I received two special gifts from my parents. From my mother, I got the gift of energy. From my father, I got the gift of sleep. This precious gift means that I fall asleep night after night with no thought or effort - I just say "G'nite" and one second later, I'm off. It also means that I never wake in the middle of the night and a restless night is truly a rare occurrence. Sleep is just not an issue in my life and, believe me, I know what a great gift that is.
As a therapist, however, my clients often talk about their anxiety around sleep. They recount their worry that they won't be able to fall asleep, their fear that they won't be able to stay asleep, and their panic that they will wake in the middle of the night and not be able to get back to sleep. Those fears color their days as well as their nights. When we break down what is actually happening to them, the story gets more complex, as each person's wakefulness has a different pattern, but for people who suffer from insomnia, there's one common thread, and that's the presence of a feeling of helplessness. Their bodies won't do what they want them to do and they feel that there's no way they can change that.
Here are a few tricks I've picked up along the way that help my clients with their night time struggles and I think they may help you, too:
Don't Believe Anything You Think Between Midnight and 6am
One thing's for sure, your thoughts are distorted in the middle of the night and whatever it is you're chewing on will not seem so bad when the sun is up. When you wake during the night and your mind is racing as you re-hash things that upset you during the day and worry about other things coming up in the future, remind yourself to dose your thoughts with a grain of salt and not take them so seriously.
Restore a Calm State of Mind Using your Breath
You can prime your body for sleep by turning your focus away from the material of your daily life and zoning in instead on what's going on inside your body. Train your mind to attend to your breathing and comfortably lengthen your breath. On the inhale, visualize the clean, fresh air coming into your lungs, travelling around your body and cleansing all your cells. On the exhale, imagine all the toxins and negativity being safely expelled into the atmosphere, leaving your body restored. Focus on this steady, calm inhale-exhale and I guarantee that you will start to feel more peaceful and relaxed. But it's not going to happen the first time you try it. It's an exercise so you need to practice it to get the best effect. Keep going till you feel your body let go.
Relax your Body - Relax Your Mind
While you are breathing regularly and deeply, do a progressive relaxation of all the muscles in your body. When you are worried or anxious, your muscles unconsciously tense up and you hold that stress in some part of your body. However, inversely, when you use your mind to instruct your body to relax and your muscles let go, your mind becomes more relaxed as well. That's why we feel so good when we are lying on a beach in the sun or playing in the ocean. Our bodies can't help but relax, and so our worries seem remote. We have the same problems we had when we were home, but they don't seem so serious.
For this exercise, you are going to do a scan from head to toe and consciously instruct each muscle group to relax. Turn your attention to your head and scalp. If you feel any tension there, release it and let it go. Think about your face, jaw, tongue and throat. Locate any tension and let it go. Then focus on your neck and shoulders, locate any tension and let it go. Your upper back, your spine, your lower back - find the tension and let it go. Your chest, abdomen and stomach, still breathing regularly and deeply, find the tension and let it go. Continue all the way down your body from head to toe. Don't rush. Stay in each area long enough to really focus and don't forget arms, hands and fingers. After you have eased the tension all the way to the tips of your toes (if you're still awake), do a full body scan and locate where you still have tension and instruct your mind to tell those muscles to give it up and let it go. Keep up the breathing while you are doing this exercise.
Tricking your Body into Sleep
Another technique that may work for you is to trick your body. You wake up in the middle of the night and you don't know whether to stay in bed or get up and watch T.V. How about if you just lie there in the position you typically take when you are sleeping and pretend to sleep? Sometimes if you stay still, breathing deeply, pretending to sleep, your body will just say, "What the hell - I might as well give it up and fall asleep - nothing interesting is going on here anyhow!"
Everything in its Season - A Time to Worry, A Time to Sleep
I love the idea that there is a season for everything and what we all need more of in our lives is balance. There's a time for work and there's a time for worry, and you need to give yourself the gift of a time to sleep. You don't need to optimize your work or worry time by clawing back time from your sleep. Life will go on and those problems that concern you today will be gone tomorrow, so you need to give yourself permission to give sleep its season.
If you're having serious sleep problems, please do something about it. You may know what you need to do. Perhaps it's something like drinking less, getting more exercise, or solving some troubling thing in your life that you've left too long. Try to help yourself by taking it seriously or get help by finding the right professional, always starting with a good check-up at your doctor's. You may not be able to completely resolve a long-standing insomnia problem, but you can improve it if you're willing to put some attention to it. And as you do, you'll probably start to resolve other ways that anxiety and stress impact your life. So even though you might not have my dad's genes, you can learn the tricks to getting a better night's sleep. I'm off to bed - G'nite!
I'm a family therapist and the author of "Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife's Guide to Recovery and Renewal" and "My Sister, My Self: Understanding the Sibling Relationship that Shapes Our Lives, Our Loves and Ourselves".