For about 5 years insomnia was a regular and generally unwelcome companion of mine. Over this time I managed to function well, most of the time but there was this nagging belief that I ‘should’ be able to heal myself if I just found the right solution. Well that thought wasn’t overly helpful because there wasn’t ‘one’ solution. What did come out of the experience however was a gradual acceptance that some nights I just wouldn’t sleep well and the understanding that there are many, many useful tools to assist with a calm night regardless. I also looked into and tried many different approaches to help improve my sleep, some of which were quite useful, others not so much. However, like most chronic issues, an individual whole body, whole life approach is what was successful for me in the end.
Insomnia is considered a symptom rather than a disease and is driven by numerous factors including environmental (e.g. excess exposure to blue light), medical (e.g. anxiety, depression or medication), behavioural (e.g. caffeine or alcohol intake) and/or cognitive (e.g. impact of stress). While this process may involve some complexity there are a few useful tools I regularly use with clients, which are helpful first line approaches to promote a restful night sleep:
- Relaxation techniques – the way we breathe can have a significant effect on emotions and rapid breathing is a symptom of stress and anxiety. Taking control of breath can influence how we feel and dampen down the stress response. Breath focus allows you to concentrate on deep, regular breathing, centers you in your physical body and disengages you from stress-creating thoughts. One technique you can use in bed is outlined below:
- First focus on your breathing without trying to change the pattern of breath.
- Then try a deep breath: Breathe in through your nose, allowing your chest and lower belly to rise as you fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Then breathe out slowly through your mouth (or nose if you prefer).
- Once you have fully exhaled your breath, hold for a second before you inhale through your nose again.
- Continue this process. The first time you try it, you may only be able to manage for a few deep breaths but the aim is to work up to 5-10 minute periods (or until you fall asleep). If your mind wanders, gently bring your thoughts back to focus on your breath.
- Frequently I show clients how to do similar breathing techniques with progressive muscle relaxation or a word or phrase further promoting relaxation.
- Mindfulness – breath work is frequently part of mindfulness however guided imagery, a mantra or repetitive prayer and progressive muscle relaxation can also help turn down stress.
- Have a bedtime routine – establish regular sleep and wake times to help your body get into a sleep-wake pattern.
- Avoid obvious foods that impact sleep – caffeine, alcohol and spicy foods can contribute to or exacerbate insomnia.
- Use sunlight as an anchor for sleep-wake cycles – light exposure in the morning may help with sleep promotion in the evening. Ideally try to couple light exposure with a daily activity such as walking or having a cup of tea in the morning. The light can be indirect but sunglasses may lessen the benefit of exposure.
- Avoid bright (blue) light in the evening before bed as it can delay sleep onset. Stop using hand held technology at least an hour before bed, preferably 2 hours e.g. laptops, ipads, phone etc. Teenagers are particularly prone to the impact of blue light exposure at night as their sleep patterns are already delayed due to hormonal changes. Downloading an app such as flux or Twilight may also help as it filters out blue light screen emissions but it won’t minimise mental stimulation associated with viewing or bedtime screen habits.
These techniques can be helpful to establish good sleep hygiene and relax your mind and body before sleep, however if you find that your sleep is still poor, then I can work with you to establish the deeper issues disrupting your sleep and put into place strategies for establishing not only a good routine but regular quality sleep and good sleep patterns.
For more sleep tips check out this video by ASAP Thought: