When working with a new therapy client, one of my first questions often is “how is your sleep?” The truth is sleep is like….an alarm clock! How so? Because it’s one of the first places that being out of whack in other aspects of our lives—be it due to trauma, anxiety, depression, addiction, unhealthy relationships, and other issues—often shows up at night. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up in the morning are warning signs that we neglect at our own risk.
Back when I was in college, working and keeping up with my fair share of social opportunities, my friends and I would tell each other,
“You can sleep when you’re dead.” This made light of the fact that we didn’t get enough sleep but still had youth, ignorance, and resilience on our side.
The truth is that sufficient sleep does many things for our health (during sleep our body replicates and replaces cells, our hearts and respiration slows down, our brains enter restful REM and Theta states, just to name a few) and not getting enough sleep seems to do just as many things to destroy our health.
Insufficient sleep tremendously hightens anxiety, decreases creative thinking ability, and decreases the capacity of the immune system.
I had a strange experience with sleep loss when my twins were born and I was up at all hours of the night caring for them: I lost peripheral vision due to sleep deprivation! While this may not seem like a big deal, it meant that while driving I couldn’t use my rear view or side mirrors because they required being able to see out of the corners of my eyes!
And the real bugger of it all is that fear of sleeplessness causes sleeplessness.
There are some short term solutions to solving sleep issues that do not tackle any of the bigger, underlying issues. One is to take medication. I do not recommend sleep medication without other supportive types of therapy, except under extreme and temporary circumstances. Why? (this is the part where I say I am NOT a doctor and NOT qualified to give medical advice, but can provide my OPINION) Medications such as benzodiazapines tend to have a boomerang effect, temporarily knocking out anxiety and then ratcheting it up as it leaves the bloodstream, usually the following afternoon. This can then set up the insomniac to really freak out.
So what’s an insomniac to do? (If they are insomniac AND agnostic AND dyslexic, they lie awake at night wondering whether or not there really is a DOG.)
1. Get into therapy! Your sleep issues are just a friendly—if inconvenient—friend knocking on your subconsious saying, “Hello! We’ve got ISSUES here!”
2. Try doing a nightly “mind dump”—a technique where you take five to ten minutes each night to write down every single thing you are thinking/worrying/planning/solving/obsessing over right before bed. This allows your brain to say “Ah-ha! It’s captured. Now I don’t have to think about it.”
3. Keep a regular bed time and a regular ritual around your bedtime which includes soft, relaxing activities such as a bath, candles, hot tea, and the like.
4. Avoid television! Unless you exclusively watch the Yoga Channel, there is nothing on TV that will help you calm down and go to sleep.
5. If you wake up at night and start thinking about work, relationship problems, or anything at all, put your hand over your heart and silently tell it directly, “Thinking is for daytime. Now it is night. Now you are safe. Now you are calm.” As silly as this may sound, keep it up and you will fall asleep in minutes!