Conquering those restless nights
Sleep: elusive at the best of times, and often downright impossible in times of stress.
Whether you’re sleepless, restless, exhausted, waking in the night or having nightmares, the chances are your sleep has been disturbed over the path of this last year.
We see this pattern time and time again in life – any sort of change tends to impact sleep. Think of key moments in the past: marriage or divorce, new babies, change in jobs, moving house and so on, any of which probably had you up at night from time to time.
Science tells us that stress sets off a mechanism of hormone release, sending cortisol and adrenaline around the body – chemicals designed to energise and stimulate us ready for action. Typically these hormones are useful as they rise in production when we wake up and dissipate during the day. However, if we are experiencing chronic stress, or we’re lying in bed worrying, the hormone levels spike again and that’s why we find it so hard to drift off.
That’s not to mean there aren’t ways to tackle it though. The key to this is down to a simple, two step process: accepting then prioritising sleep.
It sounds like an odd thing to say, but really the first step is simply to accept that sleep will be harder. Remember all those other times when you’ve been going through something stressful in life? It’s completely normal for sleep to be affected at times like this and – even if you’ve never had sleep problems in the past – try to accept the situation you find yourself in now.
Perhaps this is an even odder concept: prioritise your sleep. Generally we all just expect it to happen at the end of the day, but we don’t really put much thought or effort into it. At times of stress and hardship, that’s a huge expectation on your body and your mind.
The easiest parallel here is to think about children. Even if you’re not a parent, we all have the right instincts for taking care of little ones. How do we help children prepare for bed? That’s right, it’s all about routine. Winding down, and gearing the end of our days around going to bed. And guess what? Those instincts are equally important for all of us.
Professor Colin Espie is a sleep expert who says that by prioritising sleep, we’re saying it’s just as important as anything else in our day. So are we doing the right things to foster good sleep? Watch out for zoom exhaustion, working too late and not getting enough fresh air or physical activity. It’s a natural urge to hibernate when things get tough, but even half an hour outside on a dull day helps to keep our body clock regulated. In fact, the quality and intensity of outdoor light is always greater than indoor light and that helps our suprachiasmatic nucleus (or SCN) to maintain the cellular “clocks” in our body which balance our mental, emotional and physical systems.
By treating sleep as if it really matters will radically change our mindset and consequently, our experience of sleep. Accept that it won’t be flawless every night, but we can take steps to achieve better sleep and build resilience for the coming months. So dim the lights, move away from screens and consciously unwind before bed. Our brain loves certainty and routine, our mind craves destimulation and our blood pressure and heartbeat will lower and calm……aaand peace.
The nightmare of nightmares
So maybe you’re achieving sleep, only to be rudely interrupted by violent nightmares, or relentless cyclical dreams. Unfortunately this is yet another symptom of an overwhelmed and anxious brain. When we sleep, our brain uses the time to analyse the events of the day and process experiences. In times of uncertainty and stress, our subconscious fears and anxieties can come out in bad dreams and nightmares. It’s perfectly normal and all part of our mind sorting through our troubles. In fact, it’s a situation particularly pertinent to this pandemic because we are missing all the usual distractions of a worried mind. We’re not working in offices, meeting people, commuting or socialising so our usual coping methods are reduced or even eradicated.
Another issue is that once we start having restless nights, we become fearful it’ll happen again which simply sets up another anxiety loop. In fact, it’s such a common phenomenon that it’s known as the “sleep paradox”: the more we worry, the worse it will be. So hold these fears lightly and try not to second guess what will happen in the future. Repetitive thoughts set our brain up for unhealthy habits so be careful not to obsess and anchor those feelings. Start to observe what’s going on in your mind and around you and reframe the situation realistically which often defuses any fears.
So next time you wake after another bad dream, remind yourself to look around, notice the warm, comfortable space you’re in, tell yourself you’re ok, you’re safe and nothing has changed. When you fall asleep again, be optimistic. Allow yourself to just see what happens, and either way, focus on trying to have a good rest.
How to soothe your mind before bed
Guided meditations are invaluable – particularly just before bed. They work so well because it’s essentially storytelling: 20 minutes or so in which your brain is engaged with a pleasant, restful image which nurtures a healthy distraction away from intrusive thoughts.
After this period of sending messages of relaxation and safety into our heads, we find it easier to drift off to sleep with a brain primed to rest rather than obsess.
And if you listen to the same one each night, by the second week your brain should recognise the cues and be ready for sleep more easily than before.
Final thought: be a good parent to yourself
So let’s think back to the caring and nurturing we all instinctively offer to young children at bedtime. My invitation to you this week is to consider how you could treat yourself with the same kindness. Even if you’re someone who thrives on “busyness” try to think of a small change you could make this week which will promote a slowing of your routine before bed.
An extra tip – if you’re prone to worrying, a practise which takes you out of your head and into your body may be helpful. Try a progressive muscle relaxation like this.