Do you often feel exhausted, yet unable to get a good night’s rest? If this sounds like you, you are not alone! We live in an age of chronic and widespread insomnia, with up to 1/3 of adults reporting persistent sleep issues. In addition to fatigue, sleep problems can cause headaches, irritability, and poor concentration among other symptoms, making it harder to function at work and home. Though the occasional poor night’s sleep may be unavoidable, here are a few tips to help those with insomnia restore a healthier and more restful sleep pattern:
Understand the vicious cycle of insomnia: It is important to recognize that factors involved in the onset of poor sleep (e.g., stress, chronic pain or injury, excessive alcohol) often differ from those that maintain insomnia. Following a few nights of disturbed sleep, people commonly begin to feel anxious and worry about the potential functional and health-related consequences of their insomnia, which creates further arousal and sleeplessness. Additionally, most insomnia sufferers attempt to cope with their fatigue using a variety of “band-aid” solutions (e.g., drinking caffeine, taking naps) that unintentionally hinder their sleep patterns in the long run. Developing a good understanding of this negative process is the first step in improving your sleep.
Stay active: Research shows that being active improves sleep quality. In addition to the stress-busting benefits of exercise, sleep drive increases throughout the day as we engage in physically and/or mentally taxing activities, as a sleep-inducing chemical called adenosine builds up in our brain. Ideally, our sleep drive is highest in the evening before bed (allowing us to fall, and stay asleep) and lowest upon waking. However, a night of tossing and turning prevents the optimal decrease in our sleep drive, so we wake feeling sleep deprived and unmotivated to engage in activities that require mental and/or physical exertion. Instead, we opt to hit the snooze button a few too many times, skip the gym, take naps and/or engage in sedentary activities (e.g., watching TV), as well as fuel ourselves with caffeine. Unfortunately, these coping behaviours interfere with our sleep drive system, and reduce our quality of sleep. One of the most effective ways to kick-start a healthier sleep pattern is to nudge ourselves out of bed or off the couch and commit to being active, especially when we’re tired. After a few days of increased activity, sleep drive patterns typically improve, allowing us to get a more restful sleep and gradually restoring our energy.
The benefits of routine: Our sleep/wake patterns are partially regulated by our “internal clock” (i.e., circadian rhythm). When our eyes detect sunlight, they signal our brain to decrease production of a neuro-chemical called melatonin, causing increased alertness. In contrast, as sunlight exposure decreases with nightfall, melatonin levels increase, causing drowsiness and preparing us for sleep. Although this cycle happens naturally, our sleep habits can affect this process. For example, an erratic sleep schedule (due to shift work or staying up late and sleeping in on the weekends) can throw off our internal clock and interfere with sleep, much like travel to a different time zone (which alters the timing of our exposure to light and dark) contributes to jet lag. Likewise, exposing ourselves to blue wave light (e.g., from tablets, computers, cell phones) late into the night can trick our brain into thinking it is still daytime so we don’t feel tired. Thus, keeping a consistent and predictable schedule of sleep and wake times is key to regulating our internal clock and ensuring healthy and restful sleep.
Make the bedroom a sacred space: By engaging in certain activities in our bedroom (e.g., watching TV, reading, exercising, etc.), we risk subconsciously associating the bedroom with wakeful activities instead of sleep- a process known as conditioned arousal. It’s kind of like approaching a traffic light where both the green and red lights are glowing at the same time; your subconscious mind will be confused, and will not know whether you should be awake or sawing logs. People who struggle to fall asleep at night can benefit from only using the bedroom for sleep, creating a mental barrier between the bedroom and the rest of the home. Also, if you find yourself tossing and turning for more than 20 minutes, try leaving the bedroom and engaging in a relaxing activity until you feel drowsy enough to go back to sleep.
Consistency is important when applying these strategies. If your sleep problems persist after using these ideas for a few weeks, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia, such as those at The Mindful Living Centre, can help you get to the bottom of your difficulties and find a solution.