle with insomnia by practising these techniques, you can start to rebuild a good sleep pattern. First, work out how much sleep you could expect to achieve.
While the average amount is seven to eight hours, the range is four to ten hours. How much you need is individual to you, and needing more or less than others is not a problem, as long as you are getting enough to wake up feeling refreshed and able to function.
How to understand your body clock
To work out your sleep duration, consider the following:
Requirement for your age
The amount of sleep you need declines with age: newborn babies need as many as 18 hours compared with six hours for someone who is 80.
Family sleeping history
If you are from a family of short sleepers, it could be futile trying to achieve more sleep.
Recent sleep history
If you had a strong sleeping pattern before your insomnia, use that as your guide.
Trying to sleep for more hours than you need will weaken the sleep that you do get: six to eight hours of good sleep is far better than nine or ten hours of fragmented, poor sleep.
Gentle sleep restriction
Going to bed as little as 30 minutes later and getting up 30 minutes earlier for a few weeks can boost how well you sleep.
Once you’ve established your sleep duration, consolidate it by getting into a routine. The key is to keep it regular, choosing a bedtime you can stick to, including at weekends. And finally, always get up on time. If you do have a late night, get up at the same time as usual. This may sound crazy, but it prevents your body clock from shifting forward.
If mornings are a struggle, have a plan. Set alarms, jump straight into the shower, have your clothes laid out ready and your breakfast prepared.
Now all that remains is for you to get on and live life as a normal sleeper. If you have an occasional poor night’s sleep, that needn’t mean the return of chronic insomnia. If you find yourself lying awake, relax and practise your mindfulness, accepting and welcoming techniques. Sweet dreams!
How to get through the day after a night of no sleep
Extracted from The Sleep Book: How to Sleep Well Every Night by Dr Guy Meadows (Orion Books, £9.99), see below for a link to the Saga Bookshop. For more information about insomnia, go to thesleepschool.org
Exercise: Welcoming your emotional reactions, physical sensations and urges
Meet and greet
As with your unwelcome thoughts, offer emotions, physical sensations and urges a friendly welcome, such as ‘Hello, Frustration, good to see you this evening’. Being light-hearted about this prevents you from getting caught up in them and amplifying them any further.
Take a moment to describe non-judgmentally all of the emotions, physical sensations and urges in your body, asking yourself such questions as: which emotions are showing up? For example, anxiety, fear and panic. Which physical sensations are showing up? For example, a knot in your stomach, sweating or a racing heart.
Allow your emotions, physical sensations and urges to exist within you by creating a space for them. Allow them to move freely and float within the space. Notice how it feels to allow them to exist within you, rather than constantly struggling to squeeze them out.
Experiment by floating with your emotions
Run through every detail of your experience and describe it to yourself as objectively as possible, for example: ‘I feel a rising level of anxiety’. Notice how even though it doesn’t feel very nice, you can float with these feelings and choose how you want to behave, rather than become consumed by them.
Exercise: Mindfulness at night
Practise for a few minutes at a time while lying in bed. If you’ve had enough of lying down, sitting up or on the edge of the bed is fine.
• When you first get into bed or if you wake up during the night, take a few minutes to notice your sense of touch. Notice the feel of your pillow on your face, the duvet on your toes or where the mattress connects with your body – notice the textures. If your mind wanders off, gently bring it back.
• Now focus on your breathing and observe the physical sensations. You might notice movement in your chest, or the air flowing in and out of your nose. If it helps, you can also count your breaths: count one on the in-breath and two on the out-breath, all the way up to ten, then start again from one. Every time your mind wanders off, just keep bringing it back to your breathing.
• Finally, move your awareness into your body and take notice of any emotions and physical sensations, such as anxiety or frustration, or a twitching muscle.
• Notice any tendency to fight certain feelings. Instead welcome them, even if it feels awkward at first: ‘Hello, Racing Mind’ or ‘Come on in, Anxious Feelings’.
When being mindful for the first time, you may feel even more awake, because you are choosing to sit with the demons you have fought for years. However, with practice over a few nights, you will notice that despite their best efforts, they can’t actually hurt you. Soon you will start to feel relaxed and able to enjoy actually being in bed again.
Stop! Sleep thief!
The secret to banishing insomnia is learning to let go of struggling with the things you can’t change, such as your thoughts. However, it can be helpful to alter the things that can be changed. Which of these sleep thieves is robbing you?
Get rid of clutter
Research shows that sleep is improved if your bedroom is kept clean and streamlined.
Get rid of artificial light
While your bedroom doesn’t have to be pitch black, it helps to have a good set of curtains and to get rid of artificial light such as LED clocks and standby lights.
Get the heating right
We sleep best at around 17-19C (63-66F). Anything above or below and you will become restless.
Turn off electronic devices
Light emitted by mobile phones, tablets and eReaders contains a great deal of blue, which has a stimulating effect. So if you’re holding a very bright screen close to your face before you go to sleep, you are doing everything you can to keep yourself awake.
Don’t drink caffeine after lunch
Cutting it out completely becomes yet another thing you do to solve your anxiety, which puts sleep on a pedestal. The key is balance. Stick to one or two cups of caffeinated drinks a day and knock caffeine consumption on the head after lunch.
Don’t drink alcohol late in the evening
Alcohol has arousal properties, too – increased heart rate, sweating, dehydration. You don’t have to quit altogether, but have a drink earlier. A glass or two at 7pm will be out of your system by 9.30pm in time for bed.
Check your medication
If you used to fall asleep easily but now don’t, check the leaflet that came with any pills you’re taking. Blood pressure or cholesterol medication can affect sleep quality. Talk to your GP.
Don’t eat a big evening meal
Indigestion from a full tummy will keep you awake more effectively than any stimulant. Eat light at night.
What to eat for a good night's sleep
Get more physical activity
Walking for 20 minutes a day raises endorphin levels, which promote sleep.
Deal with a stuffy bedroom
Get a little fresh air in the bedroom, even if it means briefly opening a window while you are getting ready for bed.
The Sleep Book by Dr Guy Meadows is available from the Saga Bookshop