What to do when sleep won’t come

Sometimes deep-rooted fears you refuse to confront in your waking hours can affect your sleep at night. (rawpixel.com pic)

It’s way past your bedtime. Your body is exhausted but your mind is still ticking away. You’re tossing and turning but can’t seem to sleep. Or you suddenly wake up in the middle of the night or wake up too early, though you’re still tired.

If this happens for a few days or up to a few weeks, you’ve got short-term or transient insomnia. If it goes on for most nights and for more than a month, it’s considered chronic insomnia.

A psychology lecturer once said: “Whatever deep-seated fears you have or issues you are not dealing with in your waking hours, can affect you in your sleep. Sometimes, they’re so deeply rooted, we are unaware of them but not being able to sleep night after night, gives us a clear sign that we are not at peace with ourselves.”

For example, a girl from work who was really attractive was teased constantly about how she never dated anyone. No one knew her tragic story but when they found out what happened to her with her first boyfriend, it was the last time anyone ever teased her again.

One night, she had a heated argument with him. He drove off in a temper and was killed in a car accident that night. To make matters worse, she later received a small parcel from one of his family members. As it turned out, he had purchased an engagement ring for her just days before his death.

She started having sleepless nights, imagining the life they could have had together and the “what-ifs” had they not argued that fateful night.

Six years later, she was still having sleepless nights and was diagnosed with chronic insomnia.

Learn to forgive yourself

When she was in counselling, it hit home when she was told: “I’m sure you’ve tried everything possible to sleep at night and it hasn’t worked. All you have to do is something no one can give you medicine for. Just forgive yourself.”

Slowly but surely, she started letting go of the guilt of her boyfriend’s death and coming to terms with it. Peaceful sleep eventually found its way back into her life.

Lack of sleep is not characterised just by major events or traumas. Things like work stress, financial worries and anxious thoughts can trigger off short-term insomnia and affect your ability to focus at work.

According to the Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, a study on Malaysians between the ages of 30 and 70 showed that a staggering 33% of them had symptoms of insomnia, similar to global statistics.

In the US, at least 70 million people suffer from sleeping problems. On the home front, it is important to remember that a tired workforce is a less productive one.

If bosses are increasing everyone’s workload, and everyone is putting in longer hours, it does not necessarily mean better work is produced. People are not machines and you cannot expect them to produce work, especially creative work, like a factory without rest.

When you’re stressed and overworked and suffering from lack of sleep, your creative juices dry up and you should stop for a while just to recharge your batteries before resuming work. It doesn’t need to be for a whole day. Think along the lines of quality rather than quantity.

Deep breathing helps slow down your heart rate, and activates the body’s natural relaxation response. (rawpixel.com pic)

Practise deep breathing to clear the mind

Even five minutes of deep breathing at your work desk can clear the mind and calm your thoughts.

In fact, in an insomnia programme conducted at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Illinois, those practising a form of meditation called Kriya yoga in the daytime, increased their sleep time at night in just two months.

There are so many ancient secrets to vitality and wellbeing linked to the breath. The health benefits of meditation are simply too long to list but it slows down your breathing and heart rate, and activates the body’s natural relaxation response which helps to interrupt the constant fight or flight mode a person suffering from chronic stress might be triggering.

Sleep problems are not something to be taken lightly. Not only do they affect your physical and mental health, they even affect road safety. Not getting enough rest means you are going through life in a bit of a daze without sufficient alertness or energy.

Prof Jim Horne, one of the foremost sleep researchers in the world, said: “The test of insufficient sleep is whether you are sleepy in the day or if you remain alert through most of the day.”

For those who have trouble sleeping at night, here’s what may be of help. Do not use your bedroom like an office. Ideally, you should be associating your bed only with sleep rather than stressful triggers.

Avoid using your phone, taking calls, doing work in bed or even watching television because like cigarettes, these are stimulants. If you feel you must watch some television, do it in another room.

Your bedroom should be associated with rest – a place to unwind and completely relax. Try to review the things you were grateful for throughout the day to get into positive gear.

It’s vital to create the right atmosphere and a safe space for yourself at bedtime so you can disconnect from the world and all its demands on you.

Avoid caffeine at night because it can stay in your system for several hours from the point of your last coffee cup.

Don’t have a nap during the daytime or consume a heavy meal with alcohol before you sleep because it will only make it harder to fall asleep at night.

Last but not least, remember the same mind that keeps you awake at night is the one that can put you to sleep. Keep your thoughts peaceful and positive at bedtime.

Jojo Struys is a regional TV host, speaker and wellness personality. She is also the founder of OhanaJo Studio, Malaysia’s largest yoga and sound healing space (www.ohanajo.com)