There are two distinct phases of my life that I remember as being ruled by sleep – or a lack of it! The first was with my first born: he didn’t actually sleep through the night until the age of 22 months, and there were plenty of nights when he woke 3 or 4 times through the night. By the end of it all I was run ragged & I felt permanently drunk on lack of sleep…but it surely taught me not to make the same mistakes when number two came along! So the second time around, a combination of far more sensible parenting (e.g. NOT running to check on him every time he moved or murmured) plus a little luck along the way meant I had a much easier journey (he slept through the night from 4 months!!).
The other time that the Sleep Curse hit me was shortly after I returned to live in the UK, and it was – very definitely – 100% stress related. For the first 6 months or so I would go to bed and simply toss & turn trying to get to sleep (& as anyone who has suffered from sleep issues will tell you, the more you “try” the more difficult – & utterly frustrating – it becomes). I would usually finally drop off at around 4 or 5 in the morning, only to be greeted by a bouncing 4 year old leaping on my bed at 6am. Weeks turned into months, and the exhaustion was becoming unbearable. Then something changed: for some reason, I suddenly found myself quite able to drop off…but then I would wake at around 3 or 4, and would be totally unable to get back to sleep again. I couldn’t believe that my original problem had totally disappeared – only to be replaced by another! I tried everything, from counting sheep to visualising relaxing golden beaches and warm sunshine, but I could never maintain my focus on those thoughts – my mind just kept getting dragged back to the same utter frustration of not being able to sleep. So there I would lie til 5 or 6, wide awake and “wired” – and good for nothing when the Bouncing Boy bounded in shortly afterwards.
In my case, this was all about “mind chatter”. I would go to bed thinking of something – absolutely anything – & I simply would not be able to get it out of my head. I would lie there “spinning” on things: what I’d watched on TV, what I had to do the next day, even what football kit the kids would need next season! Nothing I could do seemed to make any difference, and every night felt like an endless battle.
I will NEVER forget what that utter exhaustion felt like, nor the sheer frustration of lying awake, trying to sleep, and feeling totally out of control of the whole situation. It was quite literally horrible – as was my level of patience with my boys as a result. I would spend my day times feeling I could literally fall asleep on my feet – and the whole thing felt pretty desperate.
There ARE ways out of this place: for me, the turning point was a meditation course which helped me with my mind chatter. I don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ solution, so I can’t promise that meditation will be your Golden Secret to sleep. Since my own issues, I have had endless clients asking me for help with sleep, so have researched (& tried out!) many different possibilities. My hope is that one – or maybe some – of those shown below will resonate with you. I honestly know the misery of sleepless nights, and I also know that it literally turned my life around the day I conquered the Sleep Curse…
The first, simple suggestion here is creating and maintaining an evening routine. As parents we surely know that developing regular bedtime habits helps our kids to sleep, (and we also know it is oh so wonderful to see them sleeping peacefully…)
So why shouldn’t a regular routine help us too? Once again, we are all different so we don’t need to be rigid: instead we need to experiment with what works best for us. There are however a few things that should be absolutes…
[You will see that several of the suggestions below are based in facts surrounding circadian rhythms, melatonin & serotonin. It is therefore worthwhile gaining a (very basic) understanding of these 3 concepts:
- Circadian rhythms are essentially our internal body clock, which runs 24/7 in the background of our brain (otherwise referred to as our sleep/wake cycle). These rhythms are basically the reason why at some times we feel drowsy, whereas at other times we are wide awake & raring to go. They are controlled by a part of the brain (the hypothalamus), but external factors such as lightness and darkness can also impact them.
- Melatonin is a natural hormone produced by the pineal gland. The gland is automatically ‘switched on’ when darkness falls, and this causes the hormone to be released into the blood stream, which in turn makes us feel less alert and more inclined to sleep. Conversely, during the day melatonin levels are hardly noticeable.
- Serotonin is a “happy hormone”. High levels of serotonin are associated with wakefulness; lower levels with sleep. The key here is that this hormone is synthesised by the pineal gland to make melatonin – hence both hormones are directly connected to good sleep.]
- Don’t drink caffeine for at least 4-6 hours before bedtime (caffeine suppresses melatonin production). Don’t forget this doesn’t just mean tea & coffee: think fizzy drinks & chocolate too, and do check food labels for caffeine content.
- Avoid alcohol (which disrupts sleep patterns – especially during the second half of the night when you would usually be sleeping more deeply) & nicotine (smokers’ sleep will be disrupted throughout the night by their cravings for nicotine).
- Don’t eat too heavily before bed, and be mindful of what foods you do eat. Eating some carbohydrates may induce sleepiness, but eating too heavily may lead to poor sleep. Foods rich in magnesium will relax muscles, foods which boost serotonin and/or melatonin levels will help encourage sleep.
- Avoid “screen time” before bed. Electronics & /or TV contain so many graphics that they will over stimulate you at bedtime. Electronic devices also contain a blue light which “suppresses melatonin production for more than twice as long as other light wavelengths, and alters circadian rhythms by twice the degree”. It is hugely important to turn off all such devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime (and 2 hours would be better still!). DO NOT use mobile phones, tablets etc in bed.
- Aim for a regular bed time & wake up time. Resist the temptation to change this, even at weekends.
- Think of keeping your bedroom fairly cool at bedtime. Your body naturally cools down before sleep to encourage sleep: by keeping your bedroom cooler you will enhance this (ideally between 18-22 degrees).
- Do keep your room dark, either with curtains or black out blinds, or alternatively with an eye mask. Again, this is all about enhancing melatonin production. If you enjoy reading in bed, do so with a soft light.
- Try to keep clutter OUT of the bedroom. This will enhance your sense of relaxation, whereas clutter will do the opposite…
- DO exercise during the day. Getting active will lift your mood & relieve stress – both of which are likely connected to your sleep patterns. It is also believed that exercise improves circadian rhythms “promoting daytime alertness and helping bring on sleepiness at night”.
- Doing vigorous exercise close to bedtime may be too arousing, but yoga and/or deep breathing exercises are definitely sleep inducing. Gentle mobilisation exercises are also helpful, as they will encourage muscular relaxation to combat the tensions of the day.
- If mind chatter is an issue for you, try journaling, or at least writing a ‘To Do List’ before bed to get these things out of your mind & on to paper.
- Consider the bed you’re lying on. Is the mattress good? Is the pillow right for you or do you wake with a stiff neck? Even the fabrics & colours you use on your bed may either enhance or deter sleep.
- Try drinking herbal tea before bed (chamomile is especially good for inducing sleep). Some say that milky drinks can help too, though there are mixed views on this one… It’s always worth trying it out to see what works for you.
- Consider any products you are using directly before bedtime. Many cosmetic companies offer a range of products which will help encourage sleep using things such as lavender essential oil, which is a relaxant. There are increasing numbers of companies that produce natural face and body creams, shower & bath products & pillow mists, all of which can genuinely enhance sleep if carefully chosen. It is vitally important to do the research and always read labels carefully.
- A warm bath can be incredibly relaxing, or for some a shower may have the same effect (make sure you do it mindfully!) Again, be careful which products you use: the wrong (chemically laden) cosmetics can load you up with toxins and make sleep ever more elusive. Alternatively, using products containing appropriate essential oils can enhance the sense of relaxation much further.
- Diffusing essential oils can be extremely calming – & will enhance your health on so many levels too. Lavender, frankincense, geranium are examples of oils to induce relaxation during the evening before bed. Lavender or chamomile are perhaps the best choices to have actually in the bedroom. [For more about which essential oils may enhance the mood you wish to create, click here].
- Establishing a regular mindfulness or meditation practice can help to calm “mind chatter”.
This was definitely what did it for me! I was so lucky in that I had the fabulous Mita to teach me on my 6 week Meditation Course, where I learnt to quieten my mind chatter by focusing on my breath. My main “take away” from the course was that when your mind wanders from the focus of your breath this is entirely natural. When I had spent hours lying in bed trying to do my own relaxation techniques, I had become sooo frustrated because I never seemed to be able to maintain my focus on relaxing – my mind was always grasshopper-ing off to something else. To this day I can hear my teacher saying “if the mind wanders this is totally natural: the mind is made this way. When it happens, you simply gently draw your thoughts back to your breath, back to the sensation of your breath within your body.” This for me was key: it was the thing that turned me away from frustration, and towards a true solution for my spinning mind…and sleep. On those rare occasions when sleep escapes me these days, I still hear Mita’s voice, and I know that softly focusing on my breath is my secret weapon to return me to the land of dreams.
Whether it’s you that is having problems with sleep, or someone you know, the above techniques genuinely work – and they are actually pleasant things to do. So if your body is crying out for a little more sleep – or for a little less stress & anxiety, as the two often go hand in hand – then please do try out these suggestions. We cannot over estimate the importance of sleep to both our physical and our mental health, and yet sadly this is so often overlooked…
If you do intend to try out some of these methods, it is a good idea to keep a diary of how your sleep patterns alter / progress as time goes on, so that you can then check back & see what might have worked best. If you would like a little more support or guidance with any of the above, do check out my “Notes for a Shaw Lifestyle” and my “Shaw Lifestyle Video & Audio Tips”, accessible here. There are various tools which you may find helpful, such as a Sleep Diary, a video of Mobilisation Exercises and an audio aid for Relaxation Techniques…